monsters, hunted

This week, I wanted to talk about the single worst game design choice I've seen in a very long time.

(It's another gaming email, sorry mum. Scroll to the bottom for some tech stuff and an update on last week's letter)

I've started playing Monster Hunter: World, a three year old game that I've always had a mild curiosity about, but never quite enough to pay money for. The good news is the game is one of the 20 that comes free with a PS5, and so I decided to scratch that itch.

The Monster Hunter series is famously unforgiving. Not in the get-good, masocore sense – though the games can be hard – but more in the sense that it is a game with a lot of history, very little of which has made big outside of Japan. As a result, the series is laden with assumed knowledge, very little of which is explicitly communicated in-game.

Every monster hunter game has a few things in common, the most obvious of which is, well, Hunting Monsters. The series' action focuses on these key hunts, which are significant affairs. In a typical action-RPG, which is closest to how the game plays, any given Monster would be a boss, with the fights easily taking ten to twenty minutes, requiring planning, preparation, and effective, consistent execution.

The "story" of a Monster Hunter, in as far as there is one, tends to be a progression of new monsters introduced, with vague narrative reasons why you've now got to kill this one. But while the narrative, and indeed many of the characters, are insisting that you need to slay the next monster, the true core of the game is what Polygon has called "the unspoken loop".

Because as well as slaying monsters to progress the narrative, you also slay monsters to get better at slaying monsters. When killed, they drop parts; those parts can be used to make armour, or weapons; those armour or weapons make you stronger and let you take on more monsters; and so on. While you can play quite far through the game without engaging with the loop, only using the parts you got in the most recent story quest to improve your gear, eventually you're going to have to go on the grind.

The loop is unspoken because, well, no-one in the game tells you to do it. Just like no-one tells you that the 17 weapon classes in the game should be treated more like a character class than swappable weapons (since the upgrade trees will rapidly become exorbitant if you try to keep multiple weapons at max power); just like no-one tells you that stopping mid-fight to sharpen your blade is important because a blunt weapon can't do damage to armoured parts of a monster; just like no-one tells you how the hell the online mode actually works.

But that's all fine. Those aren't the game design choices I'm here to talk about today. In fact, it's refreshing: a reminder for me that what is sometimes called "gaming literacy" is incredibly contextual, and a way for me to experience what it's like for a non-gamer to pick up nearly any game. I understand the loot loop in Destiny 2, or the idea of a mana curve in Hearthstone, or the reason why I might want to throw a bomb at a wall that looks funny in Zelda, and I now understand the unspoken loop in Monster Hunter.

No. The game design choice is what was introduced to Monster Hunter: World in 2019, alongside the launch of the game's first and last expansion pack, Iceborne. Now, when players start the game, they are presented with a choice of armour to start with: leather or chainmail, the two from the original game which differ significantly in aesthetics, and slightly in stats; or a new option, Guardian Alpha, described in the game as a powerful set "ideal for new players".

This is a lie. What Guardian Alpha actually is is a set of armour which is more powerful than almost any you will get in the main storyline of the game. What Guardian Alpha does is completely remove the unspoken loop from the game. If you select the armour, as the game tells you to do, then an entire layer of Monster Hunter is removed from existence. There is no value to the parts you carve from defeated foes, because they cannot be used to make anything useful. There is no need to eat meals in the canteen, because you are already powerful enough to breeze through the story quests. There is no drive to learn the intricacies of any weapon, because bashing attack will win.

I get the goal: the intention was to provide a sort of level skip, allowing players who wanted to leap straight to the Iceborne content to avoid the grind and just play through the story. But by flagging the new armour to newbies, the game managed to, in a stroke, undo its entire reason for existence. Imagine a Pokemon game where one of the three Pokémon began at level 99, or a Mario Kart where the AI refused to overtake you. It might give you a passing power fantasy, to be sure, but it wouldn't be particularly good game design.

The odd thing is, while Monster Hunter: World's newbie armour is an egregious example of the problem, it's by no means rare in gaming. Sometimes it's obvious what's happened. Thoughtless easy modes turn off core mechanics and leave a game which, while technically harder to fail, is diminished; poorly designed sandboxes offer players a way to skip to the rewards without engaging with the game proper (Destiny's infamous loot cave being the go-to example). But occasionally we just have to conclude that the gestalt entity that is the game's designer doesn't understand, with its collective will, the game they've actually made.

And so you end up with the issue I spent a week battling against: a game which expects you to learn its systems through trial and error, then gifts you the ability to avoid error entirely.

I have willpower, though. I overcame that hurdle. I unequipped the armour and dressed myself, and my cat, the way god intended: in the flensed skin of a weird snake-squirrel. 

Elastic

Just a few hours after I sent my last email, it was outdated. As I predicted, Amazon did indeed respond to Elastic's aggressive attempt to defend its business with an equally aggressive counterattack: the company has announced that it will fork ElasticSearch, and maintain it in-house from now on. It's a move which says Amazon is confident in two things: firstly, that it can maintain a forked open-source project for less than it would cost to license it (probably true); and secondly, that it can either make its version the reference standard, and encourage people to ignore features in the official release; or that it can clone those features fast enough, and ensure compatibility, that despite a divergent codebase, users don't spot the difference.

That, I'm less sure of. I know some readers work with ElasticSearch themselves, and I'd be curious to hear what they think. Remember, as always, you can just hit reply to this email if you want to talk.

Many eyes

Speaking of open source software, and carrying on from last week's email, in almost every major operating system except windows there is a command called "Sudo". That command, when entered into a terminal, says "do what I tell you as though I had every permission possible". At it's simplest level, it's a way of requiring a username and password to make deep system-level changes, though it has many more uses.

Like many terminal commands, though, Sudo is technically a program. And like many terminal programs, it is open-source. And like many open-source projects, it is… sort of a disaster, held together by willpower and dreams.

All of which is to say that yesterday, security researchers at Qualys disclosed a flaw in Sudo that can allow any user to gain root privileges on a vulnerable host. This is bad. A good way of thinking about it would be if you discovered a master key for every door lock in the world. Yes, you'd still need to go to the house you wanted to gain entry to, but once you were there, the locks wouldn't stop you.

That's not good. But here's the kicker: the flaw has been lying in the code for just under ten years. It was introduced in July 2011, and despite the source code being public, visible, and used in literally billions of machines, it took almost a decade for some researchers to realise that it didn't work.

This is why computer programmers tend to take up stuff like whittling when they retire. No computers in a knife. You can trust a knife.