Everybody who's been watching the international charts is aware that Monster Hunter Portable 2nd G (known in the West as Monster Hunter Freedom Unite) is a huge, huge success. The PSP game, which is a co-op action RPG that pits you as, well, a monster hunter, tearing up fields of dinosaur-like creatures, has sold over 3.5 million units in Japan.
The series hasn't seen the same kind of success in the West -- by any means. The company is hanging its hopes, then, on Monster Hunter Tri, the latest edition, which will debut in the U.S. in March 2010. Surprising many, the game was released for the Nintendo Wii, not the PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 -- and it launched to extremely strong sales in Japan.
Still, other entries in the series have failed to translate Japanese popularity to Western success. Here, the game's producer, Ryozo Tsujimoto, discusses the series' shifting fortunes, the difficulties of developing a hardcore game with network support for the Nintendo Wii, and what sorts of design decisions help encourage the kind of social play that have turned this series into an enduring success -- and might turn the tide for the franchise outside of its home territory.
Now that the Wii version has come out in Japan, do you feel you made the right choice on platform?
Ryozo Tsujimoto: One of the reasons we think it was right to put it on Wii was that it was a good challenge for the director. It was something new to try out, to try and bring the spirit of Monster Hunter to the Wii, and keep that alive.
But still at the same time, how do you use the controllers to bring that feeling? The controls can't be unnatural. It has to be very natural and very intuitive. How do you realize that sort of feeling? So, that was something the director and the team worked a lot on, and tried very hard. We think that they've very successfully managed to bring that out in the Wii controls.
And how do you feel about its performance in the Japanese market since its release?
RT: Well, realistically, sales number-wise, we're doing well, but we don't want to be too quick on saying it was great or bad or anything like that. We still want to watch the market and see how it does. To be honest, we're still holding a lot of large events like the Monster Hunter Festas, and we're still doing a lot of promotion and stuff. We're not really done with it yet. We don't want to consider it done.
Another reason we don't consider it done is because it's a network game, and because you're playing online, you constantly have new people buying it, new people getting into it, new people getting online. And so we're just still looking at all the data. We're not ready to say it's good or bad yet, but it's all looking pretty good so far.
Are you doing downloadable content or any sort of events in-game, live team-type stuff?
RT: We're not doing downloadable content per se, but we do have event quests online. So, you can go online and play with other people and join in these special event quests that are only available for a limited time. For participating in these events, you can get specific items, weapons, or things like that. Up until maybe the end of the year? At least, we're planning that far. As far as our plans go, up until the end of the year, we will continue having these special events.
Monster Hunter has some strong fans in the West, but it's never gained the kind of explosive popularity it sees in Japan. What do you think of the prospects for Monster Hunter Tri in the U.S. and Europe this time?
RT: There are a couple things we've done that we feel help people get into it, especially people overseas. First of all, it being on a console, maybe that's something that Westerners are more used to, sitting in your house and playing online as opposed to the portable versions, where you actually have to bring in a machine and you have to get together. So, that in itself should open it up to a lot more people, because then you can be in your house, you can relax, and you can play at home.
Another thing is we've got this new single-player mode that we've actually put a lot of effort into -- whereas before you sit and you kind of have a quest, and you have another quest. But now we've got a good scenario to tie it all together, so now you can really enjoy it, feel like it's very natural to get into it. We teach you the controls very naturally as you're doing some quests. So, we can feel this way makes it easier for new players and beginners to get into this game.
Did you sit down and think about making the game appeal to the Western market, or did you simply develop the strongest game you could and hope that those features translate well to new audiences?
RT:When we sat down to develop Monster Hunter Tri, we did actually consider some of the Western needs and wants for the game. Originally, when we sat down and looked at this...
You know, this is the third, of course. This is Tri. Wewere looking at the first two that were on consoles and even like the portable games, and we realized that if we just built upon the previous game, we'd hit a limit eventually on what we could do. Because you look at it, and you're like, "Well, we've done this so far. We're now tied to what we've done."
What we did with Tri is we actually just went back and just remade it from the ground up and said, "What new features do we want in it?" So, we've had a lot of different ideas going into it. Among those new ideas, we took into consideration, for example, play controls. A lot of Western players mention the camera controls, for example. On portable Monster Hunter games, it was always tied to the directional pad, so it was very hard to control. We've now made that the right stick on the Classic Controller. That should make it easier for people to get into it even controller-wise.
And we've paid attention to a lot of the little details because we realized that Western gamers are very sophisticated, in the sense that they want every little detail to be satisfying and intuitive to their style of playing.
What details did you think were important?
RT:Well, first of all, one of the things that we've done to really appeal to Western users is... We've also thought not just about the Classic Controller layout, but we also considered how we wanted to do the Nunchuk controller layout. We know that Western users don't necessarily like their controls to be complex. They want it to be easy and intuitive.
That's pretty much anywhere, but we've made it so with the Nunchuk controller, you don't use so many buttons. It's only like three or four different buttons, and that's it. It's very like, if you want to swing your sword, you just swing the Wii Remote. In that sense, we think that we've made it easier for beginners to get into because they can just pick it up, and you pretty much already know that if you're going to swing something, just swing the Remote. So, that kind of stuff,we think, is one of the aspects that make it easy to get into.
Another thing is, Western users are much more into realism. Realistically, in the real world, if you have monsters and they're fighting each other, and you've got some monsters that are scared of other monsters and things like that, we've replicated that sort of environment in Monster Hunter Tri. It's not just the hunter and the monster.
In previous games, you'd go into the area, and the monsters only reacted to you. But now the monsters actually react to other monsters. You are literally just a hunter. You can stand there and watch them. Sometimes, you'll see the herbivores. They may see a carnivore coming, and then they're scared, and run off to another area. Or you might see a herbivore standing in a herd, and nearby there's a bunch o fcarnivores, so the herbivores will actually be nervous. You can see them be nervous. So, it's these little details and the sense of realism that you can really immerse yourself in the game. And that's something that we think Westerners will really appreciate, coming from a more realistic standpoint.
In conjunction with the realism thing, one of the other things is that the monsters themselves, you can read their thoughts and movements now. Before, it was like you memorize this pattern, it's going to do this; it's going to do that. But now, the monsters move themselves. They lose stamina, or they get hungry, or they're tired. So, you can actually read how they're reacting to the environment. So, if you've done a lot of damage to them and they're getting really tired, you can see that.
There's much more thinking involved in this game. Now you can actually read the monster, know what the situation is, then react to it yourself. You can say, "Oh, now I should do this or that." Because it's not like the previous games where it's just pattern after pattern, it keeps it a little more entertaining because now you actually have to understand how the monster works and how the monster thinks.
Do you notice a trend toward further realism in game design -- for example, more subtle integration of on-screen HUD elements? What do you think of those sort of design decisions?
RT:We've already kind of started doing that with Monster Hunter. We mentioned that you see the monsters getting tired, and stuff like that. In our game, you only see the players' health. You don't see the monsters' health, so it's very hard to tell when a monster is ever going to die. So, in that respect, it makes the game much more analog, not digital, right?
In that sense, it's easier to build communities. You get people talking to each other because you're like, "Is he going to die?" "Oh, I don't know!" You really get people talking. So, in that sense, having it realistic in that way in an analog sense, I feel that having no gauges and being realistic gets people more together, and that's a good thing.
I like playing games where you don't actually know everything and you just kind of have to go with it, you experience it. There's more tension. There's more intense feelings involved, like, "Is he going to die?" You don't know. And that kind of suspense is a good thing for games.
Designers are really interested right now in how to encourage social behavior in games. What lessons can you share from your team's experience designing social aspects into this game?
RT:The first big thing, obviously, is that the maker, the game creator, should not tell everything to the player -- to make the game in the sense that you have to make the players find out for themselves.
For example, with Monster Hunter, one of the big things is we don't tell everybody all the different monsters you can find. We don't tell everybody all the different weapons you can create. We don't tell them all the situations where all these things can happen. But the players themselves foster a sense of community by having to go around and explore.
And then someone might say,"Hey, if you carve the head of this monster, you can actually get a better thing than if you carve the tail." So, you've got people talking to each other now, and now they want to know more. "Oh wow, this person found out this? Okay, now I'm going to try and find out this."
In that sense, the more you kind of don't tell in a sense -- program a lot of it in, but don't tell all of its little secrets -- the more you can get people to get interested, to get them to research stuff together. In that way, you can build sort of a knowledgebase, but among the users. That way, they all feel a sense of accomplishment, like, "We found out this information. We are this community, and we want to play together."
That is how, at least in Monster Hunter, we foster this sort of community. There's no one answer to anything. You can always have somebody be like, "Well, this is how I did it." "This is how I did it." We get them to communicate.
Along with there's no one right answer, again, it's that concept of because the maker isn't telling everything -- we're not saying, "This is how it is. This is how it is." -- it gets people really talking, because there's no one right answer. For example, when you have discussion groups or even debate groups or whatever in school, you have a group of people and they give all their opinions. So, nobody knows what the right answer is. You can only come to the conclusion at the end. Maybe the entire group will say, "Oh, maybe this is the correct answer."
In that sense, you've now fostered that conversation. Before they got to that opinion, they all had the conversation, they all discussed their opinions, and then they came to a conclusion. So, we feel that is one way to get people really talking and to get people to communicate with each other.
How did online development for the Wii go? Monster Hunter is much more intensely connected than a lot of other examples of networked gaming on the Wii.
RT:When we were making the online environment, we considered a lot of aspects about how users would interact online and how they would want to interact with each other and things like that. So far, the reaction from Japan has been really positive. We've had more players online than we expected, actually, you know, initially.
Luckily, nothing has gone wrong. The service has been working really well without a hitch. The experience of online, at least in Japan, the reaction has been very favorable. People have felt that it's very easy to get online, it's very easy to manipulate, and it's very easy to get around and do what you need to do online.
With the Wii, it's true, there's no infrastructure like Xbox 360 or whatever. But for us, we had the experience of doing PS2. When we did Monster Hunter Dos on the PS2, we had to make our own infrastructure. We had to set up up our own servers. We had to do everything ourselves. Actually, it was really a blessing that we had that training and experience. This time, actually, it's been a much, much easier, much smoother experience because we were already experienced in setting up our own infrastructure, so it actually wasn't that big of a deal [laughs].
Monster Hunter is so popular in Japan that there's a wide variety of merchandise available -- I think one of the weirdest ones is the cutlery, but what do you think? Which one's your favorite?
RT:[laughs] One of the things that I really like the best is this $3,000 statue of a character. I don't know how to describe it. It's about a yard long, three to four feet long. Pretty big. My dream is to one day buy this and put it in the front hall of a big house. [laughs] That's my dream.
[laughs] That answers both questions.
RT:One of the reasons we have such a variety of goods, even the cutlery, for example, as silly as it may sound, is one of the things we try to do with it is we try to get people into the game through our goods.
We don't make it look so much like a game good. We're not like, "This is game merchandise." We actually just make it sort of stylish, something people would normally want. You look at it, you think that's cool, you want it. And then when you buy it and you look at it, you're like, "Oh, this is actually from Monster Hunter. I wonder what kind of game it is." In that sense, it's sort of like a promotional tool. At the same time, you're not embarrassed, necessarily, to have it either. That's why we have such a variety and different styles of merchandise.