Ryozo Tsujimoto didn’t set out to create a Monster Hunter game aimed at Western audiences. It’s more like he stumbled upon the idea. Four years ago, Tsujimoto, who serves as producer on the upcoming Monster Hunter World, sat down with his development team at Capcom’s Osaka headquarters to brainstorm just what the next Monster Hunter should look like. Their first goal was to create a game for the modern generation of consoles. This was a big shift for a series that, despite debuting on the PS2 in 2004, has since become synonymous with portable platforms.
First, there was the question of what to do with all of that extra power. The team decided they wanted to create a world that was much more realistic than in games past. A place where the creatures that players hunt behave in ways that seem natural; where there’s a plausible ecosystem of plants, animals, and weather; and where it’s all connected by one huge, seamless map. For a series like Monster Hunter — where new games have very slowly evolved over the years — these changes are huge. As the name implies, the series has long been about hunting monsters, as players earn skills and gear to take down bigger and bigger foes as they progress through the game. But past Monster Hunter games were often rigid, with arcane rules and worlds that felt like a series of boxed-off areas. That was something the team wanted to change.
As development continued, Tsujimoto realized that, with this concept, Monster Hunter World could finally be the game that takes the series from Japanese phenomenon to worldwide hit. “We didn’t make a bunch of changes just because we want to get Western gamers on board,” he explains. “Our love of Monster Hunter made this new concept, and this new concept is something we think and hope is going to be really appealing to the West.”
Monster Hunter is by all accounts a very successful franchise, spanning nearly a dozen games, with cumulative sales of more than 40 million. But its success has largely been concentrated in Japan — and that’s something the team has struggled with for years. “When you look at the history of the Monster Hunter franchise in the West,” Tsujimoto told Polygon in 2013, “you can't really say that it's been a huge success.” There are a number of potential reasons for this. For one, Monster Hunter typically features a steep learning curve, complex controls, and action that feels much slower than in other, seemingly similar games. It’s a series that requires dedication, which can make it especially tough for beginners.
“The grammar of games in the West is evolving.”
There’s also the matter of platform. Over the years, a large part of the appeal of Monster Hunter has been its focus on local multiplayer. It’s something that’s been popular in Japan, where groups of players will join up in the real world, PSP or 3DS in hand, and hunt powerful monsters together. But in the West, where online play is more popular, it hasn’t quite caught on. Monster Hunter World, meanwhile, will be available on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One when it launches next year, with a PC version following later on.
Neither console is especially huge in Japan; the Xbox One’s presence is virtually nonexistent, while the country accounts for just 5 million of the more than 60 million PS4s sold globally to date. (The 3DS, by comparison, has sold more than 20 million units in Japan, around a third of global sales for the handheld.) “We’re bringing the game to where the players mostly are in the West,” Tsujimoto says, “which I think is going to be a big breakthrough factor.”
The shift in platforms also had a large influence on the game itself. “We have made changes to the Monster Hunter formula with this game, as a ripple effect from our basic concept of creating a more immersive, realistic, diverse ecosystem using the latest generation technologies,” Tsujimoto says. “Not just graphics, but the fact that the AI can be that much more intelligent with all of the power available. There are also quality-of-life improvements [for the player], but they come from the fact that we have this seamless environment, there are no more loading screens. Lots of little tweaks have to flow down from that to make sure the action is as seamless as possible.”
Some of these seemingly smaller improvements are ones the developers hope will remove the initial barrier that can make Monster Hunter games so intimidating to new players. Some are simple control and user interface tweaks. Players can now run by clicking the right analog stick, a common option in Western-developed games, while items and gear now display through a more intuitive radial menu. The tutorials, meanwhile, are now fully voiced, so that the game no longer stops the action to inundate you with reams of text.
“Whether [new players] like it or not is obviously personal, but we’re removing the barriers to entry, and giving them the chance to get to know the game,” says Kaname Fujioka, executive director and art director on Monster Hunter World. “The grammar of games in the West is evolving. And being able to say ‘We speak your language’ is a great chance to get more people on board.”
“People are invested in the series because they love it.”
The trick, of course, is to make these kinds of changes without alienating the substantial — and very vocal — fan base the series has cultivated over the last 13 years. But it’s something the team has experience with. When Monster Hunter Tri launched in 2009, it introduced underwater areas and what the developers call “multi-level gameplay” — essentially the idea that you can approach monsters from above and below, forcing players to strategize using distance and angles to their advantage.
It was controversial at the time but has since become an integral part of how Monster Hunter games work. “People are invested in the series because they love it, but that can also manifest itself as resistance to change,” Tsujimoto says. “We are the caretakers of Monster Hunter. We haven’t let them down yet in terms of adding great things and new evolutions.”
Monster Hunter World is a much bigger shift than Tri, but it comes from a similar philosophy. Slowly but surely, the series has made strides to make the Monster Hunter experience less intimidating, and more appealing, especially to players outside of Japan. It’s something the team has been striving toward for years, and they believe World could finally be the one. “As creators, I think it’s a very universal thing to want as many people as possible to get in touch with your work,” says Tsujimoto. “That’s kind of what we live for.”