The latest Zelda, titled “Breath of the Wild”, has been voted the best game of 2017. At times, you can find people claiming that Zelda is best game ever, which for me makes no sense because there isn’t just one game in the history of video games that is better than all other games.
I’ve enjoyed the game greatly, even if I was not an existing Zelda fan before playing it. It was a great reason to buy a Nintendo Switch.
Reflecting on this game, I sometimes ask myself which game category Zelda belongs to. Probably adventure: there is a world with lots of puzzles and some of them can be solved in parallel while others need to be solved in a sequence. The map is big, and the game takes place within a story where you are Link, the hero.
Zelda scores really high in many people’s books because the world you play in is truly great: it’s a huge map, with towers, wildlife, oceans, forests and villages. And you can fly and teleport yourself so no worries getting tired of too much running around. The graphics are just beautiful - they make you want to fly down from the top of a mountain and admire the scenery along the way.
I don’t find the story great, nor do I think it is bad. It’s just not the reason why this game would rank so high. The fights with the bosses are just another puzzle: you need to learn the right sequence and execute it well, so there is some ‘action’ involved in solving the puzzle.
Zelda is not a game where AI plays any role. The bosses are brainless bots, and players of this franchise actually expect that. They don’t want an adaptive, clever enemy that fights with the same weapons as the hero. This is how Zelda has played for decades and continuity is a feature, not a bug.
I just think that a game like this could move into a different category. A game category that does not exist yet.
Right now you have a story and an amazing world, but you are alone in it. What if you were not alone? Are we talking about a ‘World of Warcraft’ then? No, I mean if the world was populated with artificial players. Players that have their own agendas (goals, resources and limitations), and the human player is interacting with them.
So, what if Zelda was in the “Massive Multiplayer Local Adventure” category, rather than the “Puzzle Adventure”? This new Zelda would have characters that want to achieve something. The trader wants to make money. The chief of a village wants to remain in power. The evil boss wants to stay alive. The villagers want food and safety. Some will be allies that share your goals - to get rid of Ganon, for example - so they help you. Others won’t.
Artificial players don’t need to be exact reflections of the main player like in an MMORPG. They don’t have the same abilities and resources as Link, just as they don’t have the same limitations nor the same goal. There is only one Link. Artificial Players are there to enable the human player to have fun, just like the flat characters that you find today in Zelda.
But they are players, they learn how to achieve their goal by playing the game (a lot). They want a reward and they interact with their environment and learn what works (more reward) and what does not (negative rewards).
This is very different than a massive multiplayer environment (like Fortnite, for example). There, all the players are the same because they all want to have fun doing the same activities. On the other hand, artificial players are happy to do things so the human has fun. What human would want to just buy and sell some goods in Zelda, instead of being the main hero? I want to be Link!
We are not there yet. Artificial players in a very complex, realistic world like Zelda have yet to be created. At Decisive, we are about to release a game that includes many artificial players that will play along human players. The game is not as complex as Zelda, but it would be impossible to release it without the availability of artificial players that play very well, without cheating and without getting tired.
We could not just replace all the flat characters in Zelda and make them intelligent and adaptive. The game would not play well. Instead, a new game category will emerge as artificial players can be used in games. But the games will need to be designed with this in mind, or even with this as the center of the game.