The more I think about this, the more I think about training wheels.
Great games have a large amount of complex, intertwined systems that allow for player agency. You can pull a string here, and then something way down the road changes – EvE is a good example. Amazing games have the ability to simplify this complexity, allowing for a “easy to play, difficult to master” gameplay model. It’s a tough balance though, as often times the simplicity takes precedence and the complex under-systems get cut (looking at you WoW).
Further, many games have a tutorial (either in name or in practice) that gate the complex content until further along the process. I don’t mean power gating, where your attack power or defense gets improved. More like moving from ground combat to air attackers, or putting in active dodging. The content available is typically linear, so as not to drown the player in complexity. Smaller drips and tests, then move on. A few games have systems that are so complex that they just put it all out there to start (most survival games).
Monster Hunter takes an interesting approach, in that the intertwining complex systems are generally available at the start. You have 14 weapons. You have armor. There are tons of enemies in the first area. Nearly all the quest types are available. From there to the Anjanath, it’s a fairly gradual skill progress. There are minor systems, but nothing terribly obvious or complex.
Then you open up the other half of the game after a couple missions. The maps turn vertical. Charms show up. Environmental damage. Modified armor and skills that stack. A very large weapon tree. I recall the start of the game going about 4 hours before understanding even the basic items, then it sort of worked out. I feel that this is quite similar to a system dump of options, bordering on overload. It gives that feeling that you have to do everything rather than focus on what’s important.
Compounding this is the concept of optimization. Often, you move from one mundane task into more complex ones. Finding a way to stop doing the mundane. For example, in UO I spent a lot of time mining to supply my blacksmith with materials. After a while, I had enough money to just buy the ore and produce at a much larger volume for the same time investment. Other games have power curves, where enemies simply die faster since you are stronger – orders of magnitude stronger.
That is much less evident in Monster Hunter. The first time you take on any big game it’s usually a 20 minute battle. Your power goes up sure, but you’re still not talking about taking down a TRex in 5 hits. The monster will still run away, evade attacks, you’ll get knocked down. You can still die in a few hits if you’re not paying attention.
I guess that’s part of the complexity. Your skill is as much a factor as the power and tools at your disposal. And the factors you need to take into account just continually grow over time. I certainly feel like I’ve improved dramatically since the start. I can read tells, avoid specific areas, spot beneficial items at a distance, know when it’s a smart move to sharpen the blades…all tiny things that combined make a large difference.
I have to say, I’m continually impressed after every session.