Zelda: Breath of the Wild – Aonuma on how elements were placed on the map, physics engine shenanigans
Following the Nintendo Switch hands-on event, earlier this month, various French outlets have published their interview with Eiji Aonuma, about The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. That’s the case of Le Monde, several others, and even Nintendo France themselves. In this post, we’re going to provide yet another translated summary, this time for Gamekult‘s interview.
How elements were placed on the map
Eiji Aonuma explains that, when creating an open world, when comes the time to place elements on the map, there’s various things to take into account. Obviously, there’s the distance between each element (you have to calculate how long it will take players to reach one element from another), but also topography.
After all, things may look flat in a 2D map, but it’s not the case in a 3D world: there’s mountains, cliffs, gaps, and all sorts of natural obstacles, which can make going from Point A to Point B harder than it seems when looking at the map.
That’s why the team decided to place the elements gradually, as the game was being developed. They did so while walking around in the actual game, and looking for places for hiding secrets, etc.. And when it comes to hiding elements, the whole thing can get really complicated in a 3D world, as players may not necessarily know where exactly they are supposed to search.
Quite interestingly, Shigeru Miyamoto used a similar method for the placement of dungeons in the original The Legend of Zelda on the NES.
Nintendo frequently compared The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild to the original game, on the NES, and more precisely players would get lost in the world. For Eiji Aonuma, there’s two “ways” to get lost in a game:
- not being able to find your way
- because you kept exploring the world, and went to various places out of sheer curiosity.
Naturally, the first way is pretty boring, while the second one is something many players are looking for in an open-world game. In fact, it’s something that Eiji Aonuma cannot wait for players to experience, and that’s why the various gameplay mechanics were designed to explore the world.
For example, from the very beginning, players can climb to pretty high places, look at the scenery, and then jump with the paraglider towards an interesting area they spotted. He talks about the “climbing > looking at scenery > flying” cycle, which is at the very base of exploration in this game.
In the interview, Eiji Aonuma reveals that he’s friend with Fumito Ueda, and that he’s often told him he always wanted to create a game like Zelda (which is why Shadow of the Colossus, one of the games he worked on, had many resemblances with Zelda).
Late last year, Fumito Ueda actually sent The Last Guardian to Eiji Aonuma, who played it. One of the elements he took notice of was the segments where you climb on Trico’s head to reach high places. He finds it pretty interesting that, even though they didn’t see each other or discuss it together, they both had a similar idea, and at different times to boot.
When asked whether he has played a Dark Souls game, Eiji Aonuma answers that he has not, though he’s obviously familiar with the series. He believes that one of the interesting aspects of the Legend of Zelda series is the challenge that becomes tougher as you progress through the game. The goal of each game is to have Link gain new abilities as the player gets better.
He does think that, if you made a Zelda game with extremely tough battles, then you could probably end up with a Dark Souls game.
In a previous interview, Eiji Aonuma explained that the team didn’t want to bring some RPG elements in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and more specifically XP and leveling up.
But there are some RPG elements in the game, such as stats for weapons, the large inventory (with tons of items to pick up), or even crafting. Eiji Aonuma explains that while he did try to avoid having stats in the past, it was necessary in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
The thing is, the scale of the game is much bigger than any other Zelda title, with so many items for players to chose from, that having more stats was the only solution. After all, how could players compare two pieces of equipment without any stats?
While it’s true that, at first glance, players may think all those stats will slow down gameplay, he’s confident that they will find them pretty convenient when comes the time to chose which item is better.
The Essence of the Zelda series
Eiji Aonuma and Shigeru Miyamoto frequently argue about what the essence of the Legend of Zelda of series is; it’s something they frequently talked about, and most of the time, the two creators fail to come to an agreement.
Quite interestingly, they did manage to find a common ground during a recent promotional tour in New York, when Shigeru Miyamoto found the right words to describe the Legend fo Zelda series:
The Essence of the Legend of Zelda series is the environment where Link can evolve and get stronger, which is something that players are able to experience directly via the various actions they can perform throughout the adventure.
So, where does that “Essence of the Legend of Zelda” comes into play with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild? Well, there’s the physics engine, that Eiji Aonuma describes as coherent, that has a direct impact on the actions Link can perform in the game. For example, you can make a rock roll down a slope, and its trajectory will vary depending on the angle of the slope.
For Eiji Aonuma and his team, it was important that players be able to “feel” things in a realistic way. In other words, they tried to make it so that, if they were to move or break big things in the game, they would think it would have felt the same way in real life. It’s a major aspect of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, that the team put a strong focus on during development.
Speaking of the physics engine, it’s an aspect of the game that took a long time to finalise, and for a good reason. Basically, when you have one physics engine, that applies to everything in the game’s world, making one minor modification in one place could have a rather unpredictable impact on another area.
Eiji Aonuma shares an amusing anecdote to illustrate that point. At one point, one of the developers working on dungeons wanted to create a puzzle where players have to move pots with wind, so they went in the physics engine settings to make it so wind could make pots fly.
But then, while playtesting the game, Eiji Aonuma went to a place where there was supposed to be pots… only to find there wasn’t any. They had all been blown away by the wind, and were stuck at the foot of a mountain in the distance. There were quite a few similiar “incidents” during development, which is why Eiji Aonuma knew that there needed to be perfect communication between the various teams working on the game.
It’s actually something that he also mentioned in the interview with Jeux-Vidéos.com, so click here to learn more about the week-long playtest sessions that were held to make sure everyone was on the same page.
In the end, what ended up taking so much time with the physics engine wasn’t so much creating it, it was fine tuning every aspect, so that all of them would work well with each others. It’s for this reason that he asked for the game’s release to be delayed.
When it came to playtesting The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Nintendo did resort to companies offering playtesting services (there’s quite a few of them in Japan). This allowed them to have varied groups of people play the game, in an intensive way. Naturally, they also had Nintendo employees (that were working on other projects) playtest the game.
Since a lot of people were playtesting the game, Eiji Aonuma asked for a tool to be created, in order to have a map displayed on a PC. That map was to show the movements of 100 players in real-time, and simultaneously, with a marking point every hour.
It was all pretty amusing for Eiji Aonuma, because it showed the many different ways players were playing the game. Sometimes, lines would converge to a single point, which showed lots of players were going to the same place at a given time. When asked why they went there, players would give answers such as “Because there’s something there”, or “Because I found that thing”.
Very often, it was something he had not thought about, or simply didn’t notice from his point of view (as developer/dirctor). This also allowed the development team to see which places players were not visiting, so that they could make modifications: adding a path, modifying the topography, making a place more attracting, etc..
When asked whether the team thought of adding online features to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (such as multiplayer or messages that players could send to each other), Eiji Aonuma simply said that it was a good idea and would talk about it with his team back in Japan… before laughing.
In other words: no.
Monolith Soft. did assist with the development of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, though it was mostly with art / design. The thing is, their way of developing games was too different from Nintendo’s for Eiji Aonuma and his team to be able to learn anything from them.
It was different for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, since Monolith Soft. is used to wide worlds, which is why their level designers assisted Eiji Aonuma’s team with topography. It does make sense after all: Monolith Soft. successfully created a massive open world in Xenoblade Chronicles X, so they definitely knew a thing or two about world building.
Twilight Princess vs Breath of the Wild
The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild share a similarity… both began development on one platform, but ended up released on two.
Back when The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess was in development, Eiji Aonuma was director, and he had to direct development on two consoles simultaneously. He had less experience that he has now, so the transition from GameCube to Wii was tougher for him to manage.
But this allowed him to quickly learn what should and should not be done when developing a game for multiple platforms. So when came the time to port The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild to the Nintendo Switch, he was able to plan things ahead of time, and make sure that the experience would be as great on the Nintendo Switch as on Wii U… and without any last-minute “surprises”.
Initially, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was only supposed to have voice acting during the major cutscenes. For Eiji Aonuma, it didn’t really feel strange to have characters talk during those major cutscenes, but not in the rest of the game (as in, you get used to it after a while).
Up until now, there was no voice acting in The Legend of Zelda games because Link never talks, and so it felt weird to have everyone do so but not him. But since The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild features a large number of cutscenes, they eventually decided to add voice acting to all of them, not just the major ones.
What if Eiji Aonuma worked on something else than Zelda?
Believe it or not, lack of time is not the reason Eiji Aonuma is still working exclusively on The Legend of Zelda titles. And it’s not like he’s not allowed to: in fact, he’s been told he really shouldn’t hesitate at all if he ever wanted to work on something else.
The problem is, every time he starts thinking about what he could work on, and finds a good idea, his mind always goes back to Zelda, and how that idea he just had could work in a Zelda game. It’s come to the point where he’s had to put idea aside, and literally forbid himself from using them in a Zelda game. That being said, he’s been quite busy with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild lately…
Did you think that Eiji Aonuma loved cooking, and that’s why there’s cooking in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild in the first place? Well… that’s not the case. It’s actually something perfectly logical. Players explore the world, pick up lots of ingredients, and can actually eat them raw.
But then, the development team thought it would be interesting to able to mix the ingredients, in order to improve their properties. After all, one of the very basics in cooking is mixing ingredients together, so it felt perfectly natural to be able to cook in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
Quite interestingly, when Eiji Aonuma’s son first saw the trailer for the game, that showed you could cook, he found the idea really weird. This goes on to show that some things can feel perfectly natural to some people, but not others, which is why he wasn’t the one to insist cooking was added to the game.
The interviewer then told him Eiji Aonuma that his favorite Zelda games were those where secondary characters are as important as main characters in the story, and for world building. And so, when he asked Eiji Aonuma whether that meant he would like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, he smiled and said “I think you will be quite pleased”.
Finally, Eiji Aonuma talks about the main theme of the game, which is “Climb. Live. Protect.” (words that can actually be found on the official website in Japan). He explains the meaning behind each word:
- Climb: you can explore the world by climbing at various places;
- Live: you can live in harmony with the world/nature;
- Protect: you have to protect something, or someone, to achieve your mission.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Wii U, Switch) will be released on March 3rd, worldwide.