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Confessions of a Monster Hunter
by Tom Battey on 07/02/13 10:38:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

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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Comments


Emily Knox
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Great piece Tom.
That face to face, on the sofa gaming with other people is an atmosphere I hugely miss from university, that was a great way to socially fill those downtime gaps during the week. I was normally very content during and pre-university to sit and "grind", whether it's WoW, Age of Conan, Diablo, LOTRO, Borderlands, Final Fantasy... it's quite comforting for me to sit and advance my capabilities with the game purely by investing time (in all instances I'll either be raising my level or improving my gear), it's all fully attainable with the investment of time, there's obviously degrees of skill in every case, but time investment is king here.
Once I entered the world of Monday-Friday 9-5 work, my grinding has cut down severely. The gaps in life that aren't working or commuting are a premium now, I'm no longer ensconced by gamers in my house or on my street, so it has a much smaller slot in my life, because gaming and social activities are no longer merged together (and as you say, gaming online is no replacement for a living room with friends). So when I can see that games are looking for a considerable time investment, or a monthly fee, that often lop-sided time/skill ratio doesn't appeal to me in the same way it used to, as Michael says that doesn't sit so well with me anymore.

(edit: my biggest spend of time was over 250 hours in Final Fantasy X-2. It's not even my favourite FF by a long shot.)

Tom Battey
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Yes - I think the more you value your real-life hours, the less time you'll have for games that exist solely to use them up. I used to regularly absorb 60 hour RPGs; now I wince at the padding in an 8-hour action title. That's not to say I don't enjoy my RPGs any more - they're welcome to be long, so long as they're respectful of my time.

Jacob Pederson
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That's nothing, I have 350 hours in Dungeon Defenders. And I Shudder to think what my Diablo 2 time is . . .

Samuel Green
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Ooooh are we posting our highest playtime games?

My Dota 2 play time is on 2112 hours according to Steam.

Chris Pereira
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MH is /that/ game to me. It has depth and excitement hidden in every orifice behind all its coding but its frighteningly complex. I can see where 300+ hours can seem small in comparison. Not to mention all the DLC they are putting out for it.

I just don't know where i want to go! Heavy gear grinding or quests till something decent pops up. I CAN'T CHOOSE!

Ben Sly
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I got Monster Hunter Tri along with my Wii a while ago, and - although I found the majority of the game design to be quite interesting - I never played more than an hour of it. Just hearing about the rather low drop rates for high-end materials frustrated me.

When you put hour after hour into attempts only to have the major reward awarded based on a single-digit percentage chance, it feels very much like the developers are drawing out the length of the game to levels beyond what the base gameplay supports; it leaves me feeling like a rat in a Skinner box instead of someone enjoying a game. As a game developer, that distaste leaves me favoring having relatively easy-to-attain top-tier equipment and optional challenges to encourage the replay of content. If the gameplay is deep enough, optional challenges can become incredibly hard but still quite fun; they also don't stonewall player progression the way that the endless gear grind does.

Tom Battey
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I did a similar thing - I bought Tri, played for quite a while (I think I beat the main village campaign) but then hit a wall where I couldn't really progress without obtaining a rare plate with a stupidly low drop chance, and I quit. The hunt for those is just not fun.

Thing is, that changes massively when you play with other people. Firstly, monsters die quicker, so the fights don't feel so arduous, but really it's the social aspect that makes grinding not feel like grinding. The rare drop becomes a secondary objective, and having fun with other people is the main priority.

That said, there are limits, and I'd never go back to grind solo again.

Steven Christian
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This is why Korean MMO's are so grindy; they play together over there.

We play the same games over here and try to solo them, quickly getting bored (or finding that they are too hard, as not designed for singleplayer).

This is the difference between asian and western MMO's; it's in the playstyle.

Ted Brown
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Great article, Tom, thank you. You hit the nail on the head when you described your circle of friends having little to no interest in gaming. Maybe we (those who play games) will find each other when we hit the retirement home, eh? =)

Tom Battey
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Trouble is, even in you HAVE friends who play games, the chance of them being in the same room as you at any given time is pretty slim. Hell, even the same county/time zone/hemisphere is a problem. I'm sure I could badger enough people I know into getting Monster Hunter; I still wouldn't see them more than once every few months though.

Ramin Shokrizade
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I hit 20,000 hours in virtual world games in 2005, and stopped counting after that (I'm somewhere past 30k now). The good news is I made a living playing games the last 14 years so it did not feel like a waste.

The gear in this game sounds a lot like the Hard Boosts I talked about in my last article. If MH went to F2P, I could imagine it would look very similar to Puzzle and Dragon, but be even more profitable. Imagine being in a battle for 30 minutes, failing, and then being presented with the reward removal technique I described in my last article on F2P tricks... "You ALMOST got this rare component you needed but it will ALL be lost unless you give us $5 to continue the battle!". If this is a retail product, it sounds like it is a much better deal than what its F2P version would look like.

Oh and of course you need like 100 different base resources in the end game economy but only have 20 inventory spaces. I guess you will be spending to raise that inventory also!

Joe Zachery
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Let's hope the game never goes to that. Even though the Monster Hunter Online Game Frontier has a similar structure.

Joe Zachery
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Let's hope the game never goes to that. Even though the Monster Hunter Online Game Frontier has a similar structure.

Tom Battey
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This actually struck me a while back; if Capcom realise how profitable a fully monetized Monster Hunter could be, then we're for it. Or I am, at least. Because this is one game where if I was given the option to pay a few pounds for a sweet new piece of gear, to to be able to bypass some of the grind between me and my next weapon, then I probably would.

It'd suck the soul out of the game, but I'd still buy into it, providing the core gameplay remains as compelling. I just hope Capcom don't ever work this out.

Joe Zachery
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Monster Hunter is a type a game where you get what you put into it. Even after saying that there is this surprise factor that exist within the game. Mastering Skills, preparing, strategy, and experience matters. Still a person who doesn't wish to get that involved with the game. Can still have a great experience while playing. There are many ways to accomplish your goals. The only thing holding you back is your own creativity, or skill level. That is why the game is so appealing to many people. It never plays the same way even though the end goal is the same every time. It's really hard to really explain the appeal of the franchise. This coming from a person who would call himself a experienced hunter. The one thing I notice with this game it feels like a Japanese Shonen Manga or Anime. You start out weak but with potential. As you grow and get stronger so does the challenges you face. Until finally you are the strongest until the next challenge arrives.

Tom Battey
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This is what keeps me playing: 'It never plays the same way even though the end goal is the same every time.'

It's not an RPG where you work out the optimal way to win a fight with your character and stick to it; you can fight the same monster 10 times in a row and every fight will be slightly different.

This is something I'd actually like to see expanded on in the series - things like random weather effects, more variation in the possible monsters that turn up, different plant/animal life. Anything that varies a single quest more goes some way to alleviating all the grinding.

Joseph Berida
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I definitely agree with your point about how Monster Hunter truly shines playing with other people who are actually with you in the same room. It was fun playing solo in the beginning and getting to the higher ranks, but actually progressing through those difficulty ranks and attaining those incredibly rare pieces became nothing more than just a grind that I quickly got bored of it after playing for like 70+ hours on MHFU.

My friends who I played with moved onto MHP3, and we didn't get to see each other as often so I just never bothered to come back to it.

Tom Battey
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Another issue is that quests become near enough impossible to solo at G-Rank. Sure, you get odd pro players who insist they can solo G-Rank, but for most people taking on one of the top-tier multi-monster G-Rank hunts without a full roster of 4 hunters is impossible.

Which means if you don't have three friends to play with on a semi-regular basis, then you're more or less locked out of top-tier play by the game's difficulty. MH3U's WiiU online lobbies go some way to rectifying this, but it's not all that fun sitting around in lobbies for minutes at a time, and it amps up the desire to just put the game down.

Wyatt Epp
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You're certainly right that none of the other hunting games are quite as good; the balance of equipment availability and monster toughness is super-refined to ensure battles at your level don't simply end in five minutes.

That isn't to say the others are doing nothing right. In fact, I think God Eater Burst takes a fairly serviceable stab at grind by allowing you to exchange upward or downward for parts.

e.g. You part with some coin and five Royal Wings to get an Emperor Wing, or some coin and an Emperor Wing will yield three Royal Wings. It's nice when you end up with two dozen of one and need one of another; a situation Monster Hunter puts me into frequently. Of course, the catch is you have to have found one of the items before you can exchange for more of the same, and some items can't be exchanged at all (if you immediately guessed "Ooh, the ones with single-digit rarity right?!", well... what, was it that obvious?).

Tom Battey
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I've not actually played any of the Monster Hunter-a-likes, as most of them don't come out in Europe and if they were to, I don't currently own a PSP to play them. I do, however, like the sound of being able to trade up and down certain items...I'm currently at the point where I'm in possession of an enormous pile of one monster's uber-rare 'mantles,' but require one of the supposedly much easier to get 'sapphires'...but will the game drop a sapphire? Will it hell.

But you are right; the balance in Monster Hunter is insanely dead-on. I'm often playing in awe of it, wondering if this was something the developers sort of stumbled on and refined, or whether it was constantly designed and iterated from the ground up. If it's the latter, then the folks on the MH team are both incredibly talented and equally devious.


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