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Confessions of a Monster Hunter

I emerge from beneath the weight of a frankly ludicrous Monster Hunter playtime to discuss the psychology of Monster Hunter, and how its design inspires such dedication from its fans.

At the time of writing, my playtime on Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate is hovering around the 160 hour mark. One hundred and sixty hours. That's 6.66(recurring) entire days. It's like I've taken a whole week's holiday in Port Tanzia. That's a scary amount of real-life time sucked up by this one game.

This is easily the longest time I've spent playing a single game. As an RPG fan, I'm accustomed to some fairly hefty playtimes. Level 5's Ni No Kuni recently topped out at 80-something hours, I've got a 90-hour save on Skyrim, and I have numerous Dark Souls characters at anywhere between 30 and 80 hours.

My previous record for longest single playtime of any game is when I played Final Fantasy X for 110 hours, back when I was a time-rich student with little better to do than play Final Fantasy for 110 hours.

110 hours is a whole fifty hours less than 160 hours.

It's worth noting that your total playtime is the first thing you see when you load the game, next to your character's name and the amount of in-game currency you own. It hovers next to your character's armoured head, at once gloating at how much of your life it has managed to consume and challenging you to hit A so it can consume some more.

When you hit A the game makes a big swooshy sword noise and your character strikes a heroic pose before the game loads. I keep on hitting A.

Sometimes I stop to wonder why. Usually I don't. There are monsters to be hunted.

Monster Hunter, of course, is the game that has become a cultural phenomenon in Japan, a brand worth many millions of yen, often imitated, never bettered. In the West it has a small but fiercely dedicated following, and the rest of the gaming public view it with a sort of wary confusion. There must be something there, to engender such dedication from its fans, but to an outsider it's completely impenetrable.

And there are few games outside of the massively-multiplayer space that engender the type of dedication Monster Hunter does. Sometimes you get to see the playtimes of other players you meet online. I've encountered more than one person with a playtime of over 500 hours. Yesterday I played with someone who had a Hunter Rank (a number that represents your progression and prestige in the game) of 549. To put that in perspective, in my 160 hours of game I have only reached the soaring heights of Hunter Rank 40.

I did not get to see this player's playtime. I imagine it's pretty high.

So what is it about Monster Hunter that hooks people so firmly, and keeps them playing for such incredible stretches of time? What is it that will compel me to sit down tonight, stare down my own imposing playtime, and keep on hunting?

Monster Hunter is ultimately a game about two things: fighting monsters, and grinding for gear; sexier armour, deadlier weapons. Felling monsters lets you use their parts, their hides, bones and scales, to craft new gear. Stronger gear makes it easier to fell tougher monsters, which in turn enables you to craft even more powerful gear.

The rhythm of the game operates on a grand cycle; craft gear to kill monsters, to craft better gear, to kill bigger monsters.

It hooks you in early; it only takes a few simple quests to be able to replace your basic leather armour with a sturdier plate set, which makes taking on the game's first proper monsters that much easier. Then you realise if you kill these monsters a few times over, you can craft a totally sick bone sword that puts your default iron one to shame.

In a couple of hours you're rocking a completely new set of gear, and already those first couple of monsters seem almost laughably easy. You feel like a tooled-out badass. But now there are bigger monsters to fight, and from them, stronger gear to be crafted. So you keep hunting, and the cycle continues.

As the cycle goes on, it expands. Early-game armour sets might take an hour or two of dedicated play to craft. Right now, I have my sights set on an armour set that I fully expect could take me 10 hours to craft. There are armour sets in the game that require parts so rare you could easily grind for thirty or so hours to build them.

These armour sets make me afraid. Largely because, when I've finished my current set, the only real way to better my character would be to chase these pieces of ludicrously unobtainable equipment. And I'm afraid I might actually try to do it.

This meta-game of gear acquisition has its roots firmly in the territory of the MMORPG, a genre built on thousand-hour playtimes, on a gradual drip-feed of challenge and endless grinding for better loot.

I've never been able to get into an MMO properly. Part of that has to do with the time investment involved, and my unwillingness to commit that much of my free time to a single videogame. Mostly, however, it's the fact that I just don't find the MMO playstyle engaging. The questing and looting is compelling, and speaks to my roots as an RPG gamer with a penchant for shiny things and stat points, but I simply cannot invest in a genre whose actual mechanics boil down to positioning your character near some baddies and then pounding hotkeys in a specifically optimised order.

And its the mechanics of combat that really keep driving me back to Monster Hunter - because if you strip away the meta-games, the loot-grinding and gear-crafting and the slow drip-feed of content, you're left with an impressively well-crafted and impeccably balanced action game.

It takes a long time to appreciate just how deep and nuanced the combat in Monster Hunter is. At first it seems clunky, wilfully difficult and over-complicated. But the longer you play, you begin to realise that Capcom are channeling their Street Fighter heritage far more than you'd believe to look at the game.

High-end Monster Hunter discussion bears striking resemblance to high-end fighting game discussion, with talk of invincibility frames, hitboxes and stagger thresholds. There's a level of mechanical mastery available that simply doesn't exist in stat-centric RPGs, and is rare even in the most well-regarded action games. It's not entirely unlike playing Devil May Cry in super-slow-motion.

The monsters themselves are the main event, of course, and each one balances reliably learnable attack patterns with just the right amount of unpredictability. They're terrifying to fight the first time, and enjoyable to fight again and again, as you develop techniques and strategies to beat them faster, more reliably. Clever monster design makes all the grinding feel less like a grind.

It's the marriage of this surprisingly deep central gameplay and the MMO-lite compulsion cycle of gear grinding that makes Monster Hunter the digital equivalent of a heroin addiction - except in this case the dragons you are chasing pack a mean tail swipe and offer a 2% chance of obtaining an ultra-rare gem.

I keep playing not to craft the best gear in the game for the hell of it, but because fighting the game's monsters feels great. Aiming for a new set of armour simply gives what would otherwise be meaningless enjoyment a sense of purpose, and the near-constant availability of ever-so-slightly-better gear means you always feel like you're progressing, like you're playing towards something, even when you're fighting your fiftieth Rathalos in a week.

It's a heady combination that can easily suck up days of your life, but it's cemented by the game's social element. Not so much the faceless online play - though that certainly exists in the WiiU version, and becomes more or less essential for top-tier progression - but the face-to-face, sit-down-on-a-couch-with-a-friend multiplayer. It's the social aspect that makes Monster Hunter such a critical giant in Japan, and enables near-limitless opportunities for entertainment.

I played through the majority of the game with a friend. We'd sit in my front room, me playing on WiiU and him on his 3DS, and we'd often pile hours at a time into the game. Our conversations would lapse into incomprehensible jargon, and would probably have looked like a parody of obsessive nerd-culture to anyone who might have happened to walk in at the time.

Playing with a friend amplifies the emotional engagement with the game by a huge magnitude. There's genuine elation at the final deathblow of a 30-minute battle, real tension as we circle a tough monster knowing that neither of us can afford to die or else we fail the hunt, and genuine anger and commiseration when we're bested by a sudden burst of strength from a monster we thought we had beaten.

When you've experienced Monster Hunter in a room with friends, it's easy to see how the game has captivated what seems like the whole of Japan. It's the perfect game for a culture built around community, where the gaming handheld is prevalent and where after-work gaming sessions are seen as an acceptable, and indeed encouraged, way for colleagues to spend time. Grinding doesn't seem like grinding when it's shared with three friends over a couple of beers.

I can understand why some Japanese play Monster Hunter forever, or at least until the next Monster Hunter comes out. If I had three friends I could persuade to sit down once a week to hunt, I don't think I'd ever really put the game down. It's a uniquely fun social activity.

This is also why it's never quite taken off in the West to the same extent. Peer-to-peer gaming is rare outside of the playground; we seem to prefer our multiplayer via headsets and wifi, and our gaming systems attached to televisions or monitors. My pool of friends includes no few people who consider themselves serious gamers, but there's no chance of getting four people with 3DSes and copies of Monster Hunter into a single room.

The online multiplayer in MH3U goes some way to compensating for this, but can never be quite as compelling an experience as hunting with real friends. Sure, there's a level of satisfaction to joining three formidably-armoured strangers and taking apart one of the high-tier monsters, but you can never get the same level of coordination or camaraderie over wifi.

Which is a shame, because top-tier play more or less requires four players working in unison to succeed; after a certain point, monsters become woefully difficult to beat with fewer players. My play sessions have evolved as a result; I now hit the online lobbies, post a billing of which monster I want to take down, and wait for three like-minded strangers to join me.

It's still enjoyable, and there are still epic moments, but I'm starting feel like I'm spending as much time waiting in lobbies as I am actually hunting anything.

Yet I persevere. And more than that, I have no intention of stopping just yet. Monster Hunter has become a casual affair, something comfortable to sit down with and wind down at the end of a day. Online play lowers the stakes considerably, so I'm content to just kick back and repeat a few quests on a night, that new armour set more of a vague goal than a genuine compulsion now.

I'm also teaching myself to fight with a hammer. Because hammers are cool.

I'm starting to wonder when I'll actually stop playing. Because there's no definitive stopping point; I've already beaten the game's loosely established 'campaigns', and I'm now more or less just repeating content either to pass the time or to challenge myself. I have pretty much beaten everything there is to beat, and at least been given a glimpse at the full array of content the game has to offer.

What usually happens with games as open-ended as this is that I suddenly lose interest, when my drive to play is completely consumed by sparsity of new content. At this point, I usually both resent and regret the huge amount of time I've spent with the game. And with Monster Hunter, that's such a huge investment of time that I'm actually beginning to worry what putting the game down will do to my psyche.

Perhaps that's why I keep playing, why I keep setting my sights on ever-more-unobtainable gear - a determination not to write off the time I've spent with the game as pointless, to stave off the depression that's sure to set in when I really have to face how much of my life I have given over to the pursuit of badass virtual helmets.

But for now I'm content to continue. As the summer game drought draws over us and with the unpredictability of a new generation of games consoles looming over the horizon, perhaps it's not so bad to plough more of my gaming time into Monster Hunter. It's a game that earns your time, certainly, as it's also a fitting antidote to the brief, exciting yet shallow tendencies of the current console market.

So for now I'll continue chasing dragons; specifically, the ones whose scales I can forge into epic new blades. And that's quite enough on the subject for now; that Abyssal Lagiacrus isn't going to hunt itself, after all.

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