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Key lessons developers can take away from Breath of the Wild

We take a look at the key design lessons developers can take away from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has crashed into the games industry right as many companies are trying to figure out how to make powerful open-world games, and it succeeds in building a compelling world on what is supposedly an underpowered console. 

Since we can’t stop playing the game, and because were starting to notice some of the magic tricks that were selling the illusion of an open-world Hyrule, we took to the Gamasutra Twitch channel today to highlight some of the key systems and how they succeed, to help developers improve their next open-world games.

If you’re looking for a few highlights of what we discussed, here’s a short list based on our discussion (seen above).

Link can climb anything/go anywhere, but there’s a limit on how much he can climb.

Nintendo discussed some of this in their GDC talk a couple weeks ago, but it’s notable how Breath of the Wild implements few artificial barriers on player locomotion, instead using a stamina system to keep them from just going where they want, when they want. It’s a big change from how the Assassin’s Creeds and Horizon Zero Dawns of the world sell the illusion of freedom, and one worth studying extensively, especially as it’s used in different locales. 

The art design eliminates a need for “detective vision.”

Many open-world games have to grapple with photorealistic environments that can draw the player attention in a lot of different directions. To keep players on the right path, many employ a special vision mode that will have some root in the game’s story, but ultimately be responsible for keeping them on the right track. We discussed how Breath of the Wild's art and spatial design keeps players from struggling to identify what to do/where to go, and how it helps keep players flowing through the open world. 

Resource shortages are good, actually. 

At one point, a Twitch viewer asked us if we’d experimented with the Amiibo system yet (we haven’t), but it’s worth noting because it’s a system that gives players key ingredients and items no matter where they are in the game. But that isn’t necessarily a good thing! As we discussed, part of Breath of the Wild’s allure is in finding various items and how they interact, which doesn’t work well if you can call them up on demand. 

The familiar Zelda story is revisited—for better and for worse.

While many developers and players have been fawning over the Zora Prince Sidon and his—physique—we took note that a lot of Breath of the Wild seems to revisit major story/pacing beats covered by Ocarina of Time, A Link to the Past, and other games. That’s not inherently bad on its own, and enough innovation seems to be in place to keep it from being another run around Hyrule, but this leaves characters like Zelda and the Gerudo tribe in some awkward situations, since both are still saddled with the uncomfortable tropes of their origins. Zelda is still effectively kidnapped, and the all-female tribe of Gerudo are caught in an awkward scene that other critics have explained doesn’t do a service to transgender players. 

As our own Kris Graft points out, inclusiveness and welcomeness in games has a broader purpose that fits both design and business goals, so it’s a place where the Zelda foundation doesn’t hold up as strongly for all the people who might pick up the game. 

For more insights on The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, be sure to watch the full stream above, and follow the Gamasutra Twitch channel for more gameplay commentary, editor roundtables, and developer interviews. 

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