The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (BoTW) is one of the biggest console games of 2017 so far. The critically acclaimed adventure game has turned into a system seller for the Nintendo Switch, garnering a console attach rate of more than 100% and generating millions of sales for the hybrid console.
While a lot of focus has inevitably centered on Breath of the Wild’s new, expansive, open world setting, and the myriad of fascinating rules that govern it, little attention has been paid to an intriguing aspect of the game: a surprising reliance on established mobile gaming mechanics.
To fit the fluid nature of the Switch platform—which shifts seamlessly from TV console to portable handheld—Nintendo has had to find a balance between the two modes of play. The result is that Breath of the Wild leans heavily on mobile game design, marketing, and monetization principles to supplement the console gameplay.
But how exactly does Zelda do it? Here are the three main ways it folds principles of mobile game design into an epic console and portable adventurer.
Lesson 1: Shorter play sessions
Stuff to do: the latest Zelda has it in spades. The combination of a breathtakingly large world map, hundreds of shrines to unlock and a kingdom to save does, inevitably, lead to sessions lasting multiple hours.
But because it is possible to undock the Switch to play Zelda on the go, Nintendo has woven 3 key mobile gaming design principles into the core mechanics to support this play style:
Image via Jesse Schell
- Nintendo changed the design of some core Zelda mainstays to support portable play. Instead of including lengthy dungeons that take hours to complete, the introduction of small shrines—where the player solves a simple puzzle in 5-10 minutes to progress—keeps players in an optimal flow state when playing on the move.
- The game does include some resource management through breakable or rechargeable equipment. Swords, shields, and bows regularly snap under pressure, while valuable spells unlocked later in the game take minutes to recharge. This encourages players to build gear up for an adventure, complete an objective, and then rest—a flow most mobile game designers are used to cultivating.
- Perhaps most interestingly, Zelda: BoTW even includes a mini gacha-based cooking mechanic. In towns or cities, Link can find pots in which to cook up health or stat boosting meals. And while the player can learn recipes to guarantee that certain effects occur, adding more ingredients of a better quality increases the likelihood of a lucky roll that leads to a particular effective meal.
Ultimately, BoTW uses these mechanics to help people who are playing the game on the go to dip in and out of the experience—preventing playtime being linked to TV access.
Lesson 2: Drive virality through photo mode
A more conventional way that BoTW uses mobile game mechanics to its benefit is via an in-game photo mode.
It’s certainly not the first video game to include a mode that allows players to take custom in-game screenshots. Photo modes have been included in a variety of console games, such as The Last of Us Remastered, for a number of years, while mobile games like Monument Valley and Pokemon Go have used them effectively too.
The big differentiating factor that works in the favor of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is that the photography mode is introduced to the player as a useful mechanic.
Photos can be used to track animals, complete an in-game compendium, and to help Link conduct a treasure hunt of sorts. Furthermore, there are so many in-game secrets or potential for crazy things to occur due to the game engine that grabbing a snap is essential.
Image via USgamer
The result is that sharing photos in-game becomes natural. With a screenshot button on the left Joy-Con and the Switch able to share directly to Facebook or Twitter, sharing memorable moments in Breath of the Wild becomes natural—driving virality, especially when a player discovers something so cool that they can’t keep it a secret.
Lesson 3: Monetizing with meaningful microtransactions
Lastly, BoTW does something that no Zelda game had done previously to great effect; it allows players to make small purchases in return for in-game content—the same way mobile games allow players to buy in-app purchases.
The delivery mechanism behind these purchases is still rooted in Nintendo’s traditional hardware background. Rather than using in-game digital purchases for currency or resources, Nintendo is selling a season pass for extra content and physical Amiibo figurines that can be scanned with the right Joy-Con controller to deliver in-game rewards (such as gear, horses, or consumables).
That said, Nintendo has nevertheless used Amiibo interaction cleverly in Breath of the Wild. While purchasing the new models themed around BoTW delivers in-game content, old Zelda-themed Amiibo released for previous games or campaigns also deliver specific content. This creates long tail value for those older models, encouraging consumers to purchase. Now, players are desperately seeking out older Zelda-specific Amiibo, paying a king’s ransom for figurines that typically cost $13 at retail price.
Image via Nintendo
Furthermore, the Amiibo unlocks can help the player to overcome the minor barriers erected in the mobile game design. By scanning an Amiibo, the additional rewards it provides can ease players past the occasionally restrictive mobile game-inspired design.
This is best evidenced in the speedrunning community, where the use of one Amiibo in particular has so far proven necessary to complete the game in under an hour.
The use of mobile game design, marketing, and monetization principles in Breath of the Wild has to be considered exciting for the mobile games industry.
Of course, there are some reasons to be concerned about it. If Nintendo were able to sell more Switch consoles, produce other games as compelling as Zelda, and encourage portable play, there is a chance that this approach could eat into the mobile gaming audience.
However, this would be to ignore the positive for the industry. The pioneering approaches used by mobile game developers to parcel out game time are now being used in the biggest console releases around.
This suggests mobile game businesses have plenty to teach the industry at large and that, finally, they might just be ready to listen.