Early this year Monster Hunter: World delivered on an almost impossible promise: to bring a venerable Japanese game franchise forward from its dated roots (and make it more palatable for a Western audience) without losing any of the esoteric charm that made it a success and earned it a legion of fans in its home country.
According to the game’s director, Yuya Tokuda, a big part of that task was to create a seamless world that players could lose themselves in, a dream facilitated by the latest generation of platforms.
“Our goal was to bring players into a living, breathing ecosystem by creating seamless open environments teeming with life,” Tokuda told Gamasutra.
“This is a core element of the new game, and it is bigger than anything we’ve ever done before in the series, so it was a priority for the team during development to ensure our vision was something we could actually bring to life," he continued.
"After we ensured this was possible, we went on to tackle the action part of the experience, another core element of the series, and one the team was already well-versed in from previous development experience with the series.”
Scaling up to match the power of new hardware
While the team had long desired to build that kind of rich, immersive setting, it wasn’t possible on the portable platforms the last several Monster Hunter iterations were developed for.
"The most appealing aspect of working with the new hardware was its memory and processing power. Without this, the rich, living ecosystem we envisioned for the game would not have been possible."
“The most appealing aspect of working with the new hardware was its memory and processing power. Without this, the rich, living ecosystem we envisioned for the game would not have been possible. We also wanted to see many players connecting with each other around the globe, which is what led to the creation of the helpful drop-in online multiplayer functionality and SOS system.”
The first and arguably most important step to creating the world the designers envisioned was to eliminate one of the hallmarks of previous games, the independent zones that divided a map into small, sectioned off portions (tiny slices that older hardware could more easily render).
Achieving this required some very complicated math, and a delicate balancing act, weighing the elements the team wanted to populate a zone with against the limitations of the hardware.
“During the early stages of development, we calculated how much memory is required to display each core element in the map, such as large monsters, players, environmental features, small monsters, and NPCs,” Tokuda explains. “We worked to ensure it didn’t overflow memory capacity limits, but also pushed ourselves to populate the world with enough of these elements necessary to create a living, interconnected world that is fun for players to explore.”
Updating Monster Hunter's design to account for an open world
But the change from discrete zones to a huge, seamless map had a ripple effect that changed some of the core elements of the game’s design, things the team didn’t necessarily anticipate when deciding to open up the world. They were forced to think about monster and player behavior in new ways, and design brand-new systems to accommodate larger play spaces.
“We made many adjustments to the experience from previous entries. For example, in previous games, if you felt threatened by a monster, you could run away from that area into a different, safer zone. With the new seamless maps in Monster Hunter: World, the pressure is on since there is no break between zones anymore," Tokuda says.
"To balance this, we added environmental elements like bushes and hollowed out trees to hide in and get some respite from a major threat...we balanced this part as well by introducing new systems that allow monsters to hunt players by their scent."
"To balance this, we added environmental elements like bushes and hollowed out trees to hide in and get some respite from a major threat. However, if the player tries to go back and forth between hiding and attacking the monster, it would create a one-sided interaction. We balanced this part as well by introducing new systems that allow monsters to hunt players by their scent.”
One of the unspoken advantages of the smaller, digestible zones of previous games was that it was much easier for hunters to find their prey. It was a simple matter to quickly scan a zone and, if the monster wasn’t there, move onto the next, and the zones themselves were fairly flat, there wasn’t a great deal of elevation change or multiple layers to navigate through. Monster Hunter: World changes all that, though, with a number of environments that involve several layers stacked atop each other in the same rough area of the map, something Tokuda says changed the way monsters could be located and tracked.
“One of the challenges with creating these bigger, more dimensional and denser environments was that it would be difficult to locate the monsters. We created a guiding system to lead players to their desired destination.”
Unlike the old games, which required players to hit a monster with a paintball to be able to track its location on a map, World’s scoutflies let players find evidence of a monster’s passage on the map and then track their quarry dynamically.
“Monsters now leave tracks and traces behind, and following them will lead players to their targets as they explore the world and uncover new areas," adds Tokuda. "In previous entries, there was an armor skill called Psychic that indicated the monster’s location on the map, so in a way, removing the Paintball system did not directly affect game design.”
The larger, open maps also meant the opportunity to make traversal more interesting, more of a challenging obstacle that required player engagement than previous games, where moving from zone to zone was more about stamina management than finding new paths through a vibrant, interactive environment.
“After we designed each map, we took a look at areas that would benefit from additional transportation options,” Tokuda says, “especially those that are more vertical and dense such as the Coral Highlands area. With this in mind, we created the wedge beetle, an interactive environmental element that allows players to use their slinger to swing and move around the space. This additional option adds another strategic option to combat situations in these types of areas. We chose a beetle as the visual representation of this element so as to not encroach too much on the screen space.”
It’s illustrative of one of the core design philosophies evident in World. Seemingly simple alterations, like including the wedge beetles as grapple points to more quickly get around the world, should also take into account that these environments are all potentially combat arenas. So the wedge beetles needed to be interesting and useful during fights, and not just when traveling.
It’s this sort of comprehensive, multi-pronged approach that resonates in many of the new additions World incorporates, including quest and hunting incentives. According to Tokuda, it’s something they thought about when addressing how grindy and repetitive previous games could be.
“We wanted to find ways to further reward players for repeating hunts with the goal of crafting gear. In Monster Hunter: World, we introduced the Bounty system, a set of optional goals you can sign up for as well as global weekly goals that yield additional rewards," he says. "For example, the game may ask you to capture three brute wyverns in exchange for more armor upgrade materials, or complete five quests in the Coral Highlands to receive valuable trading materials.”
Instead of just rewarding a bit of tosh that may or may not be useful in building new gear, things like Bounties and Investigation rewards add new layers of rewards, new mechanics to consider each time you prepare a hunt.
“With the Bounty system, there is further incentive to help other players with their core game loop goals like gear crafting, while you work towards completing your Bounties. This is how we expected players to interact with the system, and thus far it seems to be working really well.”