What Designers Can Learn From “The Legend of Zelda”

The Legend of Zelda has always been my favorite video game series. I’ve beaten most of them and couldn’t resist to play the last one: Breath of the Wild. I just finished it (already 😱) and I wanted to highlight two great design philosophies embraced by the game’s developers: design with constraints and validate your ideas quickly with a prototype.

1. Consistency doesn’t limit creativity

Even 30 years after the first game was released, it’s amazing to see how consistent all the games are. When you start a new adventure, you feel immediately familiar with the environment. Mostly because the series uses the same items in its game design.

The good old things

The rupee across the ages
  • From a few pixels to high-definition 3D models, Link’s enemies (Bokoblin, Moblin, Lizaflos, Lynel, etc.) have been around for a while.
  • The main music themes have remained the same. They improved and remixed it over time as the technology allowed it (listen to the evolution of the Fairy Fountain themes).
  • The fairies giving you the ability to come back to life, the items Link uses, the sound effects

All of these elements are sort of requirements all Zelda games must include. Yet even with so many constraints and its 30 years heritage, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild could possibly be the most singular Zelda game ever. While keeping everything that made the series successful, a lot of things give a whole new taste to the adventure.

The new ingredients

  • In Breath of the Wild, you can go wherever you want from the very beginning of the game. They managed to turn very linear progression mechanics into something that makes the exploration phases more adventurous while keeping the difficulty consistent with your progress in the game.
Impossible to go further without the hammer in Link to the Past (left). You can go to those very far away mountains if you want to in Breath of the Wild (right).
  • For the first time your weapons have durability points and at some point they break. You don’t keep them until the end of the game. That means that you’ll have to find new ones on the ground of when your enemies drop some.
  • You won’t find hearts on your way to re-fill your life gauge in Breath of the Wild like in all the other episodes. Grab food 🍎 🍄 🥕🍖🐟 around you and cook meals if you want to survive.
  • The old dungeons paradigm has disappeared. They’ve been replaced by 120 shrines containing either a puzzle or a battle with a boss. They’re hidden everywhere on the map and and can be used as a teleport spot helping you to travel faster.

The game developers have always tried to bring some new ideas to their latest games. They took advantages of new Nintendo system’s features to create innovative gameplay like using a stylus to control Link on the DS or experimenting real sword movement by swinging the Wiimote.

Constraints are very often seen as limitations to creativity, especially by young designers. Although working with hurdles will narrow the number of options you can consider in your project and help avoiding the white page syndrome. Meaning that you can spend more time exploring fewer approaches and thus creating stronger ideas.

Constraints can spur creativity and incite action, as long as you have the confidence to embrace them — Tom Kelley, IDEO

2. Fake it ’til you make it

Breath of the Wild’s team hosted a talk at Game Developers Conference 2017 in San Francisco. During this session, game director Hidemaro Fujibayashi showed a surprising version of the very first Zelda game, on NES.

Full video available here

It was actually a prototype, created to present the new game mechanisms conceived for Breath of the Wild. This method has allowed the designers to test and easily communicate their ideas with everybody in their team. It gave a small overview of the new features without involving a lot of tech resources.

This is exactly what recommends Google Venture’s Design Sprint methodology (which is a must-read by the way) . On days 4 and 5 of that one week sprint, you have to find the fastest and easiest way to prototype and test your assumptions.

Overview of a Design Sprint

I think it’s a great philosophy for many reasons:

  • It doesn’t involve a lot of resources and you can rely mostly on what already exists (in that case, the first Zelda game)
  • As you can do the most of it by yourself, you have the opportunity to build exactly what you have in mind.
  • It’s very cost-efficient. It doesn’t require more than a few days/hours to produce.
  • As it is very fast to create, you can iterate quickly and test new ideas if your previous ones were not relevant.

For further readings…

While playing The Legend of Zelda’s games, I figured out that game design is not really different from product design. Some of the most popular philosophies can be applied to one or the other (remember that early 2010’s buzzword, “gamification”?).

Here’s some of my favorite resources on the subject: