How can you improve an already outstanding game series again? The team around game director Hidemaro Fujibayashi poses exactly this agonizing question when he starts working on The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild in January 2013. Fujibayashi, who has more than 20 years of Zelda development experience, is working with series veteran Eiji Aonuma to develop a concept that will determine the entire development process of the game.
The idea: To be successful, the new Zelda must maintain the essence of the series on the one hand, while breaking with existing conventions on the other. "Our goal was to create an adventure where the player can experience freedom," said Fujibayashi during a panel at the Game Developers Conference 2017.
One of the first steps of the design team is to take a close look at established conventions. The goal is to change the structure of the game so that it no longer feels passive, but feels active. In other words: The player should no longer move within predetermined level design limits, but should interact more actively than ever with the game and its world.
In order to do just that, Fujibayashi first parted with what he himself likes to call "impassable walls". The team builds a kind of guinea pig area and defines all walls so that protagonist Link can climb them. He is only limited by his endurance display. "Walls that were once boundaries have become a new, alternative path," enthuses Fujibayashi.
But not only climbing provides completely new playful freedom, but also the addition of a prominent special item. Fujibayashi: "By introducing the glider, the hero was able to sail through the air after a long climb and basically fly wherever he wanted." The project managers are now certain that Breath of the Wild will be an open-world adventure in which Link can explore a seamlessly connected world at will. "In a way, however, our approach is also a journey back to the roots," explains Fujibayashi in Part two of the official making-of video. "Because even in the original The Legend of Zelda for the Nintendo Entertainment System, players could freely explore a huge, open world and discover everything at their own pace."
What is the maximum size of an open world so that players don't feel lost in it? And at least what extent must it be so that you don't get bored and keep discovering new things? Nintendo solves this problem comparatively pragmatically. "The easiest way for us to develop a sense of size and distance was to think of Kyoto," Fujibayashi said. "Nintendo is from Kyoto, and I'm from Kyoto too. I was born and raised here. By applying the geography of Kyoto to the game, it was easy for me to cover the distances from north to south and from east to west For example, I could imagine how tired I would be if I were to walk across town. How much time it would take and how quickly a horse would cover this distance. " The result: After a lot of experimentation, the team comes to the conclusion that the new Open World would be about twelve times as big as the game world of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, published in 2006 for Gamecube and Wii.
Fujibayashi and Aonuma soon also agreed that the game must have interaction objects that react in a variety of ways to the actions of the player and influence each other. But how exactly could you test all of these new concepts efficiently and cost-effectively? Fujibayashi decides to design a 2D prototype of his game ideas that is visually reminiscent of the very first Zelda for the NES. At the same time, this would give him the opportunity to bring his concept closer to the rest of the team in an easily understandable way. "I took the character data, gave it to our technical director Takuhiro Dohta and asked him to do it for me," said Fujibayashi. The resulting prototype with pixel optics can be quite impressive. You can see a link with a blue outfit that interacts with the environment in a variety of ways. If Link shoots arrows at a tree through a campfire, the arrows catch fire and set the tree on fire. The same thing happens when Link lights a wooden stick around the campfire and then touches bushes.
On the other hand, if the 2D hero pushes a tree trunk lying around into the water, it floats on the surface and serves Link as a kind of bridge to cross the river. Or the current catches the tree stone and drives it downstream. In the 2D prototype, the protagonist can even send gusts of wind that not only throw opponents back a little, but also blow the leaves of adjacent trees in the corresponding direction. The nice thing here: How the player makes his way through the world depicted from a top-down perspective is ultimately entirely up to him. "With this simple experiment, we were able to decide very quickly what we would like to change about the core gameplay of the series and what not. However, when we started to implement the whole thing in 3D and we added more and more details, we also noticed how much work because we are approaching, "Fujibayashi recalls.
In order to maintain the flow of fresh ideas during production, the team is always encouraged to write down suggestions for further game design approaches on a department-specific message board. It doesn't matter how crazy they are. "Some of the young designers came up with pretty unique ideas. One of them was that a giant UFO hovers in the game world and kidnaps all the cattle. Or that huge laser guns attack the game world while Link runs through the chaos of the battlefield Our developers even recreated the latter scene with some of our tools and submitted it along with their message board proposal, "reveals Art Director Satoru Takizawa at first part of the official making-of video.
Cheers to the Havok engine
The key component to technically implement Breath of the Wild is the game's physics engine. First, Nintendo relies on in-house technology. However, when it reaches its limits, technical director Takuhiro Dohta decides to use a third-party physics engine. "After numerous tests, we decided to use Havok for our physics simulation. The stability and robustness as well as their countless success stories in the game industry made Havok a very promising choice," said Dohta during the Game Developers Conference 2017.
And indeed: The result is more than impressive and enriches the gameplay on all levels. Dohta continues: "Among other things, we wanted to give players the opportunity to transport any object of their choice to any location on the map. If you make an effort, you can, for example, roll a huge rock from the starting area of the game to the area where the final boss fight takes place. "
Pushing boulders down slopes to roll down opponents' pools; reposition metal objects with the magnetic module so that artificial bridges are created; Interrupt timing with the stasis rune to avoid traps; Felling trees with an ax to serve Link as an improvised raft – little by little, Nintendo is giving the hero more and more opportunities to master challenges. According to producer Eiji Aonuma, the physics engine always creates situations that even the developers did not foresee. "One day I looked at the latest version," said Aonuma in an interview with the British website Eurogamer. "It struck me that many objects that should have been in a certain area were not there. I was surprised and confused. After asking the programmer what was going on, he explained to me who was simulating in the game Wind would have blown the objects away. " "Ultimately, we wanted to create a world where simple elements could achieve complex results," summarizes Dohta at GDC. Anyone who has played Breath of the Wild knows that this has been achieved in every respect.
The main thing is that the chemistry is right
Many video games have a complex physics engine. However, this is not enough for Nintendo, which is why a chemical engine is also added during development. In order to clearly separate the two systems, the physics engine is henceforth defined as a "rule-based motion calculator". The chemistry engine, on the other hand, is the "rule-based state calculator". Admittedly, this sounds a bit cryptic, but ultimately only means that the condition of objects in Breath of the Wild can depend on a variety of influences. The best example of this is undoubtedly the temperature display at the bottom right of the picture: It shows how warm or cold it is in the game world at the moment. If the temperature drops too much, Link begins to freeze, water turns into ice, etc. If it is too hot, rainwater evaporates from puddles, sensitive bomb arrows explode when in direct contact with hot air, air currents whirl up the glider on the left, and much more. Result: This also impressively multiplies the number of play options.
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