Breath of the Wild’s Exploration Cycle ~ Design Doc


Breath of the Wild is a game about wanderlust. The drive to explore the world around you. The game guides you through a virtually endless
cycle of spotting something that piques your interest, marching over and getting rewarded
in one way or another. But how does Breath of the Wild pull this
off? It’s not automatic. Just having a huge, dense world isn’t enough. There are plenty of open world games that
feel more like big hub worlds. L.A Noire, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, Skyward
Swor-ohh… There must be something else to this design,
right? Today, we’ll go over how Breath of the Wild’s
sightlines, terrain, gameplay loop, and Korok seeds help you fall into that cycle of exploration. Breath of the Wild’s Hyrule is an enormous,
sprawling landscape. The world BEGS you to soak in your surroundings,
and to look far out into the distance. Even the game’s marketing is mostly sweeping
shots of Hyrule with Link looking to the horizon. This is Breath of the Wild’s clearest break
from the rest of the series, and its biggest selling point. The environmental designers turn an imposing
vastness into something digestible through the way they use sightlines. The game has a bunch of tools to help you
out, and the tutorial on the Great Plateau teaches the process the game wants you to
use while exploring. After gaining the first rune ability there is a brief tutorial where
you spot and mark the 3 mandatory shrines on the plateau. You’re being taught how to literally use
the spotting tools, yes, but they’re also silently showing off how the game designs
its sight lines. Hyrule is a web of visual bread crumbs. As you explore, you’ll notice that almost
no matter where you are in Hyrule, there are lots of landmarks that call out to the eager
new explorer. Local ones like campsites, enemy hideouts
and shrines, and global ones like towers, mountain tops, and Hyrule Castle. And for most of these breadcrumbs, you’re
the one deciding to pursue them. Instead of a trillion waypoints already filled
in like in an Ubisoft open world game, the BotW map is sparse with only the topography
filled out as you reach individual towers in every region. If you’re not pursuing an active quest,
you’re setting out your own path as you look at the scenery and place your own map markers. Limiting the information on the map changes
the player’s role in exploration from mindlessly pursuing goals like a checklist, to a much
more active role in deciding what to do next. It makes the game feel more open-ended. So you have the urge to explore and locations
to check out, but how does the game dictate the path you take? It’s all in the terrain design. Hyrule’s terrain is rugged. Mountains, hills and canyons are everywhere. You could say that it’s mostly just to emphasize
the climbing but there’s more to it. According to the Zelda team during a talk
at CEDEC, much of Hyrule’s design implements what they call ‘The Triangle Rule’. There is a heavy use of triangular shapes
throughout the terrain and architecture, whether it’s towers, stables, fairy fountains or
bigger landmarks like Hyrule Castle, Death Mountain, or the Dueling Peaks. The team favored these shapes because they
presented the player with a couple of options. Either go around the mountain, or climb it. Whatever choice the player makes, as they
progress, what lies beyond the mountain is slowly revealed. It’s all a part of BoTW’s visual language,
to entice the player’s curiosity. As mountainous as Breath of the Wild is, it
does avoid making its locations feel too similar. Other open world games like Skyrim sometimes
have difficulty distinguishing one area from another, but that’s never a real issue here. Each region in Hyrule is just distinct enough
from each other so it doesn’t really blend together. The dragon on Mount Lanayru, the bonelike
spires in Deep Akkala and parts of the Hyrule Ridge, The rigid form of the Gerudo Highlands. The smooth yet Guardian infested grasslands
of central Hyrule. Triangulating your position is always easy
even without a map. Mountains and distant landmarks like towers
are perfect as long term objectives as they’re easy to spot and work towards. The towers, shrines, Death Mountain, Hyrule
Castle, Satori Mountain, and even the Guardian enemies all are visible from a distance. Thanks to the game’s use of glowing lights,
you can see the goal in any weather conditions, and you don’t even need to place a map marker. The goal itself always beckons. Once you make it to the top of that mountain
or tower, hopefully rich with new found items, spirit orbs, and maybe a goofy story, it’s
on to the next goal. And the journey to that next goal will lead
players to more distractions, more trials, and more stories to discover. Follow the lights, and you’ll have a good
time. But if you need some help kick starting your
adventure the main storyline can help you out. In the main quest of Breath of the Wild you’re
supposed to go around conquering the 4 divine beasts, which is fine and all, but the point
of it is not to provide an elaborate story campaign *whispering* Because there isn’t
one. Instead, there is SO much more emphasis on
the journey itself in Breath of the Wild than in any other 3D Zelda game. The Overworlds of past 3D Zeldas showed hints
of what this style could become, but Breath of the Wild took it to a new level. The 4 Divine Beasts serve more as very rough
suggestions, and you’ll get to them, but you’re really meant to get sidetracked. For many, what starts as “oh look at that”
will turn into an hour long chain of little misadventures. And that’s not an accident. It takes a lot of careful design work to make
this happen. The key to keeping players interested in continuing
that loop is to make sure that those misadventures feel worthwhile. Constant surprises and little distractions
are at the core of Breath of the Wild’s design. No matter where you are, there is always something
worth finding. The rewards may be smaller consumables like
weapons, arrows, food, materials, Korok seeds or something more substantial like a piece
of armor, an ancient shrine, or a tower. If something catches your eye, you can go
after it. Breath of the Wild doesn’t implement a Metroidvania-style
design where you’re blocked from certain locations by your ability set. You’re almost always equipped to go after
whatever you spot as you make your way through the world. Curiosity leads to success, and that success
leads to more curiosity. So that kick starts the exploration loop,
but once the game grabs you it also has to KEEP your interest. It’s easy to LOSE interest in the loop. If you could figure out a ‘best’ way to get
to a shrine, or a ‘best’ tool set to use, that would make the game a little more predictable,
and a little more boring. Loot driven games like Borderlands or Destiny
can get around this with a constant drip of new and better items, but Breath of the Wild’s
item set is much smaller. Instead, the game uses a couple of tricks
to take similar rewards and obstacles and make them feel a bit fresher: Each tool is more versatile than it appears
at first glance, and they combine with other mechanics in unexpected ways. Metal weapons and items can conduct electricity
and be used with magnesis. That can be dangerous sometimes, but it can
also be used for solving puzzles. Torches and fire arrows can set tall grass
on fire, which can damage enemies, or create an updraft to lift you into the sky, giving
you an advantage in combat and exploration. Just about every tool has a liiiiiittle bit
more to discover beyond what you first see. And if you’re creative, a lot of them will
get you out of a jam, in one way or another. Love it or hate it, weapon durability plays
a big role in the exploration cycle and much of the game’s design would simply fall apart
without it. If you could lock in a ‘best’ loadout early,
you lose a reason to experiment with new items. Without the need to experiment with new items,
combat will get more routine, your experiences will be less unique, and you might lose interest
in the game faster. By making you cycle through your inventory,
the game forces you to think a little harder before you use that good sword you found. Finding replacements for these items isn’t
hard, yet the hunger for more items is never totally satisfied. The downside of these design choices is they
can lead to some frustrations. If you figure out a great combination, it’s
annoying to lose the ability to use it. But that trade off is in service to the greater
good. The variety and the restrictions that the
game places on how you explore the world drive the engine that keeps you exploring. So you’re doing great, making some big plans,
but while you travel don’t ignore the small details. They can pay off, too. Korok: “Yahaha!” Korok seeds are the most obvious instance
of rewarding the player’s curiosity. The 900 Koroks hidden throughout Hyrule serve
as a ‘filler’ reward for players to find along the way to a bigger objective, like
the Divine Beasts or the 120 Ancient Shrines. They aren’t a high priority, but they’re
still valuable as they are needed to expand the limited space for weapons, shields and
bows. They never grab your attention like the major
game objectives, but sparkling leaves, statues with fruit placed below, circles of lily pads,
glaciers of ice, rock formations, tree stumps with pinwheels or large leaves, metal balls
chained to wells and tree stumps, and any suspiciously placed rock can all hide a Korok
seed. When you know what you’re looking for, the
seeds aren’t tough to spot, but that’s kind of the point. They are supposed to contrast with the rest
of the world and raise your suspicion. Like the landmarks in the terrain, they help
condition the player to pay attention to their surroundings, which once again feeds into
that never ending chain of curiosity. Lots of the Korok puzzle indicators heavily
use one of the earliest lessons in graphic design: the gestalt grouping principles. They’re a psychological theory on how we
associate things with each other visually: through similarity, proximity, closure and
continuation. The principles of Similarity, Proximity, and
Closure are used in most of the Korok puzzles and work together to catch the player’s
eye. Let’s use a simple rock formation puzzle
as an example. Here, the similarity in size, color, and shape
of the rocks and their proximity to each other hints at a relationship between them. There’s nothing in game to tell you to fix
it, but when you notice that something feels off here you’re rewarded for applying closure. This is done again in the these twin sculptures. The proximity of the sculptures and similarity
of the formation hint at their relationship. You can spot the difference between the two
groups, apply closure, and get your prize. This may sound like a lot of words to describe
something pretty obvious, but keep in mind: the game doesn’t highlight the Korok puzzles
very much. There aren’t (usually) glowing lights or clear
signs you can see from a distance, you just have to keep your eyes peeled while you’re
out and about. They aren’t there to be elaborate brain
teasers either, they just little ‘a-ha!’ moments that you stumble across. Getting rewarded for noticing things that
just ‘feel’ off is another mini reward loop, and those loops all add up in the long run
to keep you exploring. Games focused on exploration are extremely
tough to get right. Most other open world games have a fall back
plan like a great story, a tight combat system, just something to pick up the slack. For Breath of the Wild to succeed as an exploration
game it had to get so many things right at once. Without a toolset of emergent behavior to
tinker with, without drawing in players with its scenery, without a vast world hiding its
details, or without its variety of mysteries big and small, the game would not work. As one of the best exploration games of all
time, Breath of the Wild is a wonderful sight to see. [Chill vibes outro music from Breath of the
Wild]

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