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The Audacity of Scope

January 26, 2013
One game, two overworlds

I’ve always loved the Zelda franchise. In so many ways I consider most entries in the series to represent absolute master classes of proper game design, and the Zelda formula has inspired not only the obvious homages like Darksiders, but also less immediately similar works like Resident Evil and Nintendo’s own Metroid (and by extension the so-called Metroidvania games from Konami). Though I haven’t played all of the Zeldas – especially some of the portable versions have eluded me – I’ve played enough of them to feel like I’m well-informed about the franchise and its evolution. Indeed, on some level I’ve always considered the quality of the Zelda games, alongside the high-profile Mario ones, to be a sort of measurement tool not only for the state of our industry, but even more so the state of Nintendo. And judging by the last few major entries in the franchise, it would seem like the realities of the games business have finally caught up with the Japanese company that, for the longest time, seemed to almost never compromise on quality.

Last year I read this article, filled with supposedly believable rumors about the next big WiiU Zelda game. Some choice quotes include:

  • “They got hundreds of people working on the new Wii U Zelda game”
  • “It’ll end up being the most expensive game they’ve made to date”
  • “…about the same amount of dungeons as previous Zelda games, but these will be vastly bigger in scope and will be totally different from each other”.

Some of this may end up being true. Indeed, maybe all of it is. Why not assume that the entire article is completely spot-on and prophetic at the same time (that is to say, that nothing will change during the course of the game’s development). That still leaves a lot of open questions about the production and marketability of this game.

It’s become an accepted fact even among non-developers that the costs of development are on the rise, and that they’ve indeed reached a point of vastly diminishing returns on many fronts (just this week or so, both Atari and THQ went more or less bye-bye). There’s a lot of nuance to consider here, though, which most people on the consumer side don’t know about. For example, there’s not really any correlation between the “size” of a game and how much it costs. There’s not really any correlation between play-time and cost either. The picture is a bit more complex than that. The absolutely simplest way to look at things, though it’s still not perfect, is to think about development costs in terms of manpower. Nothing ends up costing nearly as much on a game development project as the salaries of the staff, and the more ambitious the product, the more staff (and development time) are generally thrown at it.

Now, if your game is meant to make money, a good way to ensure a good return on investment is to establish what kind of features and content the game is meant to contain, and then to look at the best way to tick those boxes while keeping the manpower costs as low as possible. This is a bit tricky, of course. Let’s say your game is meant to last for 300 hours. That’s an easy box to tick for just one programmer; one can make a version of Pac Man that is so slow that getting to the end takes 300 hours – job done. Sadly, basically nobody would want to play that game, so there have to be more parameters added to the mix. Let’s say that the pacing is sped up so that the game appeals to everyone. That’s great, except that they now will be able to get through your 300 hours of content in just, say, 3 hours. So to balance that, you now have to add more reasons to keep playing, like new mechanics that keep the game fresh as you progress through the levels, new level layouts to stave off boredom and fatigue, multiplayer features, and so on. Of course, for each new parameter that is added, it becomes increasingly difficult to make the game happen without throwing massive amounts of money at it – thus increasing the likelihood that the project isn’t going to make its investment back. And to add some icing on the cake, the market has become increasingly sensitive to production values. While making a puzzle game may have meant great return-on-investment back in the days when Tetris was priced the same as Final Fantasy, those kinds of games are now expected to cost next to nothing to download to one’s mobile phone.

If it’s not already obvious how this all connects to the Zelda franchise, and the future WiiU Zelda, let me spell it out: the classic Zelda formula is horribly unforgiving and inflexible from a production standpoint. Many would argue that A Link to the Past for the SNES is the benchmark gold standard of the franchise, so let’s look at what Nintendo chose to put in the game when cost was much less of an issue than it is today. A Link to the Past features a massive amount of play time, beautiful pacing, very little repetition (granted, this is subjective), two separate interlinked overworlds, masses of different enemies, unique events, bosses everywhere and very, very little collection/fetch-questing. If we were to draw a line between this game and the latest one, Skyward Sword, we can more or less see how with each new Zelda, Nintendo have tried to stick as close as possible to the Zelda experience, while at the same time keeping the relative development costs as low as possible.

Skyward Sword's map; a bit on the barren side, but flexible

Skyward Sword’s map; a bit on the barren side, but quite flexible on the other hand

Let’s start by looking at the handling of level design in the Zelda games. Since the SNES game there has been a marked increase in fetch/collection quests and time spent traversing the surface of the game world. Furthermore, the overworlds in many Zelda games have become increasingly modular – The Wind Waker and Skyward Sword should immediately spring to mind. The reason for both of these changes is that Nintendo are trying to get as much play time out of their overworlds as possible, while at the same time being more flexible in pacing and content structure. The Wind Waker had the player sailing from island to island. Skyward Sword had the player flying between islands that were suspended in the sky, or through portals to the world below the clouds. Both setups allow the development team the luxury to simply add to or cut scope from the overworld without it being quite so obvious. If, on the other hand, they would have insisted on carving out a static piece of land for the overworld’s creation, that land mass would have to be painfully redesigned as the scope of the game changed throughout production, or risk feeling very barren (I’m looking at you, Twilight Princess). It could in theory also have ended up too packed with stuff on too small a surface, but that’s very unlikely – people usually underestimate workload, rather than overestimate. Additionally, Skyward Sword feels absolutely no shame in repeatedly using its dungeons and/or the surrounding areas for new purposes as the player progresses through the game. While I’m not averse to revisiting old areas in principle, in the case of Zelda this is quite obviously a cost-cutting exercise – especially when it’s mandatory and not simply about finding secret treasures or other optional content. Adding new game logic and scripting is much, much cheaper than creating totally new areas, so that’s what Nintendo have chosen to do. Not a bad idea – but less close to the Zelda formula established in A Link to the Past than they themselves would have liked, I’m sure.

They didn't even try to hide how modular the map was in The Wind Waker

They didn’t even try to hide how modular the map was in The Wind Waker

Another part of the formula where Nintendo have been cutting back is the area of enemies. Skyward Sword especially was a great example of highly MMO-influenced content design, with base enemies being reused in various forms, sporting slight differences in aesthetics and functionality. It’s, again, understandable; once you’ve created a combat system as comparatively advanced as the one in this game you’ll want to be able to reuse it as much as possible. Tweak a few hitpoints of the Moblin and/or give him an electrified sword and bam – a “new” enemy derived from the first, very pricey, one.

We're different from each other, and that guy on the right!

We’re different from each other, and that other guy too!

I'm nothing like those other guys!

I’m nothing like those other guys!

And then there are the bosses, which are notorious for being one of the most expensive types of content to make in most games, and perhaps especially in these types of games. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that The Wind Waker had the player fight the same bosses again towards the end of the game, while Skyward Sword had a very small number that they recycled much in the same way as the normal enemies.

Hey! Think you can beat me? Like... 4 times?

Hey! Think you can beat me? Like… 4 times?

Finally there’s the whole upgrade system, which is very MMO-like in its nature, what with the tiered resources and collecting involved. On top of that, there are plenty of money sinks in the game, and a clear scarcity of cash, which slows the pacing down quite a bit for those who want to power Link up to the max.

All of these design decisions are direct consequences of the financial realities of maintaining the Zelda formula. We can argue the benefits of collection quests and grinding, but just by looking at how Nintendo’s worked in the past I feel confident in assuming that they would rather have their games contain every single feature idea they could come up with, and have all the content be as contextually appropriate and unique as possible. But that’s simply just not feasible as the cost of content is increasing. And although the kinds of sales figures that Nintendo have been seeing from the Zelda franchise have consistently been high, absolute numbers don’t count for nearly as much as relative numbers. If throwing twice as much money on a game doesn’t earn you twice as much back, you’ve generally made a suboptimal investment.

So even if this work-in-progress HD Zelda game does end up being the most massive endeavor in Nintendo’s history, even if it is unparalleled in size, scope and outright quality, then it will end up being a major departure from where this franchise has been going lately, and will more likely than not represent a relative dollar-for-dollar loss for Nintendo. The only reason I could imagine the Japanese giant making a prohibitively expensive game like that, considering the very prudent design and production methodologies they’ve used lately, is that they simply want to get more WiiU consoles into people’s homes, even if they have to do so at a relative loss. While that would of course be a somewhat good thing, it would still be less than ideal, and just this week they announced that they would be re-releasing The Wind Waker on WiiU – to hold fans over while waiting for the newer Zelda. Who wants to bet that whatever engine ends up powering the WiiU version of Wind Waker will be derived from the one they’re developing from the newer game?

Early footage of the HD version of The Wind Waker

Early footage of the HD version of The Wind Waker

Finally, though this post focuses on Nintendo, it’s not really meant to comment on them so much as to use them as an example of the relationship between market realities and game design. If we keep these same return-on-investment-goggles firmly attached to our faces and gaze elsewhere, we’ll see that other Nintendo games are also fighting the battle between scope and cost. The Super Mario Galaxy games, for example, are very modular in their design, and much of the content of Galaxy 2 was no doubt conceived for the first game. Far be it from me to pretend to know what Nintendo is thinking, but I smell a time-to-market mentality, which used to be all but unheard-of among Nintendo games. As for the rest of the industry, they have been padding their games much less gracefully than Nintendo for even longer. There is experience point grinding and similar sorts of systemic content in genres that historically never featured such things, and the entire Achievement system that so many platforms and games use is (among other things) a way of artificially squeezing more playtime out of the same amount of content.

Is all of this, then, a bad thing? No, not in any absolute, general sense, I think. What it is, though, is a confirmation of how we, the consumers I mean, are still regarded as children, at least as far as our spending patterns are concerned. A friend of mine quite eloquently said that when you’re a kid, you have no money, but you have plenty of time and energy. As you get older, you get less time, though you now have money and energy. When you’re older still, you have money and time, but less energy. The industry’s desire to pump out gaming experiences that above all feature tens of hours of gameplay, caters to those of us who think that entertainment-hours-per-dollar, is more important than the quality and variety of said entertainment. I would personally quite gladly play a shorter Zelda that’s constantly pulling new tricks out of its hat, and never compromises on pacing or the quality of its content, but that just doesn’t seem part of the formula, and I’m not sure Nintendo would ever risk toying with it. What if the kids started thinking that Zelda games were a bad investment?

It’s a bit of a shame. Not because I’m so naïve as to think that a formula conceived and perfected in the business and development environment of 20 years ago would ever be able to scale with all the changes our industry has seen over the years. No, I just wish the formula would have grown up alongside us, and that instead of desperately padding their content, Nintendo would simply accept quality and variety as the baselines of the franchise, rather than trying to make sure the games feature a set number of hours of playtime. Because when it’s all said and done, the water cooler conversations and rave reviews that Zelda games have elicited through the years have always been about quality dungeon design, clever puzzles, awesome boss fights and other similar highlights.

Nobody remembers the time stamps on their save files.

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11 Comments
  1. bombabyte permalink

    I guess that Nintendo will continue its systemic content course with the Zelda games. During the last Nintendo Direct, Eiji Aonuma stressed that the team is rethinking Zelda’s conventions. More specifically, dungeons being approached in linear fashion and the game being played alone. So it seems to me, that Nintendo is rather obviously saying, that they are betting on MMO dynamics. The course they, as you pointed out, took with Skyward Swords. It seems as if Nintendo is fully aware of the prohibitive cost/entertainment/revenue ratio.

  2. Thus-spoke-Zarathustra permalink

    Very very good article. I had a question i wondered you might have an insight on, and that is whether Nintendo might be smart in sort of creating a system of “sequels” in the way Majora’s mask was to Oot. Let me explain what I mean. Really what im wondering is if Nintendo might be able to spend less manpower on a game that borrows many of the same structure and even design of the previous game assuming they are on the same console. With Majora’s mask of course, they seemed to borrow alot of the same character models, designs and even combat system of the previous game. Im assuming that Majora’s mask would have been a relatively cheaper endevaour than say….the gap from TP to SS or WW to TP. If Nintendo could rely more on their past games as literal pieces to cherrypick from for their next game, could they not focus largely more on quality of content (e.g. perhaps larger more filled overworlds etc.)

    I don’t know but i would wager a game akin to Majora’s mask (perhaps not as blatant a copy) would take less time to create, would require relatively less manpower, and would allow the team to perhaps focus on other aspects they may not be able to when the game is entirely different from its predecessor.

    Very interested in your thoughts one way or another and explanation.

    • Thank you, and a very, very good question.

      Regarding Majora’s Mask – I absolutely think that you’ve nailed much of the background on its head. See the following quote:

      “A common belief about the game’s development is that it was due to lacking enthusiasm for Ura Zelda. One of the developers, Eiji Anouma, complained about having to develop the game, so Shigeru Miyamoto challenged him to create a sequel to Ocarina of Time in a year’s time, resulting in the creation of Majora’s Mask. In exchange, the staff no longer had to work on Ura Zelda.” (from http://zelda.wikia.com/wiki/The_Legend_of_Zelda:_Majora's_Mask – not the best source admittedly, but I have read it elsewhere too I think).

      Whether the above quote is true or not, making the game in such a short time span after OoT would more or less _force_ the team to reuse as many assets as possible. The fictional wrapper, what with the moon and the 3 days and the am-I-dreaming-or-what, may well have come up as an immediate consequence of someone doing some original scheduling estimates and figuring that just creating the new environments and handful of new assets would take up all the time allotted for the project. One can only speculate, but it does feel probable.

      To be honest with you, though there is a lot of “blatant copying”, I personally don’t see that as an intrinsically bad thing. The goal needs to be that, for players, it doesn’t _feel_ like it’s a blatant copy. MM is so different from OoT in so many meaningful ways, and the fictional justification for all the familiar faces is so strong, that I actually don’t mind at all. And I think that so long as Nintendo keep making as much of an effort to justify reusing stuff, whether technology or aesthetics or whatever, then I don’t mind if they save themselves loads of time in the process.

      When you think about it, making a sequel is in itself a cost-cutting exercise. There are so many known quantities when making a sequel that you can ramp parts of the team down automatically – you already know what the core of the game is going to be and don’t risk ending up in R&D limbo with a set of prototypes that just aren’t fun enough.

      So yeah. It’s both possible, likely and indeed welcome that we’ll see more reuse and so-called “content sequels”. And to be honest, if they all end up as good as Majora’s Mask, the Pikmin Sequels and Super Mario Galaxy 2, I really won’t mind. If anything I’ll welcome it. Especially if the lowered headcount puts them in a position where they can be bolder with the content/gameplay side of things, now that the cost of producing assets is slashed in half or something.

  3. sarah permalink

    “I would personally quite gladly play a shorter Zelda that’s constantly pulling new tricks out of its hat, and never compromises on pacing or the quality of its content” well, hey! i think link between worlds would qualify for that :D

    • I’ll check it out as soon as Nintendo makes a 3DS with two analog sticks by default. :)

      Thank you!

      • Born of the Ancients permalink

        Afraid you’ll be waiting for either an eternity or, at the least, a very, very, long time–long enough that you’ll likely never play any of the 3DS games at this rate. You shouldn’t wait for Nintendo to create such a 3DS edition for a number of reasons:
        1) There are extremely few games that support such a control scheme.
        2) Nintendo won’t risk fragmenting the 3DS market by introducing a different control scheme.
        3) A Link Between Worlds does not use two analog sticks.

        (Additionally, it seems downright obstinate to use a long-shot condition as your barrier to the many, many, quality games now featured on the 3DS)

        I’d highly recommend finding a game bundle to get a 3DS on the cheap.

      • Thanks for your post!

        1.) Irrelevant to me. Plus, there’d be more of them if the control scheme was standard.
        2.) What does that even mean? These games already exist on the 3DS (I thought that’s what you admitted in your previous point). They require an addon to play. I just want a 3DS model where I don’t have to slap that thing on. That doesn’t fragment the market.
        3.) I’m not buying it for just one game though. I buy the hardware for ALL of its games. If all I wanted to play was Zelda, then that’d be another story. But you’d have to try real hard to infer that from my reply to the previous commenter.

        And yeah, I suppose there is degree of obstinance involved. I’m tired of Nintendo only ever doing anything half-assedly on the hardware front – indeed, if you want to call anyone obstinate, then Nintendo would make a fine target for that accusation. It’s one of the reasons I’ve yet to buy a Wii U, and may indeed never.

  4. Born of the Ancients permalink

    1) Why is this irrelevant to you? There exist few games that support this control scheme. You’ve not expressed interest or otherwise mentioned any of them. If I am to interpret your statements correctly, then you’re holding back on purchasing a games system for the potential games which support a control scheme which isn’t widely-adopted.

    While there would be more games should this control scheme be standard, this would prevent previous 3DS/2DS owners from playing these new games (see below) and this is just a hypothetical exercise. I’m sure many developers would include support for whatever control scheme came standard on the 3DS, but the unfortunate fact of the matter is that the 3DS has its current control layout and not anything else. Don’t fret over the hypothetical.

    2) Yes, some (emphasis on some) games do exist. Ten do. Ten games of the four-hundred and ninety-three games available for the 3DS support the circle pad pro. That means one in every fifty games support two circle pads–four-hundred and eighty-three games lack support, and it seems that many developers are getting along quite fine without the use of two circle pads.

    As to fragmentation, the introduction of a 3DS model with two circle pads would quite certainly fragment the 3DS market. Currently there are three models of the 3DS and only two have a circle pad pro adapter. Creating a 3DS wherein the circle pad pro would be a standard hardware addition would both force all previous 3DS owners to either purchase a new 3DS or an adapter and force Nintendo to release a circle pad pro adapter for the 2DS.
    (The Circle Pad Pro adapter is only sold in one shop in the US, by the way. Making this hardware change would necessitate shipping this adapter to all retailers–not just one)

    With three 3DS revisions already in the market, do you really think Nintendo would want to further fragment its 3DS line with the introduction of another model that necessitates the use of an adapter for all previously-released models? This is what I mean by fragmentation. Think of the 3DS line from a business and marketing standpoint.
    (Developers may make the dual-circle pad controls optional but, at that point, why include them at all when a large portion of your market base cannot use them? At this point in the 3DS’s life cycle, any major control scheme change must play nice with the previous iterations of the 3DS)

    3) Buying a games system for all of its games is an excellent idea. The 3DS has a multitude of excellent games which don’t require nor (will they likely ever) support the circle pad pro adapter. You can still play all the games that are on the 3DS without a circle pad pro adapter; don’t let a minor gripe with what could’ve been rob yourself of all the excellent gaming opportunities possible on the 3DS.

    I suppose my point here is that, though a second circle pad would indeed be excellent, there isn’t a second circle pad for the 3DS which is included by default. This isn’t going to change any time soon, and you shouldn’t let your issues with the hardware prevent you from enjoying the experiences available on 3DS.

    • “You’ve not expressed interest or otherwise mentioned any of them.”

      Maybe I would’ve if I’d cared what you thought of my purchasing decisions. Your entire post seems predicated on the idea that I do. I don’t.

      “While there would be more games should this control scheme be standard”

      Which nobody has suggested. There’s no rule that says that you have to use every button or stick on the controller if it were there. The presence of hardware doesn’t force the software to do anything with it. This is basic stuff.

      “this would prevent previous 3DS/2DS owners from playing these new games”

      A choice that should be left up to developers/publishers (as in the case of the Circle Pad; there’s really no difference here). Also, multiple control schemes have been around for ever.

      “As to fragmentation, the introduction of a 3DS model with two circle pads would quite certainly fragment the 3DS market. Currently there are three models of the 3DS and only two have a circle pad pro adapter.”

      So the market’s already fragmented. Having a model of the 3DS where the CPP was built-in doesn’t fragment it any more than releasing WiiMotes with the MotionPlus built-in already. On that note, there’s already a precedent there – so clearly, Nintendo doesn’t mind. I’ve a pretty strong recollection of them saying that “we don’t mind releasing new types of hardware when we need to”.

      “Creating a 3DS wherein the circle pad pro would be a standard hardware addition would both force all previous 3DS owners to either purchase a new 3DS or an adapter and force Nintendo to release a circle pad pro adapter for the 2D”

      No. I mean, I don’t know what to add to that – what you’re saying is just untrue. The fact that Nintendo released MotionPlus-enabled one-piece WiiMotes didn’t force everyone else to suddenly start buying MotionPluses.

      “With three 3DS revisions already in the market, do you really think Nintendo would want to further fragment its 3DS line with the introduction of another model that necessitates the use of an adapter for all previously-released models?”

      No, that’d be dumb. Good thing that problem only exists in your mind.

      “(Developers may make the dual-circle pad controls optional but, at that point, why include them at all when a large portion of your market base cannot use them? At this point in the 3DS’s life cycle, any major control scheme change must play nice with the previous iterations of the 3DS)”

      This kind of backwards-compatibility is done in software. It can happen perfectly seamlessly, with no user interaction required. Simple line of pseudocode: “If CirclePadInternal or CirclePadExternal = Present then OfferRightStickCameraControl”.

      “You can still play all the games that are on the 3DS without a circle pad pro adapter; don’t let a minor gripe with what could’ve been rob yourself of all the excellent gaming opportunities possible on the 3DS.”

      I don’t want the hardware in its current form. I don’t feel robbed of any gaming opportunities – they will be there waiting for me if and when I do get a 3DS. That may be when Nintendo releases a proper 3DS, or it may be when the existing one is really cheap (and when it’s obvious that an improved version won’t ever come out – like when the 4DS or whatever is launched; the one that shoots the piss of Nintendo’s hardware designers in your face every time you try to manually control the game’s camera).

      It may also not happen at all. I find it amusing that you’d be so disturbed by that notion.

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