A masterclass in game design

During our webinar this week, I found my mind returning to Zelda at every discussion point. Not because I have been totally blown away by the game; but because it occurred to me that Zelda:Breath Of The Wild (BOTW) uses every hook I can think of to keep players playing, and more.

It has been nearly a decade since I last played a computer game—Red Dead Redemption in 2010 on PS3—having spent a lot of my youth enjoying growing up with fast improving technology. Yet once I picked up BOTW I was immediately transported back to my 12 year old self playing Super Mario 64 on a display machine in Beatties in Merry Hill shopping centre. There are very few games that provide an experience so memorable it never leaves you; in all honesty I never expected it to happen again, having “grown up” and no longer playing games. How did Zelda achieve this?


This is Zelda. It pulls on a history of outstanding games in the franchise and associated memories of gamers from way back in 1986 and the release of the first installment on the NES. I found myself looking forward to playing this game long before it was released—so much so that I actually pre-ordered the game and console to be sure that my little sister would be able to experience it on release day and continue a long-standing family tradition with Zelda. It is fair to say that I bought the console just for the game.


The story in BOTW is like taking part in a fantastic graphic novel; here the quality of writing is apparent as the main draw for the players. There is a great deal already written in the Zelda universe and there are complicated timelines to follow, so it is all the more commendable that the writers managed to create such a unique and engaging storyline yet were able to fit it in with previous tales.


This is how users play the game, from the controls to the menu system and the onscreen events. I was often put off by the complex controls in Red Dead Redemption; forgetting how to play the game was a common occurrence if I took a week or more off from playing. This simply won’t be the case in Zelda as the control scheme is intuitive and can even be customised to suit individual players. But the action itself is a delightful balance of hectic battles with multiple enemies, to extended periods of travel aroud the landscape using various means. It pulls on a wide set of emotions everytime you pick up the controls, and importantly always offers something new to those that look hard enough.


All the side quests in this game have relevance; the rewards for completing them are totally worth the effort it takes. It is not just a case of collecting for the sake of it, everything enhances the game experience. On another level, the lack of handholding throughout the game provides the player with huge rewards when completing challenges or figuring out the solutions to problems and puzzles.


This is a single player experience, make no mistake about it. However, when discussing the game with friends who have it, an interesting narrative develops. Great care must be taken not to reveal any spoilers—this is extremely difficult due to the incredible non-linear nature of the game and results in an almost coded discussion. Finding out that other people have completed the same areas as you but with totally different experiences makes you want to rush back to the game and try out new techniques.


To my amazement, an expansion pass was announced prior to the game even launching. At £17.99 I wrote it off immediately; I will rarely ever pay for mobile game, ever over £5. Yet BOTW was £60 itself and I was overjoyed to part with my money. It’s an interesting mindset which boils down to the simple fact that quality and reputation sells. As an aside, when Street Fighter II was launched on the SNES back in 1992 it was also £60—this converts to approximately £115 in today’s money.

Now, having played the game, I am in no doubt that I will buy the expansion pass. When you boil it down to pounds-per-hour I am already down to about £1.50 for BOTW; this will drop and drop. Too many mobile games front-load microtransactions and DLC without first offering a quality, finished product, leaving the user feeling cheated.


Zelda: Breath of the Wild was developed over a 5 year period by some of the best gaming minds in the world, with a huge marketing budget and an established fanbase. Regardless, the emphasis here is on quality. Tetris is quality; it was designed and built by one man. Quality sells; there are rarely any shortcuts to a successful product launch, you have to make sure you are doing things right and looking at all aspects of your application. Attention to detail is what separates good experiences from the bad.

Yeah, yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should. - Dr. Ian Malcolm ( Jurassic park [1993] )