CVG recently sat down with Eiji Aonuma and covered a broad range of topics, including Aonuma’s game development process, his thoughts on fan feedback regarding the Zelda series, and the future of online connectivity for Zelda games. He also talked about which Zelda game didn’t get the response he was hoping for. Click the jump to see the full Q&A!
Aonuma was asked what phase of development is most exciting or satisfying. The beginning and conception period, or the final stretch?
“Well the basic gameplay needs to be unique in order for the game to be fun and worth creating, so I like it best when we come up with an idea and realise ‘this is it!’ in terms of the basic game elements. That’s the most enjoyable part of the development period for me. Of course obviously when you finish a project there’s a very nice sense of achievement, but also on the other hand this comes with a feeling of sadness because you’ve finished something that you were working on. During the development of Wind Waker HD, it was really fun to take a game that we made in the past and then think about what changes we should make. That was really enjoyable. With A Link Between Worlds being a sequel to A Link to the Past, we had to have a connection between them, but we’ve also introduced a lot of brand new elements, so it was fun to get the whole team looking at ways we could implement those and make a good game.”
Aonuma was also asked to explain how his role has changed for the development of recent Zelda titles, since he has stepped back from the director’s seat.
“I’ve thought a lot about my role as producer, as I was previously a director and I got used to doing things my way. I’ve thought about to what extent I should manage each project and after long consideration I’ve decided that the most important point [of development] is the decision at the start involving gameplay and basic features of the game. Once this is decided the biggest role of the producer is over, but of course as the project continues you assist the director and other staff. When they have a problem they’ll come to you and you assist throughout the project, but I think that the biggest point is to get the basic concept fixed and to give that to the staff so we can achieve what we want to.”
He was asked what lessons he learned from the experience of developing The Wind Waker HD, and whether deciding an art style for an HD game required a change in his thinking.
“Now that we’ve moved into HD development I feel that it’s very important to define and give very clear instructions to my staff about the game world that I am envisaging. This needs to be clear so that the staff don’t create something that’s different from what I am imagining, which would take a lot of time to correct in HD development. So more than ever before, we have to give very clear instructions about what we want to achieve before we start the project. For the Zelda series we need to clearly define this before we proceed. When creating Wind Waker HD, as a remake of an existing title in HD, we needed to talk a lot about the artwork style that we wanted to achieve. But we also talked a lot about artwork when we started the development of Skyward Sword and Twilight Princess, so it’s a similar sort of process. This doesn’t mean that the next Zelda will be in a toon shading style, it just means we need to clearly define the art style when we begin a project in HD.”
Aonuma recently said that the development of The Wind Waker HD took only six months. He was asked if he was surprised by how quickly the project came together.
“Yes, I mentioned that the development took six months, but the total period was actually a little bit longer. It was six months from when we started to really get into the details of the project, but in actual fact there were a lot of gameplay tests and planning we did before that six-month period. So the total time was actually longer than six months. People at the company were telling me off for saying that! [laughs] When I first talked about the six-month development period I wanted to explain that our aim was to get this game out to users quite quickly. In order to achieve this short development time we created a lot of systematic processes and things that we can use for reference in the future, and these allowed us to get a quality game out quickly. When I first asked the staff how long it would take to complete the game and they estimated six months, I was really surprised. Although we actually took a little bit longer than that, as I’d thought we might, we still managed to achieve the estimated release date we had in our heads, so everything was fine in the end.”
In a recent “Iwata Asks,” Aonuma revealed Nintendo’s internal ‘Zelda cycle’ theory, the idea that as time passes negative fan feedback over a particular installment eventually becomes more positive, and whether this was the motivation behind The Wind Waker HD release.
“I heard about the ‘Zelda cycle’ idea later on after we had started development, so the original motivation was just to make it more fun. Hearing comments that users appreciate it even more makes me very happy, but the ‘Zelda cycle’ wasn’t our original motivation. We were making Wind Waker HD because we wanted to achieve something that was even more enjoyable for fans than the original. Our aim was to add different features and make slight adjustments in order to improve the game experience, and we’re really happy that users seem to feel that way about the game.”
With A Link Between Worlds taking place in the A Link to the Past overworld, that’s two past Zelda games Aonuma revisited this year. Aonuma was asked if now has it become appealing to look back at older games.
“For both titles it’s current hardware that enables us to create new and unique gameplay that wasn’t possible before, even if it’s a remake or sequel. That’s why we felt it was the right time to return to those worlds. For me personally, when we finish the development of one game I’m always thinking about how we can use features in the next titles. The top-down view [in A Link Between Worlds] for example was something I wanted to use again, though obviously I didn’t make the original game. I wanted to keep that but also turn it into a new experience.”
Aonuma is a big fan of the original A Link to the Past, and he was asked if making the new 3DS installment was a dream project for him.
“Although you use the words “big fan”, to me it’s more than that. A Link to the Past was the title that showed me what games can do. When I played it for the first time I realised that games are different from the perception I had of them before. You could take a sword and just enjoy cutting grass, you could experience a lot of things as Link and touch that game world. That experience and what it taught me made me really want to move into directing. So it’s not just about being a big fan… I feel like it’s my fate to be making a sequel to that game.”
He was asked if A Link Between Worlds was a game he wanted to make for many years.
“Yes, I guess you could say that. I’ve been thinking for a very long time about how to make use of the top-down view and I really wanted to use it in a game. Of course, Miyamoto-san was also saying that we should make use of it, but I wanted to implement it in a new way that gives a feeling of depth. I’ve been thinking about this for so long, and by making a 3D game to give a different feeling of depth within the top-down view, I hope that we were able to obtain something that’s really enjoyable to play. It’s an old feature but it has lots of new elements to it.”
Aonuma was asked how he ensures that the feelings of long-term fans don’t prevent progress and innovation in the Zelda series, and how he deals with fan feedback.
“I personally always try to break down the old stereotypes when I’m trying to create a new Zelda game. Sometimes my staff get angry and say, ‘you have to keep this feature because it’s a typical Zelda feature’, but when I explain why I want to change things and what I want to achieve, often I get a reaction that’s more like, ‘oh I see what you mean. That’s a really good idea’. Having a lot of Zelda fans on our staff is actually a good way to keep these discussions going and to gain confidence about the changes that we want to make. Because if we can convince our staff then we can convince the fan base out there too. So I’m really happy that we have a lot of young people on our staff who are fans. In the past I used to be not very conscious of what users were thinking when I was creating games. But recently we’re placing a lot of importance on looking back at what we’ve done in the past and listening to users’ views. Of course these days there’s an environment in order to do this in the internet and Miiverse, but we’re also consciously trying to do this more than we used to. However, we don’t just want to take users’ ideas and implement them in our game. We want to listen to what users are saying, think about it ourselves and then decide what to implement or change. It may not be the same as what people are asking for, but our ultimate goal is to create a game that users will enjoy and we’re not creating things without giving them a lot of consideration.”
In a recent New York Comic Con panel, Aonuma expressed a desire to strip down the amount of hints and assistance in future Zelda games. He was asked to explain what has changed in his thinking.
“I’ve been creating games for quite a long time now and each time I make a new game I always think about what the users want and how we can try to create a game that will be appealing to them. Recently it’s been made easier by users’ comments on the internet and Miiverse. Previously I thought that users wanted to be led, shown the way forward and not get lost or stuck. I thought that if they got lost of stuck then they wouldn’t enjoy the game, but reading feedback on the internet and Miiverse I’ve realised now that users really enjoy getting stuck sometimes and that they want to have a sense of getting lost and discovering the correct path themselves. This is really what Zelda is about. So because of this, we decided to add the choice to complete dungeons in any order that you want in A Link Between Worlds.”
He was asked how the public’s response to The Wind Waker HD and A Link Between Worlds would help shape the next Zelda game.
“With the current titles we’ve implemented new features and done things because of user feedback. For the next titles we want to polish any of the features that we’ve got in these titles and maybe adjust them if necessary, and use them in the future depending on user feedback. If users react positively to something then we’ll consider how we can use that in the next game while polishing and making it better. But if users react in a negative way of course we’ll try to find out what the problems are and how we can possibly improve them for future Zelda games.”
In allowing players to complete A Link Between Worlds dungeons in various orders, Aonuma was asked what were the challenges for him in terms of balancing difficulty and pacing.
“The most important thing was making sure that we created it in such a way that once players had made a choice, they could then decide within a very short space of time whether it was a good one or not and then perhaps go back and make a different choice. By creating a game that allows players to judge their own choices in a relatively short time, we’ve been able to hopefully keep everything in balance.”
The Wii U is the first Nintendo home console to aggressively push online functionality. Aonuma was asked if a connected Zelda game was something that interested him.
“In The Wind Waker HD we have the Tingle Bottle Miiverse feature and what we really wanted to achieve with this was communication between users, but not a constricting communication. We wanted to create a feeling of going out on an adventure with other users, but at the same time be able to have your own adventure. This was a test at first when we put this online feature into Wind Waker HD, but it worked out really well and we want to also use online features in such a way in our future Zelda titles. We want users to feel like they’re experiencing the Zelda world with other users while also adventuring by themselves.”
Finally, he was asked which game in the series didn’t get the response he was hoping for.
“That would be the original Wind Waker. I personally didn’t feel that the changes we had made were especially dramatic, but the reaction from the fans at the time was like, ‘This is not a Zelda game’. I really felt that gap between how the fans saw the game and how I saw it. So because the fans seemed to consider the changes to be so dramatic at that time, nowadays I am careful not to make such big changes. But on the other hand I do of course want the fans to be surprised by each new Zelda game, or else it’ll just get boring. I also want them to realise that there is a link between the artwork style and play style, for example; that’s really important. I personally think that A Link Between Worlds does a really good job of fusing those elements, if I do say so myself, and I’d like people to play it for themselves.”