Source: Nintendo

Three Lessons The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild Teaches Us About Compelling Experience Design

Until this fall, I had never played a Nintendo game. After exhausting my PS4’s game library over months of quarantining, social distancing and isolation, I turned to my roommates’ Nintendo Switch which had been collecting dust in the living room for weeks and booted up The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. The game’s reputation preceded it. I had heard claims online that it was one of the best games of all time and my friends lauded it for its gorgeous open world and unique mechanics. Now, having played it for only a few weeks, three years after its release, I too want to shout from the rooftops of the internet about how great it is and I think I know why.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is the definition of a compelling experience. I believe it can teach designers three valuable lessons about how to design for delightful outcomes.

All experiences can be broken down into four points on a graph. There is the x-axis of unpleasant to pleasant and the y-axis of boredom to anxiety. Something shocking is unpleasant and anxiety-inducing, while something nice is pleasant and boring. Something delightful exists in the sweetest spot, between anxiety and pleasantness. This may sound like a bit of a surprise but here’s why.

When we are delighted, we are on edge. Knowing that something good is going to end only makes the experience more special. This is how The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild makes me feel, in a number of ways.

Lesson 1: Balance the pleasant with the anxious

Breath of the Wild was designed with surprises around every corner, both positive and challenging. Anxiety is baked into the game’s stamina system which requires careful management to successfully climb a cliff or glide off the top of a tower. Weapons degrade over time and eventually break. Surfing down a hill on your shield weakens it. All of these potential consequences only amplify the delight of the action: you never know when your shield might break mid-surf and send you flying but while you’re surfing, man is it ever fun. Every reward in the game is balanced by a cleverly designed consequence.

Lesson 2: Empower your user

The player is given a great deal of freedom from the opening of the game. There is respect and no hand-holding. “You have the tools to navigate the world, now go do it,” is very clearly the point here. In this way Breath of the Wild is a platform for your creativity. Nintendo has built you a sandbox to play in and explore with a diverse set of tools and we are all curious and creative enough to want to engage with it because look, there’s a castle! A core element of the game’s design is sightlines and the horizon. Anything you can see in the distance you can get to and explore. How you get there is open-ended and gives the user ownership over their experience. We as designers need to create platforms for people to do what they innately like to do the way Zelda naturally encourages exploration by empowering us to do just that.

Lesson 3: Repeat and Reward

With an empowered user, the platform should encourage the repetition of diverse actions, at the user’s leisure, with the promise of real rewards. This satisfaction completes the behaviour cycle and extends the user’s relationship with the platform. Breath of the Wild keeps you engaged with the promise of better swords and armor, new recipes with powerful effects and more resources to dress and equip your character. Experiences should always respect the user’s time by giving them something valuable to do with it. Considering whether the experience is enlarging or diminishing is a good measure of value. I have found that Breath of the Wild has enlarged my imagination and my creativity, serving as enriching entertainment.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild serves as a strong example of compelling experience design due its artful balance of anxiety and pleasantness and the rewarding behaviour cycle it creates for the user. It should be viewed as not only a masterclass in open world game design but a model of best practise for user engagement. I look forward to continuing my adventure in the world of Breath of the Wild and immersing myself in the sandbox that Nintendo created for us. While I won’t be travelling anytime soon in the real world, I can’t wait to return to Hyrule the next chance I get.

Theo is a design strategist and fourth year student at OCAD U in Toronto.