What MMOs Can Learn From Breath Of The Wild
It’s been about two weeks now since I finished The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and one thing that I can’t seem to get out of my head is the notion that MMOs could stand to learn a thing or two from the latest in Nintendo’s long-running series. There were a few aspects of the game I was disappointed in, but I largely enjoyed the experience. It’s a large, open world sandbox with a lot of parallels to MMOs and a few of the reasons that I enjoyed it could be applied to issues I’ve had with MMOs in recent times.
Intuitiveness is important
Breath of the Wild is unprecedentedly intuitive. If you see somewhere, you can go there. If you see a plant, you can harvest it. If you find a structure with a piece missing and you put the piece back, you get a small reward for doing so. If you have metal weapons equipped during a lightning storm, you might get shocked. If you have flammable weapon or shield equipped and they come in contact with fire, they will set on fire. There are tons of puzzles related to your powers that work in unique, predictable ways. If you see a horse, you can ride it; you can even shoot mobs off of their horses and take them for yourself. The list goes on.
This level of intuitiveness can not be undersold. Just the simple fact that all of the game’s mechanics work as expected make Breath of the Wild far more immersive. There are very few MMORPGs that even give you the luxury of sitting in furniture around the world, much less interacting with the world in ways that you would expect to be able to. Many MMORPGs resign themselves to making use of sparse predetermined nodes for gathering crafting materials. The worlds in these games are largely backdrops, scenes set with specific quests in mind. Interaction is lacking, much less intuitive. More MMORPGs could stand to include small details that promote interaction.
I’ve discussed this before in another column, but I largely don’t believe that story is important in MMORPGs. In fact, I think that the insistence that a predefined, largely single-player story involving the player character as a hero be included is holding the genre back.
Breath of the Wild proved to me that story isn’t even important in single-player open world games, so long as you have goals of some sort and intuitive, polished gameplay. I actually would have prefered less story, as the conclusion was largely disappointing—and I got the “secret” ending at the end of my first playthrough. Ultimately, it was inconsequential. The only plot points that matter were the facts that you have to stop Ganon somehow, as you are wont to do in Zelda games, and that you have to obtain the power to stop Ganon. Everything else in between could have been cut and not much would have been missed.
This notion is doubly for MMORPGs, where hundreds of players will complete the same tasks over and over. The story simply doesn’t matter. Give the player an end goal and let them write their own story as they work their way towards it. I’d like to see more MMORPGs take this sort of design into consideration.
Flexible goals help
MMORPGs are largely inflexible—this point goes hand in hand with the fact that story isn’t important. You have a specific goal that has to be completed, at most in one of two ways. This is disappointing, given the fact that there’s a wide world out there that could be filled to the brim with multiple ways to complete objectives.
Breath of the Wild’s one major goal is to defeat Ganon. One way or another, you have to obtain enough power that you can defeat the series’ seemingly immortal antagonist. However, the game doesn’t tell you how to do this. If you want to rush into Hyrule Castle the moment that you can, you can do that, even if it’s ill-advised. If you want to take things slowly and complete the game’s large number of shrines, slowly building up power along the way, you can do that as well.
Ultimately, one of the major reasons that Breath of the Wild initially hooked me is that I wasn’t constantly being told what to do. I was given a world to explore and told to just explore it; the game even rewarded me for exploring it. I can’t tell you the last time I felt that an MMORPG truly rewarded me for exploring its world. Not just in some stereotypical manner—such as giving me a bit of experience for finding a new locale or unlocking a new waypoint—but truly rewarded me with an increase in power or a new, obscure weapon.
It is for this reason that flexible goals help. If you set a goal for how much power players need to obtain, give them a core way to obtain it, and then place multitudes of that core way to obtain power around the world, without requiring them to go to every single location, players will be inclined to obtain said power. By having more locations than are necessary around the world, players feel that they have the choice to go to whichever locations they feel like and exploring is incentivized through an increase in power.
When I put all three of these points together, I imagine a game made up of multiple zones similar to that of World of Warcraft: Legion’s new zone. Each zone has its own level bracket and a single end goal, likely to defeat a boss. Scattered around each zone is a set of challenges, which could be anything from a simple test of strength to a full-featured dungeon, that players obtain some form of power from. Each challenge could provide players with a single level, a skill point, or something similar. Once players have obtained enough power to take on the boss they gather a group, kill the boss, and move to the next zone. While it is an as-yet unproven concept, I believe that it very well could solve a number of problems that I and others have with the current core gameplay loop in many MMORPGs.