Sacred Realms Podcast: A Link to the Past

Sacred Realms is a Zelda retrospective podcast, where hosts Matthew and Lyndon Willoughly discuss the Zelda series as they replay all the games. I’m a frequent guest on the podcast, offering my perspective as both a game designer who and a Zelda fan.

I appeared in a couple A Link to the Past episodes. We discussed topics like verticality in dungeon design, and 2D vs 3D gameplay. We paid special attention to the infamous block-dropping puzzle in the Ice Palace – and I discussed why it is so difficult and why I suspect the Zelda team considered it a failure.

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Sacred Realms Podcast: Skyward Sword

Sacred Realms is a Zelda retrospective podcast, where hosts Matthew and Lyndon Willoughby discuss the Zelda series as they replay all the games. I’m a frequent guest on the podcast, offering my perspective as both a game designer and a Zelda fan.

I appeared in a couple Skyward Sword episodes, where we delved into topics like dungeon design, and contrasted Skyward Sword with Breath of the Wild.

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What is “World Design”?

I’m teaching a college course, “Advanced Seminar in Game Design: World Design” for Champlain College’s 2021 Fall semester. It’s a class for seniors to propose and execute on a single solo project for their portfolio, loosely based on the course theme. This document was my definition of “World Design”, with many examples.

Overview

The theme of this class is “World Design”, a subset of Game Design. The goal of this document is to explain what that means!

“World Design” is nebulously defined. Some companies have “World Designer” as a job title, but they don’t necessarily describe the same job. I’ve seen it used to describe traditional mission or level design work, designing vast non-linear spaces in open world games, and even the design of systems or UI related to the game world. So we will use a very broad definition in this class.

If Game Design is…

… The act of making choices about how players perceive or interact with a game, with the goal of creating a specific experience for the player(s).

Then World Design is…

…The act of making choices about how players will perceive, interact with, or experience the world of a game, with a particular focus on navigation, traversal, pacing, and narrative.

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Class Prompt: High vs Low Granularity

In spring 2020 I taught a Technical Game Design class in Champlain College’s game design program. As part of my work I wrote discussion prompts. I’m expanding some of those prompts into blog posts, like the one below. The full set can be found here. Because they were meant as prompts for students to discuss, they do not necessarily provide strong conclusions or answer the questions that they pose.

Let’s talk about high vs low granularity in game design, which has always been one of my favorite topics. From Wikipedia: “Granularity refers to the extent to which a material or system is composed of distinguishable pieces”.

In the context of game design, many things can be either high or low granularity, such as:

  • Space:
    • Low granularity: Tic-tac-toe, Megaman Battle Network, anything with placement on a small grid.
    • High granularity: Fully 3D games with movement on all axes.
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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 approachability. 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 approachable 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 approachability. 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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Zelda Fan Survey 2014

Preface (3/23/2015): This survey was originally published almost a year ago, at my small Zelda site, Zeldadata.com. The audience was Zelda fans, not game devs! I’m re-publishing it here mostly as an exercise to put my blog workflow through it’s paces, but also because I think it’s awesome.

I have spent years pondering and talking about what makes the Zelda games tick: why do so many people, including myself, hold them in such high regard? What is this “Zelda magic” that everyone speaks of, and what do they mean when they say it? So I decided to ask! I built a survey intended to give me a glimpse into the minds and tastes of Zelda fans, and distributed it within the online Zelda fan community. I got nearly 6000 responses, an outstanding show of interest from my fellow fans, and learned a number of interesting things.

The Sample

The first step is to put these answers in context: Who are the people that answered the survey? What group are they actually representative of?

The survey was advertised in several places, and got 5,890 responses:

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High Granularity Vs Low Granularity Space

Preface (3/23/2015): I originally wrote this article three years ago, when I was just beginning my design career. It was half proposal, half exploration of design concept. I’ve cut a few parts out that aren’t really relevant to my readers; if it seems to start and end abruptly, that’s why. I had not yet worked on a MOBA, where I learned quite a bit about tanking in PVP, and I overlooked many examples of high-granularity 3D games that had readable positional and facing gameplay. Nevertheless, I think the basic gist of this article is still quite accurate: there is an inverse relationship between spatial granularity and tactical readability.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the game industry’s embrace of fully 3D spaces, huge numbers of possible viewing angles, and the incredible amount of fine granularity introduced when you can move or look anywhere. I’ve come to some interesting conclusions about the effect this all has on gameplay. I want to throw a wrench in the tanking paradigm; bring a focus onto positioning, level design, and the environment; and improve the tactical readability of combat. (more…)