The Monster Hunter series has long been known for its detailed, inventive creature designs. The games put you up against terrifying beasts that blend the prehistoric with fantasy: part dragon, part dinosaur, but somehow still plausible. These designs have always been slightly hindered by technology, releasing on comparatively underpowered systems like Nintendo’s Wii or Sony’s PSP.
But that’s changed with Monster Hunter World, which is out now on the PS4 and Xbox One. (A PC version is on the way later this year.) The team at Capcom has made use of the extra horsepower to create its most convincing creatures yet, both in terms of how they behave and how they look. Towering dinosaurs with soft tufts of feathers run through fields, chasing armored beasts covered in dozens of spikes, while electric lizards slink through the trees. “The hardware allowed us to explore these types of visual design options,” explains Kaname Fujioka, who served as both executive director and art director on the game.
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The process of creating a brand-new monster doesn’t start with a look, though. Instead, the designers take a more holistic approach. Before they start sketching ideas, they usually begin with a gameplay idea. A designer might want to introduce a speedy creature to the game, or one that can spew poison. They also consider what shape the player will be in when they encounter the creature; monsters you encounter later in the game are tuned to withstand more powerful weapons, for instance.
After that, the creature designers look at the landscape where the new animal will dwell. Monster Hunter World takes place on an isolated island with a huge range of environments to explore, from humid swamps to arid wastelands. There’s a back-and-forth process, with creature and level designers working in tandem, and the two evolving alongside each other. A change in a creature’s movement could inspire a change in the landscape, or vice versa.
“The next step is to go into each area of the map and look at the terrain to see how a player or monster may use that area to their advantage,” says Fujioka. “For example, a monster designer will speak with a level designer and say, ‘We are looking for this amount of verticality so we can have a monster behave and interact as intended there,’ and they will go in and make those adjustments to the area.” It’s only after those details have been sorted out that the team starts working on the actual visual concepts for the creatures.
The result is creatures that feel like they belong in the world. Often the monsters are outlandish — the massive Anjanath spews fire when it’s agitated, while the fox-like Tobi-Kadachi crackles with electricity — but since much of their design feels realistic, these more fantastical elements seem more plausible. That said, though they look and behave like real animals, Monster Hunter’s beasts aren’t always inspired by them.
“When we start coming up with a concept for a monster, we don’t really think about specific real-world creatures,” says Fujioka. “We ask our designers to zoom out and start with what we want the core concept to be. We then think about the ideas and images associated with these concepts and go on from there. For example, if we want a fast monster, anything from a rabbit to a car may come to mind.”
For instance, the soaring Legiana, which sports bright, colorful wings, was inspired by a plane. And many of the details of its wings were created specifically so it was adapted to its environment, an area filled with steep, dangerous cliffs. “There are many different parts of an airplane’s wing, parts that can move up or down to increase or decrease speed,” Fujioka explains. “If you look at Legiana’s wings, you’ll see it’s not just one solid wing. It’s actually several different wings, which allow it to do things like speed up, slow down, and dive bomb — all strong inspirations that came from thinking about airplanes.”
This design philosophy was largely true in past games in the series, but the developers have been able to take things a step further, thanks to the more powerful hardware. Monsters now move and behave in more realistic ways, whether it’s a Great Jagras ballooning in size after a big meal or a feathery Kulu-Ya-Ku skittering around a cave in search of eggs to steal. Sometimes it’s much smaller details that add a sense of realism. Monsters can now have fluffy fur of varying lengths, while plumes of feathers move with a breeze in a natural way.
For some of the new additions to the Monster Hunter bestiary, they likely wouldn’t exist at all if it weren’t for the shift to current generation consoles. One example is the Nergigante, an elder dragon that looks like it stepped straight out of hell, complete with devilish horns sprouting from its head. One of the creature’s defining traits is the multitude of dangerous-looking spikes that cover its body.
“If you take a look, you’ll see’s body is completely covered in thorns, growing from all over — its arms, legs, head,” explains Fujioka. “There are in fact more than 1,000 thorns on its entire body. The designers wanted to control the loss and regeneration of these thorns, another example of something the new hardware allowed us to explore. Each thorn exists completely independently on its body.”
The last step in the process is figuring out what happens when the monster dies — and how players will be able to utilize its body to craft new weapons and armor. As you defeat monsters in the game, you’ll then unlock new gear that you build by harvesting parts. If you manage to take down the demonic Vaal Hazak, for instance, you’ll get a ghoulish outfit complete with a horned hood. The bony beast Radobaan can be turned into thick, heavy armor, while taking down a Pukei-Pukei will get you a sword adorned with bright green feathers.
“We start with designing the monster before moving on to gear design,” Fujioka says of the process. “It’s logical if you think about it. This is the order in which a player will experience these elements: you’ll meet a new menacing foe, take it down, and then carve off your materials to use for crafting armor and weapons.”
Monster Hunter World is on pace to become the best-selling title in the history of the series, and much of that success comes down to the new, more believable creatures. With a name like Monster Hunter, the beasts are the main appeal — and thanks to new technology, they’re more intimidating than ever before.