What You Should Learn From Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom
Read Time: 3 Minutes
It’s no secret that this year has been brutal for big-budget releases, and we’re not even halfway through. Players have been justifiably ticked off as well, and it’s reignited the, at times, adversarial social media conversations between developers and players. It’s safe to say this year that ‘player relations’ has taken a hit.
Along comes Tears of the Kingdom with 10 million copies sold in the first 72 hours after launch. I haven’t found updated numbers, but it’s a lot more. It broke the Guinness Book of world records for the fastest-selling game. The game is excellent, coming from someone who has played well past the tutorial.
Despite the temptation, I’m not here to gush. I want to understand why this game has done so much better than the other major game launches this year, even ones that did quite well, like Hogwarts. There are some obvious marketing answers around IP and distribution. Still, I want to go into a few key areas from a development perspective where Zelda nailed it, surpassing all of its peers this year.
Many developers have been stunned by the game's success and how good it has managed to be in such a short time. One example:
Here are some key developer takeaways that we all should have as leaders:
Value Performance & Cohesion over Graphical Quality
The game programming flex of all time.
— William Armstrong (@WillWArmstrong)
May 21, 2023
Game developers seem to have significant anxiety today about the never-ending arms race of graphical fidelity. I’ve heard 30-minute conversations amongst devs about reflections & water. That sounds like a mouthful, no doubt. It can feel as though every AAA release needs to push the envelope of graphical quality and ‘realism.’ To make matters more complicated, players also have high expectations here.
What struck me about the video above isn’t just the exceptionally cool mechanics of the game but the fact that (and I can confirm this) despite the high programmatic complexity of TotK’s mechanics, the game performs beautifully. I have about 50 hours in Zelda so far, and other than a handful of hiccups, it’s running flawlessly.
Next, look closely at the graphical fidelity (or check out other videos online). This isn’t the pinnacle of graphical quality, but the world is cohesive, beautiful, and consistent with the narrative and genre. It all fits together, and it works. Players don’t care that it doesn't represent the bleeding edge regarding fidelity.
This is a massive learning opportunity for us game developers. Players are telling us with their money what they value. We need to listen. Performance and cohesion trump ‘graphics’.
Be Ultra Selective About Where You Do / Don't Innovate
Many studios are pushing innovation forward on multiple fronts, drastically increasing the risk of their projects and their ability to deliver. Many of the performance and holistic quality issues we see with launches lately are related to “biting off more than we can chew.” There’s this feeling that if we don’t keep up with the Joneses on innovation, we’ll lose the battle for eyeballs.
One thing that has struck me about TotK so far has been the many areas where things have directly carried over from Breath of the Wild. There is an ease and acceptance of that. Monsters, climbing, weather, aspects of the world layout, combat, and so many others are essentially “copy-pasted.”
But it’s worth noting that the areas of innovation are the ones folks are raving most about (the ultra-hand construction system, Zonai machines, exciting physics, world content, etc.).
I haven’t had a chance to speak with anyone on the development team yet, but I’d be willing to bet that focus & prioritization was a vital part of this team’s approach.
Developers need to be deliberate about where they're going to innovate and where they aren’t going to innovate (the latter being even more critical). If you nail one or two key aspects that are quintessential to your experience, not only will you captivate players, but they will also likely forgive you for deficiencies (or old systems) elsewhere.
To do that, you and your team need to know what the game experience is at its core - with all of the nuanced understanding that comes with that.
This leads to my final takeaway…
Make Sure Your Team Deeply Knows The Game
I’ve been playing Zelda games since my first gold cartridge on the NES at five years old. (Please don’t do the math on that). Some things are indeed “Zelda” things in an almost spiritual way. There’s a unique feel to it. That sense of adventure and solving interesting puzzles, the conflict of light & darkness working itself out, and all while having five possible paths to the outcome you’re seeking. It leads to interesting and meaningful decisions by the player. I don’t doubt that Zelda’s creators can articulate it far better than I.
This is all to say that when I picked up TotK, it quickly “felt like Zelda.” It made me aware that the folks behind the curtain knew what that felt like too, and put a lot of effort into making it true to that experience.
I don’t know for sure what happened behind closed doors with this development team, but the game is incredibly faithful to itself and demonstrates a focus that comes from devs that have a high awareness of the game they're making. It doesn't feel confused, or unfocused, or misguided.
A million tiny decisions were made that needed to stay true to the vision of this game, and I’d be willing to bet that that vision was clearer than the visions we experience on most projects.
I recognize that getting the work done is necessary. But ‘doing the work’ doesn't hold a candle to having the team regularly interact about what the game is, how our understanding of the game is evolving, and ultimately if we are honoring the game’s vision. Those interactions should be happening every day.
It’s so refreshing for us to see a great game, not just because we want our peers to be successful or for players to be happy, but because these days, it’s a fantastic reminder that it’s still possible to make great games. Sometimes it seems like we’ve become so cynical that we lose the plot, convincing ourselves that it’s too complicated now to deliver something delightful to players. To fight that narrative, we have this excellent example (that you should all check out and enjoy ;)).
Till next time…
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