7/16/2014

Monster Hunter Freedom Unite - Controls design analysis

Hey guys and gals! Taking a break from the games for education topics, I wanted to perform an in-depth analysis of the control scheme of the Monster Hunter game I recently purchased and tried to get into. I haven't played any other MH games, I took on this one to feed my curiosity - everyone around kept telling me how good this franchise was, not many of them actually played it though.

For those of you who don't know, Monster Hunter games came out on a variety of platforms: PS2, PSP, PS Vita, Wii, Wii U, Xbox 360, 3DS, iOS and PC. I will be analyzing the Freedom Unite for PSP. 


The game is stunningly deep and immensely satisfying. It took me several hours to get past the tutorial, a few next hours to get at least some decent skill to finish my first mission, but when I finally did slay that monster, wow. That's what I call satisfying. Then I get to upgrade my gears with the spoils from the hunted creature and it gives me a visible boost. Brilliant. Deep crafting and combining mechanics and this feeling of really going for a difficult hunt, preparing yourself, studying your target's habits... Even killing bosses in Dark Souls isn't this satisfying.

However, the game has one big flaw, and if you ask anyone who played MH, he/she will tell you the same: "the camera is a bitch". No matter if who you ask is a seasoned MH veteran who loves every bit of the game or a noob that gets killed by everything there - the camera is a bitch for all of them and the number one reason for people ragequitting. There are some guys that try to argue that the camera is an element adding to the game's difficulty and that's by design. 

Terrible camera as a difficulty element? Don't make me laugh. Camera can be used for showing off nice things (Final Fantasy XIII) or adding to the mystery (Resident Evil), but treating it as a factor of a difficulty setting is just straightforward bad design that frustrates the player and does nothing else. In a game as deep as Monster Hunter, if the designers wanted to make it more difficult, they would play around with dozens of other parameters that were a lot less frustrating. And I honestly don't think that was the reason for having the camera act the way it does.

But the camera problem in MH is actually a part of something way bigger. It's the controls. And the way they work on PSP is just some big misunderstanding. After an hour in the game or so I was able to design a much more user-friendly controls layout for the game. What is the control problem in MH all about?

Monster Hunter Freedom Unite controls.
Take a close look at the controls and see if you can see what problems these controls bring. Done? Okay, let me list mine:
1) There is 4 buttons responsible for the camera (the whole D-pad) + L button that resets the camera to the direction our character is facing. With PSP having a limited number of buttons, wasting so many on the camera control is unforgivable.
2) The camera controls (D-pad) and the movement (Analog Stick) are all supposed to be controlled by the left thumb, which means you either look around or run, never both at the same time. 
3) Having the select button for the kick action pretty much guarantees nobody will use it. 
4) To select an item from a list you need to hold the L button then browse through the list using Square and Circle (why these?!) and release the L button when you are done, then press Square to use the item.
5) There are controls dedicated specifically to ranged weapon classes only, useless with well over a half of the weapons.

Look how easy it would be to fix:
- assign camera control to L and R to make it possible to look around while running
- assign the camera zoom to select, as most of the time you just set a zoom level once per quest and you don't have to reach to that button too often.
This already makes us use 3 buttons instead of 5 for the camera movements. The two extra ones can be now assigned to something useful. For example we could assign "left" and "right" on the D-Pad to the item selection without the need to hold L button while doing the selection. This way the player player wouldn't use an item using Square when what he wanted was to select a different item with L+Square.

The only problem it would spawn would be the dash button, but that could easily be assigned to the Circle button. It could then retain its cancel selection function and the examine + climb ledges functions could be taken over by the X button as these are only contextual controls. The game already differentiates between weapon drawn and weapon sheathed states, so there wouldn't be a situation where you want to dash and instead start climbing or picking flowers. 

This all lets us:
- select the items more easily
- move, run and look around simultaneously
- retain all functionalities of the previous control scheme
And we are still left with the "up" and "down" D-pad buttons to use for whatever the designers want to put there, like selecting the bottles and ammo for gunners or whatever.


Would it make the game easier? No. Less frustrating? Yes. Would they loose their fanbase if they introduced a new control scheme? No, the fanbase complains about the camera controls as much as anyone else. I am quite sure many of the designers that actually worked on Monster Hunter could have come up with a similar solution, probably even a better one. Why didn't they implement it then? Now what I will do here is just a wild guess, but lets me show you how a game studio works. What could have happened was:

1) The control scheme could have just been put there as a first draft and then the whole team got used to it and didn't see anyting unnatural about it for a few years and a few games (happens more often than you might think).
2) There might have been a lead designer with enough power to be able to push towards a control scheme that felt good to him and not let anyone change it.
3) The producers could have simply forgot to plan the task of revising the controls or assumed that the controls from the previous games are good enough since the games sold and established a fanbase. 
4) The producers could have cut the controls tweaking out of the schedule when the delivery date was approaching way too soon.

Whatever was the real reason, the end result is a great game with tons of depth and a control scheme that looks like it's been designed by some three-handed mutant design intern having a feud with logic. I really hope that other platforms got much better controls than PSP. 


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