Nintendo's subtle approach to player creativity with Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom | This Week In Business
Switch's epic is a masterclass in enabling self expression without building a game reliant on it
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Two things dominated industry discourse this week but let's be honest, who really wants yet another take on the ongoing circus that is Microsoft's proposed acquisition of Activision Blizzard – especially given that a) the EU's approval of the deal doesn't change anything while the CMA is determined to block it, and b) it's Friday.
Instead, let's turn our attention to what has been flooding our social media feeds all week. The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom.
Big companies talk a lot about player expression and creativity. Just last week, EA CEO Andrew Wilson told shareholders the publisher is investing more in "games as a platform," built around the tenets of "play, watch, create, connect." At a Ubisoft corporate event we attended in September, CEO Yves Guillemot said player expression was one of the key pillars behind its future games (apologies for not remembering his exact words, we had other things to discuss). And we can't overstate how many pitches we receive touting user-generated content as the future of games.
After all, just look at the evolution of one of the biggest games of the past decade. Fortnite almost entirely focuses on content creation. But at the risk of being cynical, a lot of efforts to enable player expression and creativity are done with the primary purpose of selling cosmetic items, or somehow monetising the work of your players (hello, Roblox). These companies have more players than staff so enabling the former to create new content helps relieve the pressure for the latter to do so.
Most games offering such an experience lead with it. Their initial announcement is filled with promises of users being able to build anything they can imagine, and perhaps to share that with other members of the community. We don't know much about Everywhere, the debut game from former Rockstar North boss Leslie Benzies, but from the off, we did know it was about player creation.
Nintendo took a different approach with The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. In fact, it wasn't until March 28, 2023 – less than two months before launch, and four years after it was announced – that Nintendo even talked about the Ultrahand and Fuse abilities (the mechanics for combining items and constructing new objects and vehicles) that prompted so many screenshots, videos, and livestreams from the game over the past seven days.
Players have been eagerly showing off their creations all week, from simple wagons to paddle boats, to a full-blown Armored Core-style mech. There's little point elaborating beyond these examples, because we're likely to be watching videos titled 'XX More Cool Things You Can Build In Zelda: Tears Of The Kingdom' for at least the next five years. And there's already a fan-made website where people can share their creations and learn how to build those devised by others.
(Obviously, there are more obscene examples – phallic boulder combinations used to take down a Hinox, walking statues with flamethrower penises, etc – but this is the nature of humankind. The 'time-to-penis ratio,' as developers have described it, is minimal and honestly what can we expect from the species that has already drawn male genitalia on another planet).
Link's abilities have captured the imagination in a way few games manage. Because Nintendo has, for once, relinquished a little control and allowed Zelda players to play how they want. It doesn't matter whether the aforementioned mech makes clearing out enemy camps much easier; it's fun, and that's what Nintendo wants to deliver.
Case in point: Nintendo has still not enabled players to pet the dogs you find around the world (something that has become an expectation among many players since a certain Twitter account gained popularity). That hasn't stopped some people from coming up with their own solutions. Why hand things to players on a plate and give them a button for an interaction when you can give them wooden sticks and a magic hand and let them figure it out in silly ways?
It's not just the use of Ultrahand and Fuse either. Even subtle features like the inclusion of coordinates on the mini-map allow players (and, no doubt, incredibly relieved guide writers) to share exact locations of their discoveries with friends.
This is not just Nintendo realising player expression and creativity is kind of a Big Deal (remember Animal Crossing?). It's showing that the platform holder has actually been paying attention to how people played Breath of the Wild.
Nintendo is not selling Zelda as a creation tool. You don't need to make a scale model of the Mary Celeste to cross a lake; a simple raft will do. But you can.
The Zelda team has clearly seen the constant stream of screenshots and videos on social media and forums, the exploits people have found to take down Lynels with ease, the way some people are able to travel high into the sky by stacking two minecarts on one another and magnetically lifting the lower one. They've clearly watched the endless stream of 'XX More Things You Didn't Know You Could Do In Breath Of The Wild' videos. And probably had a go at all of these themselves.
For all the talk of how viral Tears of the Kingdom can be thanks to its player-created vehicles and, yes, flamethrower penises, it's important to remember Breath of the Wild did this too. How many other Zelda games have people still sharing new tricks and tips six years after release? How many Nintendo games? (hello again, Animal Crossing) How many video games in general?
But here's the crucial difference: Nintendo is not selling Zelda as a creation tool, or a platform, or a metaverse, or whatever buzzword you'd care to insert here. It's still selling it as an adventure, as a game. It calls on players to save Hyrule, save Princess Zelda, defeat Ganondorf, not to dive in and create their own fun. It's optional. You don't need to make a scale model of the Mary Celeste to cross a lake; a simple raft will do. But you can.
Way back in the days of the Nintendo DS, there was a third-party game that was basically a copy of the built-in PictoChat messaging app, but with added bells and whistles. The headline of the press release for the game's announcement was along the lines of 'If you don't have fun with this game, you have no imagination.' That game has been completely forgotten.
The point is, enabling player creativity and expression is not about giving them the tools to make stuff and finding a way to monetise it. It's about giving them a reason to create, whether that's taking down hordes of monsters, traversing a vast world, or just let me pet that bloody dog dammit. Tears of the Kingdom delivers on that, granting players the tools to enhance an already epic adventure.
And it's working. Ten million sales in three days. Fastest-selling game in the franchise. Fastest-selling Nintendo game in history in Europe and the Americas. Second biggest boxed launch for Nintendo in the UK.
Get used to those Zelda tweets, because we'll be seeing a lot of them.
Final note: Spare a thought for the Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts team that tried to do this 15 years ago.
The rest of the week in review
(because we realised it's kinda our job to address the ongoing circus that is Microsoft's proposed acquisition of Activision Blizzard even on a Friday)
QUOTE | "These commitments fully address the competition concerns identified by the Commission and represent a significant improvement for cloud game streaming compared to the current situation" – It's in these words (emphasis original) that the European Commission described Microsoft's peace offerings regarding its proposed acquisition of Activision Blizzard, which the EU approved on Monday.
Microsoft promised a free ten-year licence to any consumers in the EEA to play Activision Blizzard games they own on a cloud gaming service of their choice, with cloud streaming services offered a similar ten-year deal to allow players to stream any of ABK's PC and console games. The Commission also ruled that the proposed acquisition doesn't endanger competition in the subscription services sector. Remember when the debate was about Call of Duty? Those were the days…
QUOTE | "The [European] Commission agreed the deal would give rise to competition concerns, there's no difference between the CMA and EC there. But the Commission has however concluded it appropriate to accept [Microsoft's] remedy. They have their own test to apply and they've reached their own view, and they're fully entitled to reach that view. But we remain of the view, from a UK perspective, that it was not appropriate to accept that remedy." – The CMA's chief executive Sarah Cardel throwing shade at the EU's decision, with chair Marcus Bokkerink also doubling down on the UK regulator's decision to block the deal to the tune of 'the UK is absolutely fine, everything is swell, why are y'all acting weird'. (Or, to quote his exact words: "I would challenge the premise that there is an impact on international confidence on doing business in the UK.")
STAT | $8 billion – The revenue spike that Take-Two expects to reach in 2025, as shared in this week's earnings call, with even CEO Strauss Zelnick agreeing that it's "uncharacteristic" for the company to share a forecast this far ahead in time. This immediately opened the 'omg it's gonna be GTA' valve everywhere online.
QUOTE | "We're not talking about specific titles." – The same Zelnick in an interview with our very own Brendan Sinclair when asked if Take-Two can reach $8 billion in revenues without a Grand Theft Auto. Alright then, keep your secrets, Take-Two…
STAT | $5.35 billion – The revenue Take-Two had to settle for in the GTA-6-less financial year of 2023. It was up 53% over FY22, led by good performances from titles including, you guessed it, Grand Theft Auto Online and Grand Theft Auto 5.
QUOTE | "I think for a period of time, some of the large players in the business took E3 for granted and decided to step away from the show, but still be in the publicity business at the same time and in the same location, and I think that is problematic. I think you either have to support the show, or there isn't going to be a show." – In the same conversation with Brendan Sinclair, the same Zelnick criticised key companies for taking E3 for granted.
STAT | 20 minutes and 15 seconds – The length of today's microcast (our new short-form podcast) in which Chris Dring and James Batchelor discuss Take-Two's history of supporting E3 even when it didn't have games to show. Although, ironically, Take-Two wasn't planning to go to E3 2023, likely because it didn't have enough games to show.
QUOTE | "E3, for the whole ecosystem of video games, is a leader, is a key event, so we are always looking at what happens in the US and especially during the period of E3. It's always bad news when E3 is disturbed. But E3 is not dead. Maybe they can create something new, [and] we are looking at that very seriously." – You can tell June is around the corner, with SELL's Nicolas Vignolles also telling us about E3's crucial role in the calendar in a chat about the future of Paris Games Week.
STAT | 1h – The length of Sony's upcoming PlayStation Showcase on May 24. Are we sure there's no E3 this year?
STAT | 29 – The number of employees laid off at CD Projekt-owned studio The Molasses Flood. For justification, the studio only said that "the project changed." CDP acquired the studio a bit over a year ago, following the announcement of a flurry of new Witcher projects including Project Sirius, which was meant to be The Molasses Flood's take on the hit series.
QUOTE | "We made a commitment to always prioritise the live game and all of the people playing it and to devote our development efforts there" – Game director Aaron Keller explaining why Overwatch 2 is ditching PvE Hero Mode, in a decision that wasn't met with kindness. The feature was originally announced in 2019.
QUOTE | "I can’t overstate the extent to which interest and excitement for what would be possible in the PvE content has helped to smooth over rough patches for Overwatch 2; how many times criticism or upset about the current state of the game or its monetisation has been blunted by being followed up with a statement to the effect of, 'I’m still really excited to see what happens with the PvE modes'." – Our contributing editor Rob Fahey explains exactly why the decision wasn't met with kindness in his weekly column entitled 'Will players tolerate Overwatch 2’s broken promises?'
STAT | 15% – The decrease in Ubisoft's sales compared to FY22 as per its annual financial report. Disappointing sales, game cancellations and a cost-cutting plan were the culprits in what CEO Yves Guillemot described as a "challenging" year.
QUOTE | "They have a, not huge, but a very dedicated fanbase. But looking just at the technology, where we're at now, and where we will be in a couple of years, it's just worlds apart. It's a little exaggeration if I say it's going to be like black and white movies to colour, but that's the approach I want to take. It's just a completely different world. I think they actually can co-exist...
"Even the most likely scenario is… for people just to move over, because the other one is an old game. It's not a bad game, but the industry moves on at some point, and it's a long time from their release to ours." – Amazon Games vice president Christoph Hartmann telling us why the long-running Lord of the Rings Online doesn't have to worry about Amazon's second attempt at making an MMO based on the beloved IP. We can't help but raise an eyebrow at the "It's not a bad game, but…" tone, with the thing somehow reading as "Who cares if they sink? We can do it better because we're rich."
QUOTE | "We wanted to give everyone in the community an update and assure you all that LOTRO is not going away!" – The Lord of the Rings Online developer Standing Stone Games reassured its players that the title isn't going anywhere.
STAT | 128 – The number of weeks it took for the Xbox Series S and X to sell two million units in the UK, generating £696 million in the process. According to UK data firm GfK, it is the eighth fastest home console to reach this number and is one place ahead of the Nintendo Switch, which reached two million sales in 140 weeks. The PS5 is No.4 in this oddly specific list, having reached the figure in 98 weeks, but everyone is far behind the beloved Wii, which achieved this feat in 57 weeks.
Additional contributions by Marie Dealessandri
Disclaimer. GamesIndustry.biz parent ReedPop was the organiser of E3 2023