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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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 Read more…

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 Read more…

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. (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. (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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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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Zelda Sales Numbers in Context 2014

Preface (3/23/2015): I did the original research for this because I wanted to win an argument on the internet. I was fascinated enough by what I learned that I did it again, with more in-depth and better researched data, and published it a year or so ago on my small Zelda website, Zeldadata.com. It was definitely intended for a Zelda-fan audience.

Zelda sales numbers seem straight-forward: They’re simple data about how much each game has sold. They’re easy to understand, and they’re easy to reference when you need to prove a point. But the attention generally stops there, when there is in fact much to be learned from sales data! Let us begin with the most important list: the sales data for each Zelda game, ranked:

fig1_sales

 

So now we know how much each Zelda title has sold. There’s some interesting data there. It’s tempting to use this data, exactly as it is, to draw conclusions about things like popularity and impact on games. Ocarina of Time is clearly the most popular Zelda game on this list. And A Link to the Past must have had a bigger impact on gaming than The Legend of Zelda, since it sold so much more. Right? (more…)

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…)

Zelda 25th Anniversary: 2001

Preface (3/23/2015): I used to be a prolific writer at Zelda Universe, a large Zelda fansite, during my teenage years. When the 25th anniversary of the Zelda franchise loomed, they decided they wanted to run a series of 25 articles, celebrating each year. They contacted me and asked me to do one; I volunteered for 2001, and wrote the article below. My audience was primarily teenage Zelda fans, so I wrote for them.

Ah, 2001. It was a tumultuous year, and a watershed moment for the Zelda franchise and the game industry. It saw the release of not one, but two Zelda games – two Zelda games developed by Capcom, with Nintendo’s blessing.  It was a year that polarized and divided the Zelda fanbase more than any other, when the first footage of The Wind Waker surfaced at the final Spaceworld. We saw the launch of the Gameboy Advance, the Gamecube, and Super Smash Bros Melee. And, in the industry at large, Sega announced that it was going 3rd party, the Playstation 2 was in full stride, and Microsoft jumped in with the release of the Xbox and Halo. For me, a thirteen year old Zelda fanboy, the stakes were high and the drama was irresistible.

I was as happy as a clam, impatient, angry at various people on the internet (of course!), and ridiculously excited for all the ups and downs that my favorite gaming franchise had in store for me. I think I speak for all of the Zelda fandom when I say that 2001 was – wait for it! – legendary. Not convinced? We’ll see about that.

Your typical Zelda fan, in January 2001, had two things on his or her mind: the impending release of the Oracles and the Spaceworld 2000 tech demo footage that blew us all away with its hyper-realistic depiction of Link fighting Ganondorf.  We had been teased – marketed at with great success. We had tasted paradise, and it was the Gamecube’s power to render Ganondorf’s five fully-articulated fingers while he taunted us from across the sea, at Japanese trade shows. We wanted more – we were hungry for more of that juicy goodness, and it would take something hefty to sate us. (more…)

Achievement Design Guidelines

Preface (3/24/2015): In 2011 I was tasked with designing an achievement system for one of the games I was working on. That system never saw the light of day, but I did write some guidelines on achievement design, intended to help future designers that might work on the system. This is an excerpt from those guidelines. Many of these were derived from reading achievement guides written by other designers – but because I never expected to publish this, I didn’t do a good job of saving links to those guides. If you have written similar guides on your own blog, please link to them in the comments here!

While researching achievement systems, I came up with a number of guidelines we should attempt to follow while designing achievements. An important thing to understand is that achievement systems can be used to incentivize a very wide variety of player behaviors, to the point that players will do things they do not enjoy just to earn an achievement.

Push players towards enjoyment

If there is a type of play-style or mechanic that players enjoy already, it’s a good candidate for achievements. Think carefully before incentivizing something they do NOT enjoy.

Evaluate an achievement by the most efficient method it could be earned

Ask yourself: if I was a dedicated player out to earn this achievement as fast as possible, how would I do it? Make sure the answer is something we’re willing to live with. (more…)

Controlling a MOBA on a console controller

Preface (3/24/2015): I wrote this four years ago, when I was still working in QA. I had never worked on a MOBA , or played one on a console. Or done any sort of in-depth dive into polishing a control scheme, for that matter. But I was real proud of this write-up at the time!

This is a concept document examining the design challenges of creating League of Legends or a clone of League of Legends on a console.

Control Scheme Goals:

Speed

Players must be able to execute actions quickly. They must not feel delayed by menus, slow targeting methods, or any other aspect of the interface.

Precision

Players must be able to execute actions with precision. If it involves aiming, the control scheme should allow players to aim at exactly the point they want to aim at. There should never be any ambiguity, and, if the player misses or otherwise fails to perform the action, it should be because of player error, not a failure of interface or controls. (more…)