Ocarina’s Image: Fundamental Challenges of 3D (Podcast)

I recorded a truncated podcast version of one of my articles, Ocarina’s Image: Fundamental Challenges of 3D, for the Zelda Universe Podcast.

You can listen here:

Ocarina’s Image: Freedom in Breath of the Wild

“When I was a child, I went hiking and found a lake. It was quite a surprise for me to stumble upon it. When I traveled around the country without a map, trying to find my way, stumbling on amazing things as I went, I realized how it felt to go on an adventure like this.” – Shigeru Miyamoto, 1993¹

Fifteen years after Ocarina of Time, the Zelda team finally retired its time-worn solutions to the problems of 3D. They shifted their philosophy, drew from the inspiration for the first Legend of Zelda, and rebuilt the beating heart of the franchise from first principles.

Previously we examined the challenges of building the first 3D Zelda, and the tradeoffs that Ocarina made to maintain accessibility. These compromises attempted to balance two unsolved problems: decreased readability, and greatly increased complexity. In this final article, we’ll see how Breath of the Wild found new solutions to those problems.

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Ocarina’s Image: Formulas Etched in Stone

Ocarina of Time was a seminal masterpiece. It was a model for how to make a third-person, 3D adventure game that was accessible and ambitious. It broke new ground in camera control, 3D melee combat, 3D level design, and immersive worlds. It maintained a high standard for readability and accessibility. It sold 7.6 million copies on the N64 and 11 million altogether. Nothing like it had ever been made before, and it set a high-water mark that wouldn’t be surpassed for years.

And it etched in stone, in gamers’ expectations, and in developer’s minds a blueprint for what a Zelda game was supposed to be. It cemented formulas that Nintendo would follow for fifteen years.

“…Ocarina of Time became the standard for me for home console Legend of Zelda games. The series built up from there and nothing ever got made from scratch. I think subconsciously there was a strongly conservative voice saying, ‘This has to be this way,’ and, ‘If you change it too much, people won’t like it.’” – Eiji Aonuma, 2011 ¹

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Ocarina’s Image: Fundamental Challenges of 3D

 

 “I wanted something that players could get so lost in, it would take them a whole year to finish.” – Shigeru Miyamoto, 1992 ¹

I thought that making the user get lost was a sin.” – Eiji Aonuma, 2016 ²

The Zelda series has a storied, 30-year history. Shigeru Miyamoto created the first game with a team of six people; it released in 1986. A decade later, Eiji Onozuka’s first role was the director of dungeon design for Ocarina of Time. He later took his wife’s family name of Aonuma, directed Majora’s Mask and The Wind Waker, and went on to become the producer for the franchise.

There are almost 25 years between these two quotes, and they reveal a stark shift in the design philosophy for the Zelda franchise. I have long felt that the franchise lost something crucial in the games after Ocarina. It’s easy to blame Aonuma’s leadership. But I have a different take: The move to 3D in Ocarina was uniquely challenging and the Zelda team solved those problems imperfectly, then doubled down on Ocarina’s path for years after.

Until Breath of the Wild. It went open-world, had a non-linear narrative, and re-imagined how dungeons and items work. But those changes required a more fundamental shift: they needed to solve Ocarina’s problems, trust the player, and build their gameplay out of emergent systems.

This is the first of three articles, originally written for the audience of Zelda fans at Zelda Universe. In this series, I use my own experience as a game developer and extensive reading of interviews to infer why Zelda development decisions were made, and how Ocarina’s design shaped the series for years afterwards. But I wasn’t there! This is ultimately an act of speculation. Keep that in mind as you read!

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Tyson’s Law

Tyson Green is an experienced designer at Bungie. I rarely work with him myself, but other designers who have will often quote this rule of his:

Always solve two problems with every design.

Implied here is the idea that most designs can solve multiple problems, and by following this rule design elements will interlink in ways that better support the game as a whole.

I’ve seen this law expressed in other ways. Shigeru Miyamoto said it in a Eurogamer interview:

A good idea is something that does not solve just one single problem, but rather can solve multiple problems at once.

And in other disciplines! Matthrew Frederick, author of 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School, says:

Any design decision should be justified in at least two ways. … The more justifications you can find or create for any element, the better.

Clay’s Law

Chris Clay was a senior designer I worked with at Turbine. Sometimes we would spend a lot of time in the weeds, talking about a design tweak in a meeting. When we did that, he would sometimes end the meeting by invoking his rule, that the rest of us dubbed Clay’s Law:

Never talk about a design for longer than it would take to go to a desk and prototype it. 

Words I try to live by – though I do love talking!

Link, the Legendary Heroine

Preface (9/20/2016): This was originally published on Zeldauniverse.net, a Zelda fansite. The intended audience consisted of fairly dedicated Zelda fans, most of which were in their teens.

Link! The Hero of Hyrule! A young adventurer who heeds the call to action and saves the land from darkness. Reincarnated time and again, forever destined to wield the Master Sword in defense of the Triforce and the people of Hyrule. Link, of course, is us, the persona we embody when we play a Zelda game, the avatar of our own heroism; the stand-in that represents us in the world of the game. Link is defined by many things: the tools we wield when we play, the land we save, the monsters we defeat, the dungeons we explore, the characters we meet. A green tunic, a sword, the Triforce of Courage. The actions we take and the fantasies we fulfill when we pick up the controller.

The stronger our connection to Link, the stronger our link to the world becomes.

That is why future Zelda games should allow the player to choose Link’s gender.

This may be a controversial position. You may have some concerns with the concept, and that’s fair. I posit that (a) this would allow more people to enjoy the games we love, and (b) it would have no ill effects on the quality of the game, its story, or its characters.

Let’s dive in. Read More →

Lay Off Post-Mortem

This is the story of my first lay off, what I learned from it, and how I recovered. I recently received a job offer; this story now has an ending, so the time has come to tell it!

Exeunt Max

In the summer of 2014 we were deeply entrenched in a new F2P service game that had gone into open beta a few months prior. The game was in a precarious position, a topic that our project leadership was very open with us about. We resolved to turn it around that summer, and set some very ambitious goals. And we succeeded! We built an excellent game: tightly balanced, responsive, polished, and great looking.

In the middle of this process, we learned that there were going to be some publisher-wide layoffs hitting our parent company and its devs at about the same time we were wrapping up this summer push. We knew layoffs were coming, and we knew that our project was at risk. We even knew the date that they were going to happen. The team handled it well, and we still built a great game: we were proud of it and wanted it to succeed, with or without us. But the weeks leading up to the layoffs were still tense with worry: we didn’t know who or how many were on the chopping block. Read More →

In Defense of DLC

Preface (5/12/2015): A few weeks ago Polygon posted a news article revealing the Arkham Knight DLC and pricing. The news post was very aggressive and judgmental of the model, and the tone of the comments was mostly angry. It was very clear that the core gamer crowd reading that article did not understand how DLC was made, or why it could be good for them. Later that day I wrote an article that I pitched to Polygon, with the goal of educating their readers a little bit. I haven’t heard back from them, so posting it here! My summary of it is really simplistic compared to the real deal, but it was as detailed as I wanted for the audience.

Hey Polygon readers! Recently Rocksteady announced a $40 season pass for Arkham Knight, and there was some lively discussion in the comments. I saw two themes: some people were angry because they thought that this DLC could have been ready at launch, and was being withheld from gamers out of greed. Others complained about the general trend of having to buy DLC to enjoy the “complete experience”.

I think that all of this anger is misplaced. So let’s talk about DLC, and why, done right, it is a great thing for gamers and game developers.

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NPR All Things Considered: Grokking and Greebling

NPR’s All Things Considered radio show was doing a series of short stories covering trade lingo in different industries. I submitted a list of game development terms, and they brought me in to do an interview at the studio. It lasted 10 or 15 minutes, and was then edited down to a 3 minute segment that they aired shortly after. I primarily talked about the word “grok”, but I also touched on the word “greebling”. You can read the transcript and listen to the original NPR story here.

It turns out that greebling isn’t really a game industry term; it comes from the film industry, and I just happened to pick it up at college around a bunch of game artists. So, uh, you win some you lose some!

Update (7/24/2018):

You can listen to the interview here: