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How Did Zelda Out-MMORPG our MMORPGs?

Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild Columns - By Tim Eisen on April 14, 2017

How Did Zelda Out-MMORPG our MMORPGs?

I…I have a confession to make, I have betrayed you my Glorious PC brethren! I am ashamed of my betrayal but hope, with time, you can forgive this transgression. I simply walked among them but my belief is unshaken, the PC is still the superior gaming device as it will always be! Please don’t banish me to the consolers realm, I can’t imagine life without my precious Steam! I mean, even Neanderthals had a good idea or two, right?...Know what? I don’t even care. Banish me! I’m not ashamed, I’m proud! Her name is Zelda, and she is worth it!

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Whew, it feels good to get that out there. So, how did Zelda out MMORPG our MMORPGs? “Groan, ANOTHER Zelda column? People are STLL talking about this?” I realize Zelda came out a month ago which in internet time is roughly 300 years but frankly, it’s so good it can’t help but continue to dominate gaming news! Every few years a game comes along that changes things in such a way that there are the games that came before it and the games that came after it. Zelda Breath of the Wild is one of those games.

Now that I (hopefully) talked you back in, let’s get into the MMORPG in Zelda. If you took the actual game world of WOW and smashed it together with the game world from Guild Wars 2 you would have something that looks a lot like the Zelda game world complete with quest hub cities and instanced dungeons. While running from A to B I’ve even had a few déjà vu moments that reminded me of WOW.

I’ve never had that happen in a game before but I think it speaks to how this world feels. It feels more like a MMORPG world than any single player game before it... but better. I’ve been an explorer ever since my beloved Star Wars Galaxies made worlds without barriers, and Zelda took that concept to Michael Bay levels of explosiveness. For years, I’ve been going off the grid to look for dev-made secrets only to get little in return. Zelda is the single finest, most rewarding version of that I’ve ever experienced and I think MMORPGs should and could utilize the same exploration concepts.

“But that stuff is easy in a single payer game, MMORPG’s support hundreds doing it.” Ah but you bring me to Zelda’s greatest trick, simplicity. Zelda is possibly the simplest yet complex game I’ve ever played. They use a limited number of tricks but they maximize the impact by featuring related mechanics. The Korok Seeds' relation to exploring and inventory space and cooking relating to exploration and survival are perfect examples of this. These are ready-made for MMORPGs. Frankly, MMORPGs don’t even need to go that far. I climbed a tall peak to find a rock with a bit of paint on it letting me know it was placed to reward the curious imagination of the player. That was all I needed. MMORPGs have dabbled with this for years, it’s time to take it to Zelda levels.

The mobs in Zelda are designed almost exactly like MMORPGs, by taking a small base number of mobs then recoloring them for the various biomes. Where Zelda takes from MMORPG’s and levels it up is the behavior AI. An example is a wolf that reacts to you based on its proximity to other wolves, howls to call them over, then attacks you using a realistic strategy. The scenario isn’t visually complex but it provides just enough feedback to give the impression that it’s more than a simple roaming MOB bot we are all so fond of. The AI on other NPCs is interesting as well but for me it’s the animal AI that makes the world convincing. It's deep but not so deep that MMORPGs can’t attempt it.

That brings me to graphics. Again, Zelda kept it simple and made it feel special. “We don’t need more cartoon graphics.” Art is art. Going with a cartoon or real aesthetic doesn’t matter as much as if the studio knows how to utilize the style they went with.  Zelda does and more MMO studios would benefit from choosing a direction they are most capable implementing.

There is a metaphor in how weapons work in Zelda. Nothing is forever, change is the only constant, you must adapt to survive that change. By making weapons break often and easily they removed the power the weapon grind has held over gamers for generations while keeping the gear grind for those that like chasing it. I know its blaspheme but MMORPGs are long overdue for innovation when it comes to weapons and armor.

I unveiled my dark secret so I suppose I’ll drop one more for the close. Everything I just said, all that praise, comes from someone who never played a Zelda game prior. I know, as a gamer Zelda is like a rite of passage but frankly I always thought Link was a wimpy “hero”. I never liked all the reading and I was too impatient to manage an inventory. By the time I was into that stuff I was playing MMORPGs and didn’t have much interest in single player games not named Skyrim or Witcher III. I guess you could say it takes an exceptional non-MMORPG to get me to stray from my beloved genre. Zelda is that and more and I hope MMORPG developers can take some inspiration from Breath of the Wild and apply it to our games. Like the MMORPGs of yore it lets us roam, it lets us fail, it lets us explore and most importantly, it reminds us that less is more when it’s done well. 

Tim Eisen / In my columns I walk the line between fan and critic as I document the development of Camelot Unchained, Crowfall, and Chronicles of Elyria.