Wrestling with Breath of the Wild design sensibilities.

My situation:

I’ve been playing Breath of the wild for a couple of months now. I just hit my 40-hour mark.

I was very sceptical initially because I didn’t seem to wrap my head around its simplicity, but it is starting to grow on me as of late.

I was sceptical because I was (and still am) under the impression that the game brings nothing fundamentally new to the open-world formula.

Why it just works:

There are several reasons why Breath of the Wild works:

  • It plays the open-world very safely. The game doesn’t try anything particularly fancy with the formula. There are no overly complicated outposts, no super fancy systemic.
  • All the things you would expect from an open-world game are still there, but they are not in your face. You stumble upon them if you decide to explore.
  • Everything is interconnected. All game systems tie together to lead to a cohesive tapestry of choice.
  • The game doesn’t slap you over the face with a ridiculously convoluted story. All NPCs are cute and likeable (even the bad ones). The narrative moments are brief and don’t detract you from the rest of the experience.
  • Quests are simple and challenge you to think.

The world

The world is vast and offers a lot of opportunities to explore. It splits the discoverable into 3 main categories:

  • Shrines
  • Koroks
  • Camps
  • Open World Locations

I watched a clip on what 1000 hr of MGS 5 looks like in practice, and an interesting realisation struck me.

Consumable Content

Most open worlds tend to classify content binary, either as completed, validated or not completed.

Zelda doesn’t do that. It refuses to grant you the satisfaction of completing something (besides shrines or Koroks), so you can keep visiting places for the simple reason of having to re-supply.

The Core gameplay is enjoyable, and you are using it constantly as you deplete and resupply your resources.

When you are dealing with perishable equipment, Zelda encourages you to use the available things. Transitioning between gameplay styles becomes a right and practical, exciting way of experiencing the game.

MGS does this through resource cost and for ammo and weapon usage, silencer perishability. Death Stranding does that with almost everything in your inventory.

MGS 5
Death Stranding
Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

This facilitates re-engagement with the game even after the significant bits are over. The challenge aims at stimulating mastery.

Perhaps that’s why most of the stuff you can do are hidden. Maybe that’s why people like it so much.

I still need to point out that there is an important aspect that needs to be mentioned.

Mentionables

  1. Having a long list of “completable” content activities has the benefit of allowing engagement faster; this does lead to some burnout, unfortunately; also, the “limited” range of solutions for those activities becomes apparent eventually.
  2. Having no list of “completable” content activities can seem daunting initially, making the agents a little “directionless”. Perhaps more reticent to engage with the game, but tied into the “gear breakdown and re-supply” system, tends to lead to the same kind of engagements happening more organically in the open world.

Players will do these things again because:

  1. They need the goodies.
  2. It’s fun to do it

I hear a lot of complaints about open-world games in regards to “consumable” content. All of them tend to revolve around the fact that “there is nothing to” (Google any Division 2 video.). The issue is not related to how much there is to do but how well the “content” is anchored into the game's guts.

Having a daily checklist to complete leads to precisely that: Completionist mindset. The ability to engage with the world from a “needs and supply” standpoint (and I do mean that in exactly that sense) leads to longer engagements and stronger player retention.

Encounter distribution

I don’t want to knock off “linear”, “serialised”, “completable” content. It took a “milestone” encounter for me to start having “feelings” for this game after all.

However, I believe that having a more loose structure is, after all, a better approach to structuring content, at least from a gameplay design standpoint.

The players will interact with that, which we would call side content, more often and repeatedly out of their own volition. The gameplay experience is enhanced by NPC value replacement (Red → Black → White → Yellow), which sometimes feels amazing when perceived as a consequence of players' actions.

MGS 5 → Enemy Soldiers get updated reactively based on player approach styles — (Armor, Headgear, etc.)
Breath of the Wild: Color Shift.

One of my gripes with MGS5 was that once you finish all the content, there is no reason to return and keep engaging with the content.

You can still replay the missions and get daily assignments (something that has become a staple for live service games lately), but the scenarios get repetitive, and you most likely do not replay the match. By the time you reach the end game, you have everything, and there is nothing more meaningful to unblock (you can’t master the game).

And that’s a shame because the core gameplay could keep the game alive if only the “scripted content” didn’t condition the player into a “consumer mentality”.

And speaking of “Consumer Mentality”, Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is at its best when you lean into that Consumer mindset.

Consumer mindset

The perishability of the tools generates movement in the Breath of the wild world:

  • You find an excellent item
  • You get to use it
  • It breaks, and you lose it, being forced to rely on other means of surviving an encounter.

Consumables and breakable objects, alongside encounters that are harder and harder to manage as you progress, lead to what I call “zones of deterrence”.

Zoning

These “Zones of deterrence” do one simple thing: They push the player back, making them run away and retreat into pockets of Safety.

The cycle of attack, retreat, resupply is what makes the game compelling.

One interesting concept that needs to be considered is the idea of space control.

As you progress through space, you conquer that space. Not in the sense of completing it like in “Far Cry 5” but in the feeling that you get to learn what materials and resources that area holds.

The player is introduced to the “unsafe space.
The player conquers the space but discovers more unsafe spaces beyond.
The system pushes back, and the player returns to previously conquered zones to resupply
With multiple areas, the choices become “complex.”

When exploring a new area, hitting a “zone of deterrence” will push you back into the “conquered” so you can sit back and start “thinking” about:

  • What you need to do
  • What resources do you need
  • What direction to approach

It all leads to an iterative process unlike what we discussed earlier, say: Ghost Recon Breakpoint bases.

https://iuliu-cosmin-oniscu.medium.com/estimating-player-paths-in-compound-outpost-design-c0562a7ea5bc

“Zones of deterrence” present themselves as thematic areas. As you hit the difficulty border, I kept asking myself:

  • Where/Why, I died
  • Where/Why, I ran out of ammo
  • Is the enemy too strong for my skill level

I constantly found myself re-evaluating my plan to be able to puncture the “unsafe” border.

Unsafe Zones

If we connected these spots with a red line, we would define that “unsafe” zone.

The players can penetrate this zone by using the game systems and being creative with their available tools.

At the core of the unsafe area, there is “a safe” area that is accommodated generally by a proper easy connection: a road, a break in the mountain range, a break in the difficulty wall, etc.

Green, safe areas are not connected, forcing the player to take risks.

We can extrapolate difficulty out of this setup by defining safe zone continuity, density, predictability, etc.

Variety

Each region in the game is very cool for a variety of reasons:

  • It serves a new Biome to the player alongside unique weather patterns and conditions that, as a player, you need to deal with (somehow):
  • Lush and Green
  • Jungle
  • Mountain and Lava
  • Mountain and Cold
  • Arid

Each with its own set of weather patterns and temperature conditions that the players need to deal with (somehow)

  • Some areas go a step further and reinforce gameplay themes:
  • Lighting Areas
  • Dark Areas
  • Fog Areas
  • Rain Areas
  • Robot areas
  • Wizard Areas
  • Corrupt Areas

Although there are probably story-specific tools that facilitate access to areas like these (Warm Tunic, Swimming Coat), the players are encouraged to experiment with the various type of alternative options: (Elixirs, Food, Weapons, Other types of clothing, Additional exploration around the hard borders of the unsafe zones).

Buffs come from either cooking food or elixirs, but finding the proper ingredient (flower, plant, meat, fish, butterfly, horn, rocks etc.) depends on how hard you look and how patient you are to explore the many forests, ponds, mountains paths, etc. to pick these things up.

This often leads to deviations from the original plan, revisiting older areas, or stumbling onto unexplored paths that sneakily lead to exciting places (sometimes quest areas).

But to get to that point, I, as a player, had to drop the expectation of immediate gratification and heavily lean into the “relaxing” and “explorative” mindset.

If at the beginning of the game “shrines” and “looks” seemed like a chore, due to their completionist nature, later in the game, I discovered that patiently targeting four shrine completions and four korok discoveries a modest goal lead to easy hearts.

I also discovered that investing in Stamina might be equally important.

And with that in mind, a more relaxed and laid back approach to the game leads to a better exploration mindset.

I often collected things along the way and then stopped cooking pots and looking for cool buffs that could improve my gameplay style.

Player Pulls/System Push

I keep asking myself these questions:

  • Can I stress this Unsafe border using the tools that I have available?
  • Would Having a buff + meal + flame sword + warm coat be enough to explore this area?
  • How long can this buff last?
  • How many peppers can I combine for maximum effect?
  • What other ingredients can I use?

Slowly, zoning for different types of ingredients becomes apparent:

  • Fish here
  • Apples here
  • Red Peppers here

And like that, all game areas serve as opportunities for empowering myself, but at the same time, the difficulty of the “unsafe wall”, the perishability of the equipment and the dynamic behaviours of the enemies keep me on my toes.

Gameplay Pockets

Moving further into the game leads to a better outlining of the Scout, Plan and Execute Paradigm. Still, an important thing to note is that this happens naturally through the landscape, and the idea of “outposts’ ‘ is kept at a minimum.

Camps are super small, open enough to be scouted from afar, sometimes copy-pasted.

Sometimes there are no camps at all, and all you get is a simple fire and a few enemies placed around it.

If you are lucky, they are paired with a significant landmark that might be featured in a quest somewhere.

The AI you get to engage with does not have a proper contextual spot in the world reinforced by level design. Instead, they hang out, which Cyberpunk 2077 shares with Breath of the Wild.

This usually happens when the game is developed with an “art first”, leaving the “gameplay layer” as additive rather than subtractive. You put things where they can be placed, rather than carving space specifically for gameplay purposes.

I would guess that thematically this might be a problem.

Just like Death Stranding, this game seems to unravel itself the more you play. I am super curious to see how it will feel like in 100 hours.

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Iuliu-Cosmin Oniscu

Iuliu-Cosmin Oniscu

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As a level designer I am not a creator, I am a facilitator. Senior Open World Designer. #Leveldesign #Open World #Design @notimetoulose.