Nintendo's latest smash hit, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, has drawn critical acclaim and jumpstarted sales of their new Switch to the point where the company is now expecting to produce 18 million units this fiscal year. In a market where open-world games are ten a penny, what have Nintendo done that stands out from the crowd - and how will it change players' expectations of open-world games yet to be released? GamesIndustry.biz spoke to two of the genre's most talented designers to find out.
Benjamin Plich was the lead designer on Assassin's Creed: Unity and For Honor, and is now lead game designer at Montreal's Reflector Entertainment. What strikes him the most about Breath of the Wild is its emergent gameplay. What the gaming public will expect of future open-world RPGs, he said, is "the ability to experiment with things more freely, in an open way. Having a powerful sense of autonomy and experimentation with the environment and the tools at their disposal."
That sense of autonomy rests on multiple facets of the game's design. The most fundamental is the way it makes its environments interactive. Breath of the Wild makes heavy use of environmental conditions - rain, heat, cold, fire - that interact with the abilities and gear of both the player and the game's NPCs. Rather than using cliffs and walls as simple borders to keep the player penned in, it lets you climb anything - if you have the stamina to do so. Set a Bokoblin's club on fire with fire arrows, and it will do more damage to you. Take a metal sword out in a lightning storm, and prepare to be electrocuted. This kind of open-ended, rule-based interaction is common in sandbox survival games like Minecraft and Dwarf Fortress, but much less so in the RPG space.
"Breath of the Wild has managed to bring classic open world mechanics together while not relying on them to guide the player through its world"
Importantly, though, the survival mechanics are handled with a light touch. When the player enters hazardous areas, for example, it isn't long before they find protective gear that shields them from the worst of it. Overly harsh survival mechanics can frustrate players, enslaving them to punitive death-countdown meters and forcing them into a desperate scrabble for food, or water, or oxygen, or what have you. They make the game about survival, and using them like that means you're making a survival game. Breath of the Wild's approach, making use of these mechanics periodically for flavour and in order to vary the constraints on the player, is much more generalisable. It adds texture to the game's world without constantly rubbing the player's face in it. Players moving from Nintendo's title to other open-world games that don't do such interesting things with their environments may find the experience comparatively flat.
This respect shown to the environment as the player's ally and adversary is augmented by the wide range of powers granted to them early on. Physics-based abilities that allow the player to paraglide in the wind, magnetise metal objects, build up kinetic energy in time-frozen ones, and the like both enable varied puzzles and provide tools for experimentation that change with the objects available in each situation. Combat and exploration become an interaction between the player, the environment, and the other characters, in which working out a clever way to achieve one's goal is both possible and satisfying. Compare this with the experience offered by a game like Fallout 4, in which the joy of exploration comes from what the player sees and finds, and in which combat is a question of target priority, inventory management, and precise reactions under pressure. All these elements are present in Breath of the Wild, but the environment's hazards and the wide variety of ways in which the player can interact with them create an additional layer of variety and interest.
An obvious point of comparison that springs to mind here is the Just Cause series. Those games' grappling hook, parachute, and abundant explosives produced some of the same effect in the context of a first-person shooter. What Breath of the Wild does is show that freeform havoc transposed into an RPG context. The question, for developers, will be whether the public comes to expect it in open-world games with a gritter feel. The sort of comical chain reactions systems like this can produce might not sit so comfortably in a setting like The Elder Scrolls', but examples as venerable as Half-Life 2's Gravity Gun prove that, even if the public don't demand it, open-ended player powers can be used to great effect with a perfectly straight face.
"Breath of the Wild showed something most designers already know, but which is hard to achieve... open progression following each player's intrinsic motivations, adaptive challenge curve and economy, open narrative structures, and so on"
The last element underlying the player's sense of autonomy in Breath of the Wild is the game's willingness to let go their hand and allow them to discover its possibilities on their own. Its tutorial is relatively desultory, introducing the player to the fundamental mechanics of the game, but not much else. This allows the player to explore the subtleties of the game's systems on their own, giving them an authentic sense of achievement when they discover something unexpected which wouldn't be possible if every interaction was explicitly introduced.
Both Plich and Damien Monnier, senior designer on The Witcher 3 at CD Projekt RED and now lead designer at fellow Polish studio Techland, emphasised the independence Nintendo fosters in the game's players. "Breath of the Wild has managed to bring classic open world mechanics together while not relying on them to guide the player through its world," said Monnier. "You go and explore it because you wonder what's out there, not because a loot icon tells you to."
Plich concurs: "Breath of the Wild showed something most designers already know, but which is hard to achieve... [these games are] evolving from classic open worlds to an open-game model - open progression following each player's intrinsic motivations, adaptive challenge curve and economy, open narrative structures, and so on."
For Monnier, what is most striking about the game is the level of immersion the player has in its world. "My expectations, and I mean for me as a Zelda fan, have changed for sure - they've raised the bar when it comes to world crafting and this sense of total immersion I get when I play it," he said. "While its world includes classic open-world activities, collectibles and loot-filled mobs, it definitely doesn't feel overloaded and allows the focus be on the exploration. You want to explore this land whether or not you are on a quest, or being tasked to collect/gather something. You know, If you were to remove all NPCs, quests and mobs, I would still take pleasure in exploring that beautiful world."
The game's responsive environment and dialed-back use of 'gamey' elements such as map icons and collectibles are partly responsible for this. But immersion is a whole-game quality, and every aspect of Breath of the Wild's design has an impact on it. In particular, said Monnier, the layout of the game's landscape is highly effective. "[The designers use] smart placement of points of interest in the distance, that break the horizon. That includes intriguing natural formations. I find them inviting. Once you do reach one of these points you often feel a shift in the mood that makes you feel as if you have travelled further than you actually have; as if you have gone on a greater journey."
"Of all the aspects of the title that may change public expectations, though, one stands out as most problematic for developers. This is the game's phenomenal level of polish"
Of all the aspects of the title that may change public expectations, though, one stands out as most problematic for developers. This is the game's phenomenal level of polish. Unlike many open-world games, Breath of the Wild has very few reported bugs. This Nintendo hallmark quality is the result of a long and amply-funded development cycle - by some accounts, the most expensive in their history - meaning it will be hard for other, less well-resourced studios to live up to the quality assurance standard the game sets. That said, Breath of the Wild technical director Takuhiro Dohta has pointed to two aspects of the game that made it easier to test. First off, the Nintendo team devised a set of scripts that meant the game could be automatically played and tested, speeding up the QA process without needing to make extra hires. Second, its world being based on components that interact in a rule-based way, rather than on heavy use of bespoke locations and one-off systems, meant that fewer bugs arose in the first place. Though Nintendo-flagship levels of funding will not be available to most developers, techniques like these may help games live up to the expectations they have set.
One final component of Breath of the Wild that players are likely to miss in competitors that lack it is not so much a single feature as a philosophy. It ties into the emergent gameplay, the self-directed discovery, and the game's polish as a whole. It's a certain attention to detail, and willingness to use little mechanical touches to add delight to the smallest elements of the game. Give a stray dog a piece of meat, for example, and you will gain a friend. Swing your sword in the long grass, and swathes of it will be cut down. This kind of little detail can be the most memorable aspect of a game. (I personally recall my disappointment upon finding that the cameras the player can pick up in the more recent Fallout games were non-functional. Had they been implemented as cameras, it would have been a delightful feature.)
Again, this approach costs time and money both to implement and to debug, all for features that are barely tangential to the game's core gameplay loops - but that in itself conveys a message to the player: that this is a game constructed with care and delight, that expresses the playful and artistic impulses of human beings, rather than being a mass-produced entertainment product. Although on first glance it might seem that the idea of 'conveying a message' like this would be inimical to the ideal of player immersion, the truth is quite the opposite: in order to allow themselves to become immersed, the player has to trust the game and its authors not to cynically manipulate them. Little touches that communicate the game's bona fides, not despite but because of their separation from the core game loop, help immerse the player into it. Players who have become accustomed to that kind of reassurance will find themselves missing it in games that don't provide it.
Overall, then, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is going to have a significant impact on the market for open-world games. From its high production values to its innovative environmental play, players' expectations will be heightened and their palates made more discerning. It would be a rash developer who didn't bear the change in mind.