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 Zelda  boss: Players want more, and it's getting harder to deliver
Zelda boss: Players want more, and it's getting harder to deliver
July 3, 2013 | By Kris Ligman

July 3, 2013 | By Kris Ligman
More: Console/PC, Production, Business/Marketing

In an interview with Wired, Zelda chief Eiji Aonuma acknowledges there is a tough balancing act at play between delivering quickly and satisfying fans.

"We don't release [Zelda titles] that often," Aonuma tells Wired. "Mario games, if you push to get it done, you can finish it in a year. Zelda games take at least three years to complete. At the same time, I'm getting pushed to release them quicker but the users are expecting bigger experiences. And those things don't match up. So I struggle with that all the time. I have no idea what I'm supposed to do to meet both of those demands."

Zelda enjoys a devoted fanbase, but tends to perform worse at retail versus its sister franchises. Aonuma also notes that Nintendo's Mario flagship has two producers, Takashi Tezuka and Yoshiaki Koizumi.

"With Zelda, it's just me."

Aonuma's team is currently hard at work with two distinct Zelda titles, Wind Waker HD and A Link Between Worlds, with a third early in development. Aonuma says that Wind Waker's Wii U conversion is a "test pattern" for developing an all-new Zelda for the platform.

"The gaming community is -- I don't want to sound rude, or anything -- very fickle," Aonuma continues, describing the often conflicting demands regarding the look and control of the franchise. "I totally understand where they're coming from. As a developer, I need to listen to these things and I need to, maybe, make it possible to do either one, do whatever your preference is. I certainly have my preference, but I shouldn't limit everyone to my preferences. I need to provide an experience that is flexible, allows for maybe both of those options."

"Everyone's needs are different, so it's really important to provide the possibility for them to do whatever it is they need to do."

During E3, Aonuma expressed a similar sentiment, saying that he "want[ed] to give the player more freedom... I want them to be able to explore more."

In the same interview, however, Aonuma spoke very candidly about Nintendo needing to step up and take risks:

"If we don't change we might die. We need to evolve... I think the need is there for us to make decisions more quickly [and] see what the payoff is."

Aonuma -- like many high-profile developers -- is pulled in a number of different directions, facing obligations to a deeply committed fanbase as well as looking to stay relevant in a changing industry.

"We can't change too much, because in changing one thing you can break something else, which is not something we want to do," Aonuma tells Wired. "But it's a shared team working on both of [these] projects, Wind Waker HD and the new Zelda for Wii U. Every day, they're learning something new."

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Michael Joseph
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There's two problems.

1) Pressure to keep the sequels coming.

After the core story has been told, business interests demand that the show must go on. Old villains come back to life or some new one is invented and the hero has to fight them all over again... just because. There's not much literary value left. It all becomes about keeping the ball rolling. I have nothing more to say, but yet I must write. You lose your integrity as an author and creator at this point. It's just a paycheck now.

2) Pressure to bring in more customers.

Everything has to be grander, bigger, faster, more exciting. FPS is hot let's add some FPS capabilities! This is where you risk alienating your existing fan base by making a game that no longer resembles the previous vision.

How does one deal with these two pressures?

1) You can stick to the roots and make a better version of the old game. Strip the characters, mechanics and themes to their core and then rebuild them for the current times. Everything else is open to unlimited change. There's nothing wrong with retelling the same story but telling it better.

2) Don't do it. Don't pull a J.J Abrams. Trust that making a better version of the old game will deliver new customers because the old game is fundamentally good.

And just generally, respect and challenge your audience. Don't pander. And things like "fan service" are nothing of the kind. Real fan service is when you treat your audience like equals... not like children or fools.

Dane MacMahon
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I'm not really into Zelda enough to comment but I love your number two answer in general. Watering something down for mass appeal does work sometimes, but just as often if not more often you end up turning off your established audience and not courting anyone new.

It's a lesson every game publisher seems to refuse to learn.

Cordero W
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I think Aonuma should stop listening to journalists and keep listening to the Mario Club and the Wii U adopters. All we care about is getting new release of our usual IPs. I enjoyed Skyward Sword, for instance, though I found it a bit too easy for my age group. If anything, they need to have games to keep older people around. They should dedicated a dev team specifically to achieving that. That'll keep us all happy, kid, family, or older gamers who grew up with Nintendo.

Andrew Wallace
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"Everyone's needs are different, so it's really important to provide the possibility for them to do whatever it is they need to do."

Trying to make everyone happy is the fastest way to make everyone unhappy. If Aonuma doesn't have a strong personal vision for the direction the franchise should take, he needs to hand it off to someone that does.

Michael Pianta
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I'm not sure that people are allowed to have "strong personal visions" at these larger companies.

Sebastian Alvarez
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It sounds like he wants/needs another producer to help out with the stress. Either way I agree with Andy for the real solution to the problem.

Edit: looking back Eiji himself stated when wind waker was released that he received a lot of criticism for the look and feel but was relieved when it had a lot of approval after the game was released confirming that his vision was right after all.

Mike Griffin
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Perhaps a new Zelda trajectory for this new era of Nintendo (now supported by appropriate hardware and network platform) would be an episodic model for Wii U.

The Legend of Zelda: The Series.

Overburdened by that mandate to reduce the typical 3-year Zelda development cycle, good producer?

Is the thought of creating a larger Zelda epic while the team tackles new hardware understandably very daunting?

Break the task into Zelda episodes. Slice the 60-hour monolith into a handful of satisfying 8-10 hour stretches of adventure, across a gripping, ever-developing series. With an irresistible $29.95 price tag.

The explorable world gets larger with each episode as the story arc plays out.

Purists, of course, would never have it. The traditional huge Zelda game delivery is expected and required, risk of rushed development cycle be damned. I really like a giant one-time Zelda epic too.

I'd prefer a traditional full-scale Zelda production as well, but if management begins to push for significantly faster releases it could -- in a nutshell -- screw up the magic formula.

An episodic Zelda adventure might be so crazy it could actually work, maybe with a Walking Dead-like time frame between releases.

By the end of the season, or series, you'd have your traditional 50-60 hour Zelda and huge open world to explore. So you could drop extra DLC at that stage, bring some side stories and locations into the world, perhaps add an online co-op mode, re-bundle the entire package, and so forth.

Crucially, you would be staggering the burden of a giant one-time RPG delivery.

Almost completely impossible that the above will ever occur via Nintendo, and it may be for the best, but it's worth considering for teams in the process of creating large traditional RPG adventures, Zelda-inspired or otherwise.

If Nintendo wants to put out bigger Zelda titles on Wii U while having the team adhere to shorter development arcs, they could always go the Ubisoft route and do yearly Zelda sequels.

All you need for that is 900 developers working on the same game. Easy! Yeah...

Llaura Mcgee
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The gaming community isn't fickle, it's just that, surprisingly, people have different opinions. If you try to please everyone, you're going to fail.

It's worrying that even developers at Nintendo talk about them not talking enough risks recently. I think the biggest difficulty for both the series and Aonuma is that he's been shackled to it, seemingly forever. Get some fresh blood in, let Aonuma do something new. I would love to see Koizumi lead a Zelda title but I'm sure there are plenty of younger designers at Nintendo who could do a lot given more responsibility.

Chris Hendricks
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This is where Nintendo's policy of adding new mechanics to the same IP fall apart, in my opinion. The longer you keep a franchise running, the more baggage it has. For some, the original Legend of Zelda was the best of the series. For others, it was Link to the Past, or Ocarina of Time, or Twilight Princess. Each new iteration creates gamers who say "That was the best of the series! Give us more of THAT!". This, of course, becomes increasingly impossible.

If someone comes up with a brilliant game mechanic that might be able to fit into a Zelda game, perhaps the best strategy for Nintendo would be to instead say "No, this is going to be a new series." Even if it doesn't have immediate giant success, Nintendo's products tend to have a long tail, and it should get recognized.

David Serrano
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"If someone comes up with a brilliant game mechanic that might be able to fit into a Zelda game, perhaps the best strategy for Nintendo would be to instead say "No, this is going to be a new series."

I agree. This is exactly what EA-Bioware should have done with Dragon Age 2. If DA2 had been released as a spin off instead of a sequel, it would have allowed EA-Bioware to capitalize on the success of the franchise without negatively impacting the integrity of the franchise. And it would have given EA-Bioware the freedom to release a true sequel when they felt time was right.

Ben Lippincott
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I personally would like Aonuma to ignore those crying for annual or biannual releases of Zelda. I would naturally like the series continue, but at it's own pace. When the developers have an idea for a new game set in Hyrule using the basic concept they should approach it thoughtfully, not rushing the game out the door.

Ocarina of Time spent five years in development, possibly longer. Wind Waker had to slash two whole dungeons out of the game to meet a deadline (the game was great anyway, overall). They really should just relax and look at the other series that have been sequelized into the grave for a good reason not to chase the sales cake blindly.

Josh Foreman
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I still love the series for nostalgia reasons. The first NES Zelda is by far the greatest inspiration and influence on my design sensibilities. Sadly, the nostalgia hasn't been enough to get this 38 year old to power through the last couple of games in the series. The bloated cutscenes and intro areas alone are enough to turn me away. And I think I understand much better now that I've read the rudderless exasperation of the guy at the helm.

Daniel Backteman
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Ugh, the Legend of Zelda franchise is a beloved gem and pretty much every single game are, at least to me, considered classics. Please don't feel any need to rush anything more than necessary, I don't expect you to; try to mold others opinion around this as well instead of suicidally try to please non-informed voices.

John Flush
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I'll be honest, when Zelda went 3D it lost me. I powered through OoT on the Wii, my first Zelda game since the SNES and... I hate to even say this for the possibility of massive blow back... it was boring. MM had the whole replay it over and over mechanic by turning back time, so I'll leave that out. But WW, another boring drawl from one island to the next (most of the time at night with no music). I skipped TP and got SS instead and again didn't make it very far because of how boring it was to walk / fly everywhere... I quickly put down the game.

With the winds of a Wii U Zelda coming I find I'm more interested in the 2D Zelda on the 3DS. I enjoyed four swords, and the minish cap, I never bought Phantom Hourglass or the train one because they were sequels to WW, which I tried to finish 3 times and still haven't.

I think they really need to split the franchise in two, officially, into 2D and 3D. Quit making 2D WW sequels, those that didn't like WW aren't going to pick up the 2D sequels. I'm really not the target market with the 3D Zelda's, so I would love to see that cater to that crowd instead with whatever they actually see in it. But like I said, I'm really excited about the 3DS, LttP follow-up. I hope it pulls a "NSMB" on the 3D stuff and outsells the 3D equivalent by millions because I find the 2D style of gameplay a lot more entertaining (and cheaper from a Dev standpoint - thus able to do more with less).

Dan Miura
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This is just ridiculous. Look at Skyrim. Look at Zelda. They've had 25+ years to reinvent themselves and other companies have come from the ground up in half that time to do a hundred times more in 1 game than they do in three generations of games. Nintendo is incredibly lazy and they've rested on their laurels forever with their core franchises. They have lost billions of dollars in sales because of it. Cry me a river.