Game Design Feed

Zelda Facets (5): Horses

Last week, the unique experience of fighting with ephemeral weapons. This week, one of the most outstanding features of the Zelda franchise: its horses. Contains a major narrative spoiler for Shadow of the Colossus.

Zelda HorseDuring one of Corvus Elrod’s Blogs of the Round Table events, near the very beginning of my time as a blogger, I laid my cards upon the table concerning my love of videogame horses. It all began with Ocarina of Time, one of my least favourite Zelda games that was nonetheless entirely redeemed by the presence of the first great videogame horse – Epona. There had been horses in 2D games before this, Mike Fahey mentions the Atari 2600 game Stampede as his first, but polygonal 3D animations give a sense of presence to equine models that hugely transcends anything that sprite animations can achieve, and riding Epona through Hyrule in 1998 was an unforgettable experience.

It is apparent from the moment the N64 game begins that the horse is the star of the show, with the attract sequence focusing on Epona riding across Hyrule to the gentle strains of music by Koji Kondo, who wrote the iconic score for Ocarina of Time and a great many other Nintendo classics. According to an interview with Eiji Aonuma for Nintendo Power celebrating the ten year anniversary of the game, Epona became part of the project largely because Shigeru Miyamoto likes horses. Pegasus Shoes had been considered for travel prior to that point, but Miyamoto-san was keen on having something to interact with. According to a 2011 Iwata Asks, while the motivation came from the original Zelda master himself, it was up to Yoshiaki Koizumi, now Deputy General Manager of EAD, but then 3D System Director, to make the idea work. Apparently, it had first been explored as an idea for Super Mario 64 and had not proved practical at the time, but Koizumi-san persisted in producing a technical demo that cleared the way for the horse to star in Ocarina of Time.

It was Koizuma-san who came up with the name Epona, after the goddess of horses and fertility in Celtic mythology, having apparently been briefly called ‘Ao’, a Japanese word for a blue-green colour with no equivalent word in English, associated with horses because of the exceptionally rare blue roan coloration. An inherent design tension is apparent in the implementation of Epona: on the one hand, Miyamoto-san had dictated that “a Legend of Zelda game doesn’t need any difficult actions”, hence the horse jumps automatically. On the other, the Zelda-creator felt that simply riding the horse wouldn’t be fun without some kind of action, so the horse was given a set of carrots that allowed the player to make the horse go faster, but when none were left it was not possible to jump. It is within this tension – actions that are easy to take but require finesse to use well – that all Zelda games pitch their challenges. 

Epona was a huge success with players – who had almost certainly never wanted a game with a horse before this moment – and she reappears in Majora’s Mask (the direct sequel), although has something of a lesser role because the temporal structure of that game tends to de-emphasise the physical space of the world. With Wind Waker, however, a new ‘mount’ was tried in the form of a beautifully implemented sailing boat, the King of Red Lions, but despite the aesthetic success of this design it was not to appear in the franchise again. Likewise, Skyward Sword features a flying mount called a Loftwing, that is unique to that game and does not appear elsewhere. These experiments in alternative mounts are interesting in their own right (especially the King of Red Lions), but the franchise keeps returning to horses as the mount of preference.

In Twilight Princess, Epona makes another appearance (although the player has the capacity to rename her in this game), with far more advanced implementation. In Ocarina of Time, it was possible to fire the bow from horseback but not fight. For Twilight Princess, mounted combat is a significant part of the game, and the final battle against Ganondorf occurs on horseback with Princess Zelda sat behind Link upon Epona’s back. As with the earlier game, Link has the capacity to call his trusty steed and icons to make her gallop faster, but these are now styled as spurs rather than carrots, an iconography that recurs with Breath of the Wild.

While it is possible to get Epona in the newest Zelda game by using a Link Amiibo to unlock her, Breath of the Wild features a far more expansive horse system. Indeed, the implementation of horses in this new game is the most complex and engaging of any videogame ever made, and one of the great triumphs of the development team’s work in this iteration. This is particularly apparent during the time that players are building up their relationship with a new horse, since the mount behaves quite convincingly like a wild horse that has already been broken in (that is, become comfortable with a rider). Rather than the horse simply following the player’s instructions, it resists according to its own fears and concerns, being reluctant to go down certain routes, cross the most precarious bridges, or to ride too fast in some areas. The experience of riding during this rather brief window with a new horse is deeply rewarding in terms of the play aesthetics, creating a real sense of partnership between horse and rider, comparable to authentic horse riding in many respects. Of course, if the player treats game horses as cars on legs, they will be frustrated or disappointed. But for someone such as myself with a lifelong love of videogame horses, Breath of the Wild raised the bar absurdly high.

Yet despite this remarkable developmental success, horses are entirely undermined within the game by the fast travel system, which allows players to revisit at will any of the 120 Shrines, 15 towers, or 3 special locations simply by selecting them from the map. Unlike any Zelda before, this capacity to travel instantly to just about anywhere the player has already visited is available from very nearly the beginning of the game (strictly, from the moment the first tower is activated). This makes travelling by horseback of extremely limited use: while there are places (such as Kakariko village) that can be reached more easily for the first time by horse, this is offset by the fact that when travelling a route for the first time there is a great deal to find and the player is unlikely to feel comfortable simply riding through, ignoring everything on the way. Indeed, in the case of Kakariko, if the player ride there for the first time (as I did) you miss out on the encounter with Hestu, the Korok character who provides the essential capacity to expand the player’s inventories, and for which there is absolutely no funnelling to ensure the player will locate him afterwards.

A generous interpretation of this situation is that it honours the player’s agency in giving them the choice of whether to ride or not to ride. But a pragmatic analysis of the way the game functions suggests that there is no real choice here: riding is inferior in terms of travel time when revisiting (since the fast travel is instantaneous) and disadvantageous when first exploring, because either nothing is found or the player must stop constantly and dismount. There are a handful of side quests that require horses to complete, but beyond these all the beauty and charm of the mounted systems are essentially wasted in Breath of the Wild, having been undermined by the sheer immediacy of travelling directly to any of the 138 locations on the map that can offer a lazy immediacy of access.

In my own case, my initial joy at exploring the horse system was short lived, but I was bowled over by the impact of the first encounter with wild horses. The game asks the player to capture untamed horses by sneaking up to them and then surviving a ‘bucking bronco’ challenge where success is directly proportional to Link’s current Stamina (or supply of Stamina-restoring meals…). There follows perhaps half an hour of riding time where the horse possesses tremendous personality and identity. After this, the horse behaves much like a horse in any other contemporary AAA game (e.g. Assassin’s Creed: Origins) with the capacity to follow paths on their own but otherwise little identity. Don’t get me wrong, they are still enormous fun to ride – but all the unique aesthetic moments the horse system provides are under-represented or squeezed out of relevance.

However, after completing the game for the first time, I made a personal commitment to the horses and for the next ten hours or so did not use the fast travel system for anything. I wanted to experience what the Hyrule of Breath of the Wild was truly like as a mounted adventure – and was extremely satisfied by this experience, which took me more or less everywhere that it is possible to ride a horse. I was particularly impressed, for instance, that it is possible to reach the elusive Korok settlement in Great Hyrule Forest with a horse, despite the difficult problems posed by crossing the mysterious and spooky maze that is the Lost Woods. These were some of my most enjoyable hours with the game, in part because I was freed from its compulsive grip (having already competed it) and felt empowered to enjoy the world for what it was.

There is, however, one last aspect of the horses that provides a significant advantage and that might cause some players to find keeping up their equestrian practices worthwhile. Upon horseback, jumping rockets the player into the air to a degree equivalent to using a stuntman’s trampette. Since the game allows the player access to ‘bullet time’ when drawing their bow in the air (but never on the ground), horses provide the most reliable access to these time-slowing capacities, which can be especially useful when fighting the dreaded Guardian Stalker enemies, whose beam weapons are fatal in the early game and remain nasty all the way through. This small silver lining provides a reason – beyond the sheer aesthetic pleasure of riding – to traverse the beautiful lands of Hyrule upon the back of a horse.

One final point is worth mentioning. Horses can die. This provided the most shocking moment of any Zelda game I have ever played, when a routine expedition along a coastal path went horribly wrong as I took a narrow path too rapidly and my mount stumbled, fell down the cliff, and died. Even knowing that the developers had provided an option for resurrection via a convenient Horse Goddess, I was hurt and humbled by realising that I had brought this imaginary horse’s life to an end. This was radically more upsetting than the death of Agro in Shadow of the Colossus, since that event happens in a pre-scripted cut scene (and thus not as a result of player action), and was also not much of a surprise to me as an experienced game writer. Losing a horse in Zelda, though – that was a powerful and distressing moment, one that forever changed the way I rode around Hyrule. I was not, and still am not, willing to let another of my beautiful fictitious horses die as a result of my carelessness and this serves as another reminder of the incredible polish evident in the horse system in Breath of the Wild. What a shame that it is also so cruelly undermined by the overall design.  

Next week, the final part: Zelda

Zelda Facets (4): Weapons

Last week, why the newest incarnation of Hyrule is not a traditional open world at all. This week, the changing face of weapons in the Zelda series.

Lynel duelOne thing and only one thing remains consistent across the various armouries of the Zelda series: Link is armed with a sword, a shield, and a bow. There may be other weapons – a boomerang, for instance, or a slingshot – but the certainty that Link’s standard compliment of weapons is a sword and a bow remains unchanged until Breath of the Wild. Similarly, it is not until the latest Zelda that the game features a dynamic inventory capable of holding a variety of items: up until this point, every Zelda game has a static set of items and the only question is whether the player has acquired a specific item or not. This is an element of the Zelda practices that few other games have copied, and the change in the latest game is one of the few cases of Zelda apparently moving towards a more conventional videogame practice and giving up its own unique ways of doing things.

In all the Zelda games prior to Breath of the Wild, there has been a core sequence of blades – typically some kind of starting sword (just called ‘Sword’ in The Legend of Zelda, later Fighter’s Sword, Kokiri Sword, Hero’s Sword, Wooden Sword, or Practice Sword) that later progresses in one or more steps to the Master Sword, which made its first appearance in A Link to the Past. Wind Waker allowed Link the capacity to pick up weapons wielded by enemies for the first time, but it did not permit him to keep them, while Skyward Sword, which is set at the earliest point in the Zelda timeline, is effectively the story of the forging of the Master Sword and thus has a sequence of swords that represent the steps along this path (Goddess Sword, Goddess Longsword, Goddess White Sword, Master Sword, and finally True Master Sword).

In some respects, as already noted, Breath of the Wild moves towards conventional CRPG practices with its grid inventory that holds weapons, shields, and bows for the player to choose between. Yet at the same time, something very unusual happens in the new Zelda in terms of the weapons breaking and disappearing. Weapon durability is hardly a new element in videogames, and even within the franchise it appeared in Ocarina of Time in the form of the Giant’s Knife that breaks after a handful of hits or in Majora’s Mask with the Razor Sword, which returns to the Master Sword after one hundred swings. But the usual way weapon durability is dealt with in videogames involves weapons breaking when durability expires, and then the player taking steps to fix them e.g. weapon repair kits and blacksmiths in The Witcher 3. Controversially, given some players’ highly negative reaction to weapon durability, Breath of the Wild has weapons that break and are gone for good – subverting conventional player practices to such a degree that it creates a play experience almost no player is prepared for.

How powerfully an individual player is affected by this depends on their prior experiences and expectations, but for many of us who would ordinarily avoid a game that would not let us keep our beloved toys, the impact of the weapon system is akin to the five stages of grief. First, anger: they couldn’t possibly have thought this was a good idea, could they? (They did.) Then, denial: these are just the starting weapons, the later weapons won’t break (they do), and surely the Master sword won’t break? (it does, well, it takes long naps at least.) Then, fear: how am I going to keep supplied with weapons, they’re breaking faster than I can find them! (Until you start finding reliable places to get good weapons, which both last a long time and require fewer hits to do the same job.) Then, exhaustion: just how much of my time is going to go into keeping me supplied with weapons? (As much as it takes to get you through thinking of weapons as a fixed resource). Finally, impatience: why aren’t my weapons breaking fast enough to make room for more cool weapons?

Provided you adapt to the player practices the inventory system implies, and don’t fall permanently into one of these disgruntled intermediate states, the result is an experience quite unlike anything else that is out there. Like the best of the previous Zelda combat systems, namely Wind Waker and Twilight Princess, the new battle design is simple but still allows the player tremendous mastery when they get to grips with it – and once you do, the experience of fighting in Breath of the Wild transcends anything else in the space of games that are seeking to offer an accessible combat balance (rather than, say, risk-reward challenges e.g. Dark Souls, Monster Hunter). With the core skills under your belt, the weapons cease to matter because you can kill a Keese with a tree branch, overcome a Lizalfos camp starting with a single bow and one Shock arrow, or take down a Lynel with just a couple of half-decent weapons in your inventory. I am not a player with a particular taste for victory in battle, I’m much more of an explorer than a conqueror – but even I became obsessed with mastering each of the foes, and can happily retake a Major Test of Strength over and over again, just to enjoy my own martial prowess. And I doubt, frankly, that I’m really that good at the combat in the game.

It is important to appreciate what the weapon-grind brings to the game that would be impossible without it. If the weapons were all permanent, the player would rapidly exhaust interest in the vast majority of the available blades since the best weapons acquired are the only ones you need. This is a problem I struggle with again and again in the design of my own CRPGs because you want the player to get new weapons, but new weapons invalidate the old ones, which become just things to sell. Not in Breath of the Wild: there’s a role for almost all weapons, as some monsters fall easily to certain types… even the weakest spear is a perfect choice to defend against Keese, a single hit from an Iron Sledgehammer shatters any Pebblit, and a fire weapon instantly slays an ice enemy. You want to keep a balanced armoury so you have the right tool for the right job, but in a pinch a skilled player can make just about any weapon work long enough to get more weapons. You do not hoard weapons like a collector in this game, the weapons flow through Link and you enjoy their passage the moment you get over your certainty that it would be better if they didn’t break.

Instead, all the weapons are interesting, even the terrible weapons up to a point (my son is forever asking me what I can take out with a tree branch), and unlike any CRPG that could be named, the player can rise – and fall – in power as rapidly as they can locate and pick up a powerful blade and then break it. What’s more, this reinforces the open structure which, as discussed last week, is far more open than the conventional open world formula. Thus, the very real possibility of completing the Great Plateau and then immediately making a bee-line for the Calamity Ganon (yes, it’s a silly name – Zelda has always been chock full of silly boss names). The weapons inside Hyrule Castle, where the final boss can be found, are stronger than anywhere else in the game so if you possess the skills to survive there without Hearts to protect you (or, equally possible, you have quickly acquired meals that supply you with a lot of bonus yellow Hearts), it becomes possible to grow in power near-instantaneously and be ready to win the game in just a few hours. Provided, of course, you already spent many times that much time learning where everything in Hyrule is, and mastering anything Link needs to be able to do.

As mentioned, however, the system can be extremely tiring once you have learned reliable places to get good weapons, but lack the confidence that you will be able to make do with the kit that you have brought with you plus whatever you happen to find along the way. The result – as with the collection of cooking ingredients that initially motivates but later risks rendering parts of the exploration rather passé – is an exhaustion with the process of keeping the weapons stocked up. This is rooted less in the design, however, than in the player’s desire to control the inventory as if the weapons do not break. Once the disposability of the weaponry becomes as natural as jumping in a platform game, there is no way to be exhausted by the inventory management because it doesn’t matter. Half decent weapons are everywhere, excellent weapons are not hard to find, and brilliant weapons are not worth obsessing over because hey, they’re going to break too.

If there is a tangible flaw with this arrangement it could be that new players, especially younger players with less videogame experience to draw against, face almost insurmountable problems learning to fight because all of the early weapons do very little damage and break with absurd ease the moment Link touches them. (I guess Link must be holding them wrong, because they never break in the enemy’s hands!) Against this, the only hope of redemption is owning any of the many Hyrule-themed Amiibo, since the daily chest drops from these supply weapons that, while mediocre to an experienced player, are a godsend to starting players, raising them far above the bar required to get the ball rolling. (I found several Zelda Amiibo in a $5 bargain bin in Knoxville, TN, the month Breath of the Wild released, some of which were selling on eBay for close to a hundred dollars at the time – much to my smug satisfaction.)

As this discussion highlights, this audacious piece of design is not for everyone. Players who cannot make their peace with the idea of weapons breaking will be in a perpetual hell of emotional insecurity punctuated with the endless cursing that happens when yet another of your weapons breaks. But remember, you are not some suburban nerd collecting weapons as if they were trading cards: you are Link. Your tenacity is his courage, and your knowledge of Hyrule is the weapon that can never be taken away from you. If you wish for permanence, claim the Master Sword that is your birth right and make sure you carry something in reserve for when it gets tuckered out and needs a nap. The Link of Breath of the Wild is a master of any and all weapons. Accept their impermanence, and you shall be too.

Next week: Horses

Zelda Facets (3): Hyrule

Last week, how the player’s tenacity is represented in Link’s courage. This week, how the character of Link is inseparable from the world of Hyrule. Contains minor spoilers for Breath of the Wild.

Hyrule PaintingIn John Boorman’s 1981 retelling of the Arthurian mythos, Excalibur, the secret of the grail is that ‘the land and the king are one’. This motto could equally apply to narrative videogames, where the player character and the world is inseparable precisely because the avatar – the player’s capacity to take action in the fictional setting of the game – links the player to the world via a representation of a character (often a visual model, effectively a digital doll). As we saw last week, in the mind of current Zelda franchise master Eiji Aonuma Link’s name is precisely a reference to his role in linking the player to the world of Hyrule.

The elegance of the Zelda franchise’s solution to the problems entailed in facilitating avatars is such that it has many imitators, although it is worth noting that the 1986 Metroid – released by Nintendo in the same year as the original Legend of Zelda – has essentially the same relationship between character and world. It can be described as follows: the character starts with only the capacity to explore and to defend themselves (or, equivalently, to enact violence but without a huge degree of efficacy). Through exploration and survival, the player overcomes challenges that grant them an increase in their power, which can involve making the character tougher, increasing their capacity for violence, or granting them a way to access parts of the world that were previously inaccessible. Once the player has acquired sufficient powers in this way, they have a final showdown that tests their ability to deploy all the powers of their character, after which the game story concludes.

If this reads like a description of any videogame, this is a mirage caused by the extent to which this structure has permeated the player practices of digital entertainment. Note that in a Mario game, there is no gradual acquisition of power, and neither was this the case in arcade games, which were not able to pursue exploration because of the time limitations of the coin-drop economy. Similarly, the classic CRPG structure does not necessitate the relationship between overcoming challenges and gaining power, since experience systems permit players to grind against weaker monsters to increase their power and these games almost never increase the character’s capacity to access new parts of the world that is central to both the Zelda and Metroid structures. It is also worth remembering that while there were earlier save game mechanisms, The Legend of Zelda and Metroid had ratcheted progress that was entirely novel in its day, for all that we take it for granted now. This developed in time into an elegant unified save system, and then in Breath of the Wild to an innovative set of six autosaves that allow the player to restore any time in the last few hours without any requirement for the player to manually manage their save library.

In the Hyrule of The Legend of Zelda back in 1986, the increases of power that are central to the formula of the franchise are acquired from within dungeons, which are hidden around the world. Although the player is unaware of it, there is an implied sequence of these dungeons, but this order can be easily subverted – the first few can be done in any order, while the later dungeons require tools acquired in a different dungeon in order to progress. This made progressing in the first Legend of Zelda much more of a puzzle than in either Metroid or any Zelda that followed, and is the reason it is sometimes described (somewhat misleadingly) as an open world. In Aonuma-san’s recent interview with Game Kult, the point was raised that he found the original game too stingy with its clues, while in a Game Informer interview during the promotion of Skyward Sword, he noted that it was the exploration in the third Zelda game, A Link to the Past, that really drew him in – and set his career on its path.

Even under Shigeru Miyamoto’s control, the Zelda franchise was to move away from the obscurity required to complete the original game and into a comfortable formula that addressed this problem. This entailed a fixed sequence of dungeons, each containing a new tool that was required to complete it and that afterwards provided access to new parts of the world, including the next dungeon. Thus bombs that could blow holes in damaged walls, a hookshot that allowed crossing gaps, or a blue tunic that allowed Link to breathe underwater. This concept is already there in the original game, what is new is the strict sequence making it more apparent what is expected of the player, and thus reducing the obscurity of the puzzles – as well as opening up the games to a far wider audience. (I confess, that while I did complete the original The Legend of Zelda this was only in retrospect; my first Zelda game was A Link to the Past and if the puzzles had been more obscure than they were it mighthave ended my interest in the franchise then and there. In Ocarina of Time, the puzzles very nearly ruined my enjoyment of the game entirely.)

With Breath of the Wild, the formula that had sustained the Zelda franchise since the beginning was completely subverted. The tools required to overcome puzzles are not paced out over the length of the game but delivered to the player in the first few hours, within the Great Plateau that serves as the tutorial area for the game. Rather than dungeons being in a strict sequence with each one unlocking a new capacity, the four dungeons in the latest game – the Divine Beasts – each provide the player two extremely useful advantages (one that applies to the entire world, and another that weakens the final boss) but completing these challenges is entirely optional. Indeed, nothing prevents the player from completing the Great Plateau and then proceeding to defeat the boss straight away, something that was on paper possible in some earlier videogames (such as the original Fallout) but which has become exceptionally rare, and certainly was never possible in any previous Zelda, including the 1986 original.

Much discussion around Breath of the Wild has focused upon the claim that it has moved closer to the practices of the open world genre, typified by the structure established by Grand Theft Auto III (as discussed in the introduction to this serial). But this is a mistake: almost nothing that the new Zelda does is in the form that is codified and conserved by the mainstream open world genre. This is most apparent in the narrative design, which in the GTAIII formula is a chain of waypoints some of which require challenges to overcome, and which are often arranged in an act structure with separate terrain allocated to each act. Whether Vice City and San Andreas in 2002 and 2004 or Witcher III in 2015, this structure remains fundamentally unchanged. Yet Breath of the Wild does not use this narrative design at all, and instead invents an entirely new structure with two parallel elements, both of which are entirely optional to completing the game. The first of these are the memories, which we will discuss when we get to the question of Zelda herself. The second are the Shrines, which represent a total subversion of the standard Zelda character advancement structure, and a corresponding new vision for Hyrule itself.

Shrines are equivalent to individual rooms within dungeons in any earlier Zelda game i.e. they present either a puzzle, a combat challenge, or just a straight reward to the player. In the standard Zelda formula, dungeons are intricate puzzle boxes, much admired by fans of such things, such that the elegance of the design often transcends the individual rooms. The Divine Beasts retain this dungeon structure, and are an excellent example of the form, although as already noted – unlike every preceding Zelda – you don’t have to complete any of them. The same is true of the Shrines: the player must complete the four Shrines on the Great Plateau, after which they do not need to complete any Shrines to finish the game. If your interest as a player does not include puzzles, you can just complete the combat shrines (as I did in my second playthrough), and if you don’t like fighting you can just focus on puzzles, but if you simply want to explore the world you can bypass all but the first four Shrines. True, you will face a much tougher challenge in the final fight if you do not complete any Shrines, since the Spirit Orbs you earn from them are tremendously helpful. But all challenges except the first four Shrines and the final boss fight in Breath of the Wild are optional. This is not the standard open world structure at all, but an entirely new and innovative structure, unlike anything we’ve seen before.

This freedom comes with a significant cost. Side quests in Zelda have always held the possibility of getting either a Piece of Heart (a quarter of a health container in every Zelda except Twilight Princess, which unwisely inflated this to five) or an Empty Bottle (that is, a significant inventory expansion). In Breath of the Wild, every side quest is entirely irrelevant from the perspective of powering up the player character since Heart containers and Stamina vessels are earned from Spirit Orbs acquired exclusively in Shrines, and inventory expansion is achieved by finding Koroks, solving a relatively simple puzzle or challenge and then trading the seeds they give you for equipment slots by speaking to the musically-minded Korok giant Hestu. There are side quests that earn Shrines, and a side quest that earns a useful item of clothing, but to a surprisingly great degree, completing side quests has been downgraded in Breath of the Wild to the single least important element of the challenges the player is afforded. For the first time, Link can be played as a total misanthrope... the other people in Hyrule barely matter in terms of the design.

Another aspect of the new structure is the way the game copes with the massive size of Hyrule. In point of fact, Hyrule has always been – from the very beginning – laid out as a patchwork quilt of different encounters. A monster here, a hazard there, a hidden chest here, a Great Fairy Fountain there, someone to talk to here, a town over there, a dungeon over here. The world of Hyrule is a carefully curated distribution of things to find, fight, talk to, or puzzle over. With Breath of the Wild, the sheer enormity of the world makes it far harder to maintain an even distribution of content – even allowing for 120 Shrines to discover and 900 Korok mini-puzzles. Building on the collection element introduced in Skyward Sword, where the player is rewarded for stockpiling ingredients and monster parts that are acquired from various enemies and locations, the new Zelda spaces out monsters, group-fights, secondary bosses, Koroks, and Shrines with areas to forage for cooking ingredients and hunting zones with non-monster animals that provide meat (which is also the most effective way to earn money within the game, excluding a few mini-game exploits). The result is that as long as the player remains interested in the collection, they can set out on any route at all and discover things worth finding.

The downside to this is that as soon as the player ceases to be engaged in the collection, the intrinsic greed that originally kept them searching falls by the wayside and the longer journeys can begin to become tiresome unless the player is able to enjoy the sheer aesthetic beauty of the landscape – and this becomes much tougher when the player is intermittently accosted by enemies. In the early stages of the game, the rewards for searching are substantial since the player’s lack of capabilities makes cooking for meals and elixirs that boost their abilities or restore Hearts or Stamina utterly invaluable. As the player completes Shrines and earns Heart containers – and even more so as they acquire Stamina containers – they gain in power (as the essence of Zelda requires) but consequently lose motivation to engage in gathering. A sense of fatigue therefore sets in at some point during the process of play for almost all players (an experience remarked upon by Jed Pressgrove in his review), one that either encourages them to achieve completion and make a break from the game, or requires them to think differently about their play from then on in.

One last aspect of the new Hyrule is important to discuss: climbing. Aonuna-san, in numerous interviews in connection with Breath of the Wild, stresses the importance of the climbing experience to the game, aligning with the Japanese marketing message of “Climb, live, protect” as the essence of this new title. In the Game Kult interview, he notes:

From the beginning of the adventure, Link is able to climb high enough to allow you, once you reach the summit, to observe the landscape and head for the place that caught your eye using the paraglider. This loop made of climbing, contemplating and gliding is the essence of exploration in this Zelda, and I really wanted to make getting lost in this world a pleasure.

Although climbing has been a part of Zelda since Ocarina of Time, it takes on an entirely new meaning in Breath of the Wild both because this Hyrule has been carefully designed for it (as the above quote attests) and because of the limited Stamina. Thus, in the early stages of the game, climbing functions as a puzzle with players required to identify ledges to rest upon in order to complete difficult ascents (or, alternatively, stockpiling meals or elixirs that restore Stamina, costing the player their time and effort). Great flexibility comes into play here, with each climb offering either an environmental puzzle to solve or a logistical supply issue to address. Then, in keeping with the essence of Link as the character who gains in power as the player persists, acquiring Stamina vessels makes every climb radically more manageable, until the experienced player can effortlessly defeat any mountain in a manner parallel to the way they defeat a strong enemy, through the combination of Link having grown in power, and the player having grown in skill. Some players may object to the restrictions that Stamina applies to climbing in this game – but no-one can justifiably complain that it is not in keeping with the spirit of Zelda as a franchise.

As with Boorman’s King Arthur, Link and Hyrule are one – the capacities the player acquires for Link through their persistent overcoming of challenges and puzzles only make sense in the context of a world that yields to that increase in power. While Breath of the Wild mostly disrupts the standard Zelda model of providing new tools that grant new ways to exert increased agency, the Stamina system provides a unique way of making climbing parallel to combat and exploration, creating a Hyrule that offers more capacity for exploration and mastery than any before. In providing the player choices to apply their skills and the powers they have earned, the new game continues the traditions of the Zelda franchise, while simultaneously carving out an entirely new approach to open worlds.

Next week: Weapons

Zelda Facets (2): Link

Last week, the production history of the Zelda franchise. This week, we examine whether Link is a character, and how he is used in Breath of the Wild.

Link and the Master SwordAccording to an interview with Shigeru Miyamoto in 2012, the original concept for the 1986 Legend of Zelda had involved the triforce being electronic chips from the future, and the hero of that game was thus a link between the past and the future. However, Eiji Aonuma, who took over the series from Miyamoto-san, provided an alternative explanation in a 2007 interview (quoted by Darrin W. Harr in a discussion of Link’s role and identity) that is more consistent with how the character has developed across the years:

When a player is playing a Zelda game, my desire is for the player to truly become Link — that’s why we named him Link, so the player is linked to the game and to the experience. Of course, the player can always change Link’s name to their own name to further that notion should they want.

On this understanding, the name ‘Link’ has a parallel to the term ‘avatar’ that, with some debt to the Ultima player character with that name, has been used to discuss the connection between players and the fictional world of games. However, the avatar concept is easily misunderstood. As I discuss in Imaginary Games, the term avatar describes the player’s capacity to act within the fictional world, but it is used most often to describe the in-game model of the player character, the doll that is being played with. Since not all videogames that allow the player agency in an imaginary world have visual representations, the avatar cannot necessarily be something visual. The term stands for the link between the player and the game – hence Link – and that can cause problems when the avatar is also a character.

Broadly speaking, there is a spectrum of approaches to the player character within videogames from a clearly defined character (in the narrative sense) that the player is invited to take on as their persona – Ryu in Shenmue is an excellent example – to a mask that the player wears that lets them act out in the world – Gordon Freeman in Half-Life, for instance, who has almost none of the qualities that would be ascribed to a character in the way this term is used in discussions of narrative, and is really only there as a surrogate for the player and not as a character, per se. Typically, this leads to a perverse schizophrenia. C.J. in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, for instance (and any other GTA player character for that matter), is a mask for most of the time the player is in the world of the game but then transforms into a character for the cut scenes. There is almost no fidelity at all between the player’s thuggish antics and CJ’s personality. In other words, a mask is an avatar through which the player acts out, while a player character is an avatar that asks the player to role-play; combining the two by distancing the player from the character (by having all narrative aspects of the character occur solely in cut scenes) is schizophrenic, although also ‘business at usual’ in contemporary videogames.

Link is a particularly interesting case because with the singular exception of Skyward Sword, Link is not developed significantly as a narrative character but functions primarily as a mask for the player to act out with. Yet Link does not fall into the schizophrenia of the GTA franchise and its imitators, nor the player-led genericism of Elder Scrolls that defines a role for the player but lets the character fulfilling that role exist solely in the player head (which, all considered, is a perfectly reasonable solution to this problem). Link is a mask who remains consistent with the character he is intended to be. In other words, Link the character – Link the denizen of Hyrule – is designed to be consistent with Link the mask – Link the avatar of the player. The alignment is never perfect, of course, but the fidelity between avatar and character in the case of Link is better than in the vast majority of games.

Tied up in this is the fact that Link is not an adult. His age in all the Zelda games varies from 9 to 17 years of age. He is never an adult, in part because no adult could be excused from the relentless smashing of pots in search of rupees (or arrows in Breath of the Wild) that Link doggedly pursues under the player’s guidance. Link behaves badly because the player behaves badly, but everything that the player can do with Link (with any Link in any Zelda game) is consistent with this idea of who Link is, namely a rather unruly teenager. The series even disrupts the player’s expectations in this respect by occasionally having a character challenge Link about their anti-social behaviour. Thus Mila’s father in Wind Waker charges the player rupees for the pots they smash in his house – much to the shock of the player! – and Pumm, the landlord of the Lumpy Pumpkin in Skyward Sword, blows his top when the player breaks his chandelier in order to get a Piece of Heart, and indentures link into a delivery boy in order for him to repay his debt.

Of course, the reason for the close alignment between player and character in the case of Link is that the qualities that are ascribed to Link the character are either the qualities that we can expect the player to show because they are a mask (and thus free to act out) or those that the player must possess to play him effectively. In that latter case, we’re talking about qualities that players are expected to possess if they hope to succeed in most challenge-oriented videogames (which Zelda always is), but which are (uniquely) represented as the character in the case of Link. Most significant here is that Link has, as it is described in Skyward Sword, an “unbreakable spirit” – which is to say, the player must keep going, and Link is undaunted by any challenge that faces him. (Conversely, in my CRPG scripts, I sometimes have the player character comment on the absurdity of the challenges that the world is throwing at them, and mock the player’s willingness to keep participating in the charade.)

In the world of a Zelda game, Link is associated with the Triforce of Courage and the fearlessness it embodies, but as a player, no such virtue could be implied because the player is never in any risk. Rather, Link’s courage and “unbreakable spirit” is embodied in the player’s tenacity in continuing to play the game – and rewarded by Link constantly improving his capabilities as they progress together through the challenges they are facing. This is the essence of a Zelda game, as confirmed by an interview in French for Game Kult (translated by a reader at Nintendo Everything), which raises the point that Miyamoto-san (the old master) and Aonuma-san (the apprentice becoming master) had always debated what the core of The Legend of Zelda might be:

It’s indeed always a source of debate with Mr. Miyamoto, simply because we both think about what defines Zelda and we’re not always on the same page. We eventually agreed this year, when we went to New York for a promotion tour. As we were talking, Mr. Miyamoto found the right words by saying that the essence of The Legend of Zelda is an environment where Link evolves and gains power, which the players will directly feel through the actions they can take as the story goes on.

Thus the acquisition of Heart Containers in all Zelda games is symbolic of the player having overcome challenges to gain in strength, and so too with Pieces of Heart for which commitment to exploration often replaces challenge-completion. The green Magic Meter (although white in Adventure of Link where it first appears) and the green Stamina gauge that replaces it from Skyward Sword, are also typically improved by the player’s continued persistence – in Breath of the Wild, Pieces of Heart being replaced with Spirit Orbs that can be used to acquire either Heart Containers or Stamina vessels. The Game Kult interview suggests that Stamina might have been adopted from Shadow of the Colossus, and Aonuma-san’s reply to this question is telling:

It’s funny that you’re mentioning this game, because we are friends with Mr. Ueda and he’s always said that he wanted to make a game like Zelda – hence the similarities in Shadow of the Colossus. Mr Ueda was kind enough to send me a copy of The Last Guardian late last year and as I was playing it, I could notice the moments when you climb on Trico’s head to find a path, and jump to reach places that were inaccessible from the height you were at. Without seeing each other or talking about it, I realize we had the same idea. It’s amusing to see we had the same inspirations, the same gameplay velleities at different times.

What can be seen here is the point made last week about the insular quality of the development practices of the Zelda team at Nintendo EAD: Aonuma-san barely plays any other games, and remains utterly embedded in the player practices of this one franchise. Shadow of the Colossus, as he alludes, has parallels to Zelda because Fumita Ueda is also participating in the player practices of Zelda; the idea that influence might have flowed in the opposite direction is effectively beyond belief for Aonuma-san.

The Stamina system is one of the most significant and divisive changes in the Zelda franchise. The conservation of player practices that underpins the design of all games creates particular challenges for an insular development community like that that makes the Zelda games each time the outcome of their process makes it out ‘into the wild’. Precisely because player practices are habits, they are conserved, but at the same time this creates resistances when players encounter constraints that they are unfamiliar with. ‘Why am I hamstrung by limited Stamina when (say) Assassin’s Creed lets me climb freely?’, the logic goes, and this resistance is apparent in Jed Pressgrove’s review of Breath of the Wild, Tim Roger’s complaints about Skyward Sword, Luke Plunkett’s commentary on his son’s responses to playing Breath of the Wild, and numerous forum posts along the same lines.

Such complaints are understandable, but arguably misguided: the Stamina system in Breath of the Wild (far more so than the one in Skyward Sword) are effective extensions of Link’s character – and are even more effective than Heart Containers at representing Link’s identity. This is because Heart Containers are something the player requires only to absorb their mistakes at playing the game, and as the player’s skill increases the usefulness of Heart Containers decreases. Conversely, there is no level of skill at which more Stamina is not more beneficial than less, and indeed experienced players almost universally argue for spending Spirit Orbs on Stamina Vessels not Heart Containers in the newest game. (I concur: in my second play through, I acquired only Stamina Vessels, and my enjoyment and appreciation for the game was greatly enhanced by this approach).

To fully explore this point, however, means to go beyond consideration of Link as a unique concordance of character and mask and to begin to look at the relationship between Link and Hyrule. For every avatar that can be considered, the relationship between world and character is essential because the avatar is what allows the player to take action inside the fictional world and the world is what responds to those actions. Thus while Link and Hyrule are two halves of the same whole, this is not a unique claim about The Legend of Zelda at all but a fundamental truth of the videogame experience: the avatar and the world are one.

Next week: Hyrule

Zelda Facets (1): Introduction

Visual History LinkConsidering the franchise goes back more than thirty years, The Legend of Zelda is not a huge commercial powerhouse for Nintendo, as the Mario and Pokémon franchises undoubtedly have been. Despite not kicking off until 2007, more than twenty years later, Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed franchise has racked up more total sales than Zelda has in its thirty year history, some 93 million to Zelda’s 85 million. The Zelda games, however, have been hugely influential throughout their long and chequered history, inspiring Legacy of Kain, Soul Reaver, Beyond: Good and Evil, Shadow of the Colossus, Okami, Darksiders, Binding of Isaac, Hyper Light Drifter and more besides. But the real influence of these games is not felt by those that borrowed its template wholesale, but in the way professional game designers constantly check the new Zelda releases for how it will shift the landscape of videogames – make no mistake, even now, games in production are having their directions altered as a result of Breath of the Wild’s critical and commercial success.

This serial looks at key facets in the Zelda series, how they are used in Breath of the Wild, and the relationship this newest game has to the player practices and fictional worlds of its predecessors. My purpose is to try and reveal both the essential aspects of what makes Zelda what it is – and why that is so influential – and to apply the game design lineages method of historical analysis to Zelda in order to show how the conservation of player practices, the influence of material constraints, and the subversion of expectations through creator vision have all affected the path of this venerable franchise. Before looking at specific elements of the Zelda experience, however, it is necessary to put these games into a production perspective, by examining the circumstances outside the game that shaped the path of the series’ development.

The franchise roots are in two highly successful NES games, The Legend of Zelda in 1986 and Zelda II: The Adventure of Link in 1987. Series creator Shigeru Miyamoto wanted the second title to feel distinct from the first, presumably in part because the technical limitations of the NES meant following the same style at that time would have resulted in a very derivative game. As a result, The Adventure of Link feels like the black sheep of the series and has had little influence on the play of future games in the franchise (it borrowed much from platform games and the newly-popular JRPG lineage, kicked off primarily by Dragon Quest), although it still contributed significantly to the still-developing lore that shapes the narrative space of each Zelda game. Conversely, the original Legend of Zelda not only provides the template for its 16-bit successor, A Link to the Past, released in 1991, but also for Breath of the Wild. Featuring what has come to be known as an open world, The Legend of Zelda was actually a little late to this party, since most of the key early open world games were released in 1984 and 1985. It also seems as if the ‘openness’ of the title might have been partly a consequence of the material constraints of the NES rather than express intention: Miyamoto-sans later Zelda games, A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time, are much more locked down in their structure – a structure that had huge influence in the 3D combat and exploration games that followed.

The Legend of Zelda’s 6.5 million unit sales (which were meteoric for 1986) were not surpassed until 1998’s The Ocarina of Time, which brought the core player practices of A Link to the Past kicking and screaming into polygonal 3D, selling 7.6 million units, and (along with Super Mario 64 and GoldenEye 007) making the Nintendo 64 into a hit console. Ocarina of Time also set world records for high review scores, although personally I do not like the game very much, apart from two elements – the titular ocarina, which was perfectly designed for the controller and taught the player some actual musical skills, and the horse Epona, about which I will have more to say later in this serial. This was the first Zelda game that future franchise mastermind Eiji Aonuma worked upon, and its direct sequel, Majora’s Mask in 2000, was the first time he was handed the reigns. Far too arcane for the mainstream, Majora’s Mask’s labyrinthine temporal structure and impressionistic ending mark it out as a creative masterpiece, and it is not surprising that Miyamoto-san felt comfortable passing the franchise onto Aonuma-san, while remaining a stalking presence in the production of every Zelda game since.

It is 2003’s Wind Waker – Aonuma-san’s first major Zelda title (since Majora’s Mask was a spin-off from Ocarina of Time, reusing the same resources) – that begins to pave the way for Breath of the Wild by ‘failing’ commercially at ‘just’ 4.4 million units sold. This is actually twice what the best selling game I’ve worked on sold, and was still a good sales figure in 2003 – but on the budgets Nintendo affords a Zelda title, this was probably not much better than breaking even. The poor performance of the GameCube console was a factor here (as with the Resident Evil remake) but another problem was the choice of cel-shaded art. As Tom Hoggins touches upon in his Zelda retrospective, the choice flowed naturally out of the interior decisions guiding development but sat badly with many gamers, despite offering beautiful aesthetics throughout:

Many Zelda fans were aghast but those who fell for it fell hard, whisked away on the waves of colour. For Aonuma, the decision to switch wasn’t difficult. “Many developers were looking at ways to incorporate cel-shading into various games at the time, Nintendo too,” he says, simply. “One of the experiments was whether we could include these visuals into the world of The Legend of Zelda. When we finally decided that Wind Waker would feature child Link as the main character, we decided cel-shading was appropriate for the game and the more cheerful child-Link.”

The unique art style of Wind Waker has its own side-lineage in Zelda’s portable incarnations, Phantom Hourglass (2007) and Spirit Tracks (2009), which act  as sequels. But the die was cast for the core of the franchise: the audience wanted a more realistic looking Link, and that is what they would get with 2006’s Twilight Princess, originally developed for the GameCube but then painfully reconfigured for the Wii. In the Hoggins retrospective, Aonuma-san only half-jokingly remarks that after the platform change his job was reduced to cheerleader: “From that time on, rather than actually making the game my job was to approach each staff member to convince them we could do it.” Twilight Princess was a success, setting a new high watermark for the franchise’s sales at 8.6 million units (1.6 million of which were on the ailing GameCube). This pattern was repeated two titles later with Breath of the Wild, which also launched on a troubled older platform (the struggling Wii U) as well as launching the new Switch, and by January 2018 the new game had sold an impressive 7.8 million (1.1 million of which had been on the Wii U).

Just as Twilight Princess’ heading had been altered by the sales of Wind Waker being blown off course, the radical vision for Breath of the Wild was a response to the disappointing 3.7 million units that Skyward Sword had sold in 2011. Unlike the GameCube, the Wii had a massive install base to draw against – but the majority of use that the Wii was getting that that time wasn’t with the kind of core gamers that typically buy a Zelda… The focus on newly-improved motion controls probably did not help the 25th anniversary game’s performance, since this had been something players had merely tolerated in Twilight Princess and wasn’t enough to lure them away from the PS3 and Xbox 360s that were enjoying the benefits of well-developed online services by 2011. In a GameInformer interview, Aonuma-san tells a story of how one fan’s reaction to Skyward Sword resonated with him:

There was something that fans said before starting development that changed what I thought. There was a fan that said he really, really loved Zelda. But, while playing Skyward Sword, he missed experiencing this huge world where he could just ride Epona around. During Ocarina Of Time, he really loved doing that. Somewhere within myself, I felt the same way. So for Breath Of The Wild, it’s something that I definitely thought about.

The point also came up in an interview with Aonuma-san by Mike Diver that discussed the role of fan-feedback in influencing the creative vision of the franchise:

Actually, we did have in mind, from the start of development, that we wanted to create a large, wide, expansive world. And part of the reason for that comes from the feedback we got after Skyward Sword. The way that game world was set up was that you had kind of separate areas, separate strongholds, that you'd sort of land in and explore. But they were all self-contained, and they weren't really connected together.

We listened to a lot of opinions, from people who played Skyward Sword. And a lot of people said to us how they found the game… Not exactly unsatisfying, but they wish they could have explored the areas between the strongholds. So taking that on board, from the very start of Breath of the Wild, we wanted to, and set out to, create a world that wasn't only vast, but where everything was connected. So you really could freely explore the world, without these barriers or gaps imposed.

Skyward Sword was an outstanding example of the polygonal 3D Zelda form that Ocarina of Time had popularised, with improvements over Twilight Princess in almost every significant aspect, and substantial experiments in modifying the formula – including a much more explicitly constructed narrative. Link still did not say anything the player could hear, although for the first time we saw him talking to other characters (i.e. we saw Link’s lips move), and those other characters formed a much more coherent base for storytelling (helped by the single village, Skyloft, that served as hub). Review scores for Skyward Sword were incredibly positive, but the sales did not emerge on the back of it. It is possible that nothing could have lured gamers back to setting up their Wii at this point in time, and certainly not a game that relied upon newly improved motion controls. Speaking personally, however, playing with the butterfly net in Skyward Sword was a far more compelling experience of immersive presence than VR, which relies merely upon visual illusion and is not able to overcome the limitations in controls this entails. But whatever Skyward Sword’s merits, it hadn't been enough. It was time for Zelda to take a giant leap out of its comfort zone.

In one of the few reviews of Breath of the Wild willing to take issue with its problems, Jed Pressgrove calls out a “dubious decision to draw inspiration from prototypical open-world games” seeing this as producing “a conflicted combination of marketing logic and staggering artistry.” This was, all in all, the only interesting review of the new game I’ve seen, since most have merely swooned over its ample pleasures. Jed’s review is the reason I’m writing this serial: there is indeed an aesthetic conflict within Breath of the Wild, as he alludes to, but I contend it is not the result of marketing interference (although don't get me wrong: this is a very tangible force at work in the videogame industry, and one that should never be ruled out prematurely). Jed’s only mistake is to see in Breath of the Wild problems brought about by borrowing from the open world genre lineage as codified by Grand Theft Auto III (having built upon firm foundations established by Elite back in 1984, right before the first Zelda).

However, Breath of the Wild moves into open world territory in near complete ignorance of the GTAIII open world template that fed into Oblivion, Skyrim, and all the Assassin’s Creed games. In respect of these particular games, the only evidence that Aonuma-san had played any of them is for Skyrim (e.g. in an interview for Le Monde, and also for Game Spot), and then only to get a feel for how such worlds work in practice. The other chief source of external influence upon the open world leanings appears to have been technical assistance from Monolith, who had already assisted Nintendo’s EAD developer (which makes the Zelda games) on Skyward Sword. (On a minor, pedantic note, the camera feature in the new Zelda can hardly be borrowed from other open world games – as Jed alludes – since it originates in Wind Waker.)

The bottom line is that unlike other franchises, Zelda is not beholden to marketing influence because it is a flagship franchise that exists in a strange limbo of isolation from the rest of the gaming world. Aonuma-san barely plays other games – and has little interest in making anything other than Zelda games – as this internal Nintendo interview makes clear:

As I get closer to the retirement age, people ask me if I’m ever going to make anything other than a Zelda game. And so sometimes I think maybe I should. But Zelda games really have everything in them that I would want to make in a game. The way the main character grows and develops. The puzzles and the minigames. I don’t think there’s much point in me making something other than Zelda, if I did it would only end up being something just like it. It’s a problem. So I think I’ll just keep making Zelda games!

Putting aside the billions of yen and hundreds of developers involved in making a contemporary Zelda game, at the core of this franchise – unlike any other that we know of – is the relationship of master to apprentice that has passed from Shigeru Miyamoto (age 65), to Eiji Aonuma (age 54), and is currently being passed along to Hidemaro Fujibayashi (age 45), who has worked on Zelda since 2001, firstly for Capcom on The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages for the Game Boy Color before joining Nintendo, co-directing Phantom Hourglass, and then directing both Skyward Sword and Breath of the Wild. This is not how major commercial videogames are made, but it is how Zelda is made, and provides the reason that the franchise is primarily governed by the conservation of its own player practices, and the creative vision of a succession of apprentices that subverts these in subtle or radical ways in each iteration.

Over the following weeks I’ll be examining individual facets of Breath of the Wild’s game design and narrative design, situating it in the unique – and insular – game design lineage of the Zelda franchise, and showing how the new game’s content emerges from the effects of a single additional constraint: the desire to transcend Skyward Sword’s functionally-isolated wilderness segments. The resulting serial endeavours to show how to understand Link as a character (and how Breath of the Wild’s Link is consistent with that character), why Hyrule is integral to this character, in part because of the way videogames necessarily represent player characters, how the horses are simultaneously one of the new Zelda’s greatest achievements and strangest failings, and why Breath of the Wild can lay better claim to the title ‘The Legend of Zelda’ than any game before it.

Next week: Link

Metagame vs Structure

Metroid MapWhat is a metagame and how is it different from a game’s structure?

The structure of a game is the framework of the design that compels players to keep playing over the long term. There are numerous different game structures, including narrative structures (linear, branching, threaded), geographical (sequential, hub and level, open world), and in terms of character advancement (class and level, advantages/perks etc.). Conversely, the metagame is the social consequence of releasing a game into a community of players, an ever-changing set of tactical and strategic considerations that have to be taken into account if players are going to remain engaged with the games’ community.

Understanding the distinction between these two concepts is crucial to effective game design (although it isn’t strictly necessary to understand these concepts by these specific names, of course). In this piece, I hope to disentangle some confusions about the relationship between game structure and metagame, to emphasise the benefits to thinking carefully about both, and raise some concerns about the ‘monetisation metagame’. Any game designer worth their salt is already thinking about both structure and metagame, and it can be helpful to see where these terms come from, and how they relate to your own mental model for understanding games.

Game Structures

The first games with significant structures may well have been the strategy games that influenced Dungeons & Dragons (1974), from which the concept of ‘campaign’ was inherited and spread to the wider community through TSR’s underground hit. D&D’s use of ‘campaign’ as a narrative structure that linked individual scenarios into a dynamic story-telling medium was innovative, and extremely influential on videogames. But it was the invention of character advancement that was the real structural innovation of the first tabletop role-playing game, generating long-term play by asking players to acquire experience points (XP) in order to gain levels, and thus increase in both power and narrative potential. This structure provides a powerful and compelling player experience in part because it combines the strengths of narrative progression with the compulsion of ‘prizes’ to be won, all linked together in a reward schedule far more sophisticated that anything B.F. Skinner considered.

Around the same time, videogames were experimenting with very simplistic structures necessitated by their technological limitations. Early arcade games were built upon lives or a timer system: players played the game until they were out of lives, or until the timer ran out. This drove the microtransaction economy of the arcade: coin drops. When you ran out of lives, you put in another coin to start again and, after Atari’s Gauntlet (1985), to continue. On home computers and consoles, which were purchases at a fixed price, there was no need for such a frantic style, and the compact structure of the arcades quickly gave way to new fictional geographies that supported longer play times.

Games like the Stamper brother’s Atic Atac (1983) and Matthew Smith’s Jet Set Willy (1984) changed the way structure worked by opening up the geography of the game world for exploration. Later, with the addition of a primitive save function, Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda and Metroid (both 1986) took this further by mediating how players progressed: special items could be collected that allowed the players to reach new areas, driving curiosity and supporting more compelling exploration play. Today, a significant proportion of AAA videogames have settled upon an open world structure descended from Grand Theft Auto (1997) and its key influence, Elite (1984), a format which from the earliest days combined the advancement systems of D&D with the fictional geographies of early home videogames. It is a powerful – but expensive to develop – combination.

As game designers, decisions about structure provide ways to get maximum value from minimum development expense. A good character advancement system can wring a lot of player hours out of the same core content, and an expansive geography can also provide similar benefits, either through reuse of tiled content or via procedural generation (or a combination of the two). Structural design decisions determine how long players will play a game before they feel it has been ‘completed’, and as such this crosses over into narrative design for most games. As a result, structure is the core of the game design process for a great many styles of game.


Whereas structural design is foundational to game design in general, metagame design is always player experience design at the level of the community. It is perhaps most commonly encountered in the sense of the distribution of tactics and strategies in a particular player community, but the term originally had an even wider sense when first used by Richard Garfield, designer of Magic: The Gathering, in a presentation at GDC in 2000:

Definition of Metagame: My definition of metagame is broad. It is how a game interfaces with life. A particular game, played with the exact same rules will mean different things to different people, and those differences are the metagame. The rules of poker may not change between a casino game, a neighborhood nickel-dime-quarter game, and a game played for matchsticks, but the player experience in these games will certainly change. The experience of roleplaying with a group of story oriented players and playing with some goal oriented power gamers is entirely different, even though the underlying rules being played with may be the same.

It is immediately apparent how the metagame is distinct from structure, since the structure is part of the internal design task of the development team, while the metagame is how the game interacts with its player community. It is a strictly an internal-external split that positions these two terms against one another. That Garfield coined the term is fitting since Magic: The Gathering is a superlative example of a metagame in action: the balance of cards used in player-constructed decks is constantly in flux as a result of the changes in the pool of available cards. One of the chief factors affecting a new card being considered for release by Wizards of the Coast are the effects on the metagame: is it going to shake things up and keep it interesting? Is it going to annoy too many players? Is it fatal to a particular style of play?

The name ‘metagame’ is well chosen: ‘meta’ from the Greek μετά meaning ‘after’ or ‘beyond’. The metagame happens both after a game is released, and is beyond its core design. There were, of course, metagames before Magic: The Gathering… Steve Jackson Games’s Car Wars (1980) supported a fascinating metagame via the Uncle Albert’s Auto Shop and Gunnery Stop faux advertisements in Autoduel Quarterly magazine. The designers of the game faced very similar issues to those Wizards of the Coast would encounter in terms of what the newly-created weapons and defensive options would do to the player tactics in their tabletop battle game. Today, we see significant metagames in MOBAs in the context of character choices and team balance, in choices of gym defenders in Niantic’s Pokémon Go AR game, and more or less anywhere that the player community bears an influence upon the further development of a game – which thanks to analytics, means almost everywhere.

For some reason (probably a blend of ignorance and an innocent coining of a ‘new’ term), Bungie called the campaign scoring in Halo 3 (2007) ‘the meta-game’. This should not be confused with metagames in Garfield’s sense, since Bungie’s ‘meta-game’ is in actuality structural in nature. It is not that this term is ‘wrong’ so much as it is not helpful. From Bungie’s perspective, it probably seemed as if the individual FPS battles were ‘the game’ and so any game layer above this could be called ‘the meta-game’. This does makes sense in terms of the original Greek term… it’s just not helpful because it is clearly just a matter of game structure. To insist on calling solely the real-time action ‘the game’ is to claim that Bungie doesn’t sell games at all, but rather software that happens to have games embedded inside. That’s strictly correct. But it’s not in any way helpful.

Designing for the metagame is a serious challenge, because you don’t know what you have until it’s out in the world. Even closed betas aren’t really a test for how this will pan out (although having this data is always an asset!) since what a subset of players do is radically distinct from what a wider community of players will end up doing. As game designers, we plan for the metagame – we want it if it's possible – and then we have to work hard to keep the meta from stagnating. Maintenance of the metagame is where the craft of game design and the art of community management collide, and successful companies are those that can make these different practices work together.

Monetisation as Metagame

A new set of circumstances for game design were created by the rise and flourishing of the free-to-play, microtransaction driven business model (circumstances quite unlike those fostered by the ‘free version, paid version’ freemium model it directly descends from). The monetisation strategies that developers pursue for acquiring revenue from microtransactions constitute a metagame, one that risks pitting the player and the developer against each other. It could be argued this was already the case for, say, Magic: The Gathering, which generated absurd revenue from its booster pack business model (a form of material microtransaction, you might say!).

What is apparent whichever way the lines are drawn is that games that published periodic expansions, sequels, or DLC like Car Wars or Super Smash Brothers used their metagames to maintain community interest in the brand, and thus support the fanbase. The fans bought the new games or expansions because they were enjoying playing the game, and the metagame maintenance was a service to the fanbase the developer provided in order to maintain a positive relationship and keep its core business strong. The developers best interests were served by this – but so too were the players’ best interests. It was a cybervirtuous relationship.

In monetisation by microtransaction (‘free to play’, but also more than this, since console games have recently discovered the ‘pay-and-pay-more’ business model), the metagame will cease to be a community service the moment the developer is making decisions based purely upon how best to extract value from the player community. For instance, while Niantic’s gym overhaul was healthy for Pokémon GO’s metagame, some players have alleged that the developer has choked the supply of healing items while simultaneously adding these to the (monetised) shop. This risks being perceived by players as a move against them in the monetisation metagame. After all, it can hardly be argued that Niantic were losing money on the 65 million player behemoth. (It is not clear whether this particular allegation is well-founded, but such is the perception of some players at the very least.)

Compare the arrangement of the new Raid battles in Pokémon GO, and the ticket system (Raid Passes) that drives it. A new feature was added to the game, expanding its play and giving players something new to do. To recoup the cost of developing and testing the system, Niantic sell Premium Passes in the game shop, which can effectively be purchased with real money. To ensure everyone gets to take part, they give one Raid Pass away for free every day. This system strikes an effective balance between providing value to the players, and ensuring Niantic’s work is financially compensated. There is no equivalent claim to be made about monetising healing items, which does not obviously add value to the player experience, although the accusation in this particular case hinges on whether Niantic intentionally reduced the supply of these items from free sources (otherwise, this is merely the provision of another purchase option in the shop).

Game development is expensive, and the companies that undertake it deserve to be compensated for the work they do. However, when the metagame strays into value extraction and away from community satisfaction, something has gone wrong. It is worth noting that this can be extremely damaging for a game – the addition of microtransactions to Overkill’s Payday 2 as a result of pressure from publisher 505 Games very nearly sank the franchise, until Starbreeze (who own Overkill) bought back the rights in a $30 million deal the likes of which the games industry had never seen before. Behind this unprecedented legal agreement was the intention to keep the player community happy with the game they were playing. There is always more money to made when you have a thriving community of contented players.

Metagames are important to the success of a game, both commercially and creatively. As such, the monetisation metagame is something that developers ought to be careful about playing. The most honourable question to ask about every proposed change should always be: “what extra value is the player getting for their money?” Whenever a change is introduced that is founded upon the question “what extra value are we extracting from the players?”, the monetisation metagame has turned toxic.

Agree? Disagree? Comments are always welcome!

Why Niantic's Gym Gamble Could Pay Off

PG updateWhat does Niantic hope to achieve with its substantial update of the gym system in Pokémon GO, already in progress? Is this about bringing in more players, maintaining the existing community, or improving monetisation?

Almost all news services this week have reported on the major update to Pokémon GO that is rolling out globally right now (the Android update is already available, and the iOS update is not far behind). The hugely successful Augmented Reality (AR) game still pulls in some 65 million monthly active users (MAU), which while not in the same league of the behemoth Candy Crush Saga at 405 million still makes it one of the world’s most popular games. For context, the entirety of Activision’s product line (including Call of Duty and Destiny) makes up 40 million MAU and all Blizzard’s monthly active users (including World of Warcraft and Overwatch) amounts to 41 million. Whichever way you look at it, Pokémon GO is a serious player in the market for games.

The changes coming in the new update primarily involve the gym system – but not the battles themselves, which remain unchanged. Rather, Niantic are redefining the way pokémon are stationed in gyms, providing new ways for players to engage with their local gyms and (in a further update coming a month later) adding Raids that are modelled on the endgame concepts popularised by World of Warcraft. You can read the most complete description of the changes from Niantic’s support article about the update.

Most sources have correctly reported that the new system limits only one pokémon of each type to a gym, transforming the meta-game and ending the days of gyms containing a depressing multitude of pokémon’s tedious ubertank, Blissey. Most mention the arrival of the new Motivation system and the consequent retiring of the old Prestige system, which asked players to train at friendly gyms to increase the number of pokémon that could be stationed there. However, few have commented on the significance of these changes, and very few mention the most crucial aspect of this overhaul, which means players with less time spent in the game have a chance of participating in the gym battle system.

This, indeed, appears to be the primary motivation for Niantic’s overhaul. The current gym system suffers from major king-of-the-castle problems: players who have been playing from the beginning are now at approximately level 30-36, and can field pokémon with more than 3,000 Combat Points (CP), the measure of the little beasties’ strength in battle. Crucially, these high CP monsters lock up friendly gyms and make it very difficult for new players to have any involvement whatsoever in what’s going on in their local battlegrounds. New players are frequently unable to do much at gyms until they clear about level 20, and even then, there is an inescapable feeling that they are outclassed by the ‘big guns’ who have been playing for longer. This is never a healthy state for a player community: newcomers are all too easily discouraged.

The update not only limits the number of big guns in each gym by only allowing one pokémon of each species, the new Motivation system radically changes the nature of gym defence. Motivation is a morale system – as the gym defenders are defeated in battle (or whenever they lie idle and don’t get to fight at all), they lose Motivation, which reduces their effective CP value. This makes them easier to defeat, which lowers their Motivation further until eventually they give up and go home. Taking a gym is now about the pokémon chosen to defend, not about Prestige, which in the old system could be reduced by battling just a few of the gym’s defenders.

Crucial to the success of this new system is this line from Niantic’s notes:

To help balance different Pokémon strengths and abilities, stronger Pokémon generally lose motivation more quickly than those that are not as strong.

Now the actual game implications of this design element will not become clear until the update has fully rolled out and Niantic turn the gyms on, but it is clear how this is intended to function: putting in ultra-strong 3,000 CP pokémon is no longer the only viable strategy for gym defence. These pokémon lose morale faster, and thus will presumably get kicked out of gyms faster. The new dominant strategy for gym defence, therefore, depends on finding a sweet spot in the strength of the monsters deployed to gyms – too strong, and they will suffer a crisis of morale too easily; too weak, and they’ll roll over in battle without putting up any serious resistance. The fact that there is a sweet spot to discover – and that it could be different in each local area – revitalises the gym system in a way that is highly likely to reinvigorate the interest of its existing players, as well as potentially bring back some that left it over its first year.

There’s an important ambiguity, however. Although it is something most Pokémon GO players are unaware of, the Prestige system for gyms (which is being retired) created a role for weaker pokémon as ‘prestigers’ who trained at friendly gyms to raise the Prestige and increase the number of available slots. The second-string monsters were relevant since bigger Prestige bonuses were awarded for using weaker pokémon to train, creating interest in a whole raft of relatively weak pokémon that would otherwise be useless. (I have been maintaining an army of Furrets for this very reason.) With Prestige going, there is a big question about whether the only useful gym attackers will now be the high CP pokémon – effectively undoing a great many of the benefits of the new system. However, if defenders lose more Motivation for being beaten by weaker pokémon (which would be sensible, but that doesn’t mean Niantic have done it…) there could be seriously interesting questions about which team to take into each and every gym battle.

The community is showing overwhelming support for the new changes, although there are some concerns about alterations to the rewards for defending gyms. Previously, you could collect PokéCoins (which are the in-game currency that can be purchased with real money transactions) once every 21 hours, amounting to 10 coins per pokémon defending gyms, up to a ceiling of 100 per day. The 100 per day cap still stands, but now you only get coins when your pokémon loses its morale and returns from the gym. This creates substantial uncertainties that some players are already getting anxious about. It’s not clear this will end the strategy of ‘gym squatting’ or not: players still have a motive to deploy many pokémon into gyms, and it’s not up to them when they return, which creates worries about yet further advantages to ‘gym shavers’ who (against Niantic’s terms and conditions) have multiple accounts belonging to different teams so they can manipulate the gym situation to their personal advantage.

What is very clear about Niantic’s plans with this gym update is that it is all about strengthening the community around local gyms. Players of all levels can give berries to defenders of their team to help them stay on – allowing players to effectively ‘vote with their berries’ as to which gym defenders they want to keep. Furthermore, players earn status with gyms to level up gym badges to give them advantages. These changes help make a player’s relationship with their local gym stronger, which could have beneficial results for player experience. Add to this the Raids (which will start in July) that will create community events at local gyms, and this could give a serious boost to the sense of player community that Pokémon GO engenders.

Making a radical change to core game mechanics is always a risk, but Niantic seem to have thought this one through quite carefully, and it certainly has the potential to invigorate the existing player community and bring back a few players who left out of either boredom or frustration. There are still a lot of unanswered questions, particularly in terms of whether the motivation system truly breaks the pokémonopoly of Blissey, Dragonite, Snorlax, Rhydon, Gyrados, and Vaporeon, which dominate every gym I have visited anywhere in the world. But even the possibility of thoroughly shaking up the meta-game is one that players of Pokémon GO are excited about. Let the battle for the pokémon gyms begin – again!

Are you a Pokémon GO player sad to lose the Prestige system, or excited about having to only fight one Blissey per gym? Leave a comment – we’d love to hear from you!

Cyberamicable Game Design

FriendsIs it possible to design videogames to encourage friendships? This is a question about whether cyberamicable games are a possibility, and it’s one that

Earlier this year, Dan Cook published a long report from his November 2016 Project Horseshoe visit, entitled Game Design Patterns for Building Friendships. This is precisely a discussion about what I have been calling cybervirtue, in the context of games, and I want to suggest that games that are designed to encourage friendship would be cyberamicable, since we call ‘amicable’ a person who gets on well with others, or who forms friendships easily.

Here’s an extract from Dan’s piece:

Games that lack the tools for disclosing personal info between two people will never facilitate deep relationships. They may never even facilitate shallow relationships since players see that there will never be a long term future for any relationship they form in the game. However, disclosure is a highly risky action and teams will often try to cut it from their designs. Sharing information before a relationship is strong enough can result in broken or antagonistic relationships.

There’s a ton of useful and thought-provoking ideas here, and it’s well worth a look for anyone working in the space of multiplayer games. Check it out!

Brian Green on Online Anonymity

Over on Psychochild’s Blog, Brian Green has a fantastic four part series exploring the relationship between privacy and anonymity, and arguing against the idea that removing anonymity would address the problem – both because this means giving up privacy, which we value, and because it is not practical to do so. Highly recommended reading for game designers and anyone interested in online abuse and privacy:

  • Part 1 looks at the relationship between privacy and anonymity, and the key questions about anonymity.
  • Part 2 examines the harms entailed in removing anonymity.
  • Part 3 makes the case for the impossibility for enforcing public identity and restricting anonymity.
  • Part 4 looks at dealing with the problems of online behaviour, and the changes that might be required.

You can read some brief responses from me over at Only a Game, and I shall respond in full in about two weeks time with a piece entitled Lessons from the MUD. Watch this space!

The Greatest Detective Game Ever Made

LewtonOver at Kotaku, Paul Walker-Emig has a wonderful piece on my first game as lead designer and writer, Discworld Noir. It’s called Discworld Noir: The Greatest Detective Game Ever Made, which is very flattering, especially since (as Paul admits) this game is mostly unknown, or otherwise forgotten. Here’s an extract from the start of the piece:

The forgotten Discworld Noir’s greatness hangs on a simple design element: the notebook. All the other artefacts of the hardboiled detective are there in this noir-inflected take on Terry Pratchett’s Discworld: the trenchcoat and trilby protagonist Lewton wears, treading through the rain that forever hammers the streets; a femme fatale straight from the big book of archetypes; storylines and characters taken wholesale from the pages of Chandler and Hammett; a cool jazz soundtrack evocative of the golden age of the PI. But it is clues and deduction that define the detective. There is the notebook, and then everything else is superficial.

What’s more, Paul’s piece has flushed out some Discworld Noir fans from the woodwork! Here’s a tweet by Dave Gilbert* (The Shivah, The Blackwell Legacy, Emerald City Confidential) confessing that Noir was an influence:

Dave Gilbert Tweet

This means a great deal to me, not only because Dave is a brilliant indie developer, but because I’ve always lamented not having influenced anyone else’s design work. The notebook in Noir, as Paul draws out, was a a big moment for me as a game designer and narrative designer, and I was always disappointed that it sunk without a trace. It seems this was not the case!

You can read the entirety of Discworld Noir: The Greatest Detective Game Ever Made over at Kotaku.

*Not that Dave Gilbert, the other one with the really amazing indie career.