Breath of the Wild will represent a big change for the Zelda franchise as it moves away from an established formula to return to its roots of exploration. Long-time Zelda producer Eiji Aonuma spoke to Game Informer about the game’s development, the influence other games had on it, the decision to port from the Wii U to the Switch, and how he wanted to ensure that players had fun, even when they died.

“In the recent years, Zelda games have become like a development order and workflow that we followed. We wanted to create something that wasn’t that. We wanted to go off the rails a bit. We had to redefine how we develop games. In the past we took an approach where we would create small areas and patch them together, but then we realized that we couldn’t do that with this huge world. When we created this huge world, we first had to figure out what we needed to place on the map. So we figured that out, and then we would play the game every day and revisit it, and figure out if those elements we placed would actually work in those areas.

“We would have [the staff] play the game over and over repeatedly and really have them take the time to understand what they were creating, as well as understanding the whole entire world as we were creating this game together.

“We created a rather huge area where people can explore, but we soon realized that when you restrict these areas and create a boundary, then people always want to go outside of it and wonder, ‘What is out there? What is on the other side of the boundary?’ I realized that I had to take out the boundaries and create this area where players will be able to freely roam around.”

“I heard that American users are more eager to figure things out on their own”

It may come as a surprise to some, but Aonuma has never been much of a gamer. He soon realized that this should probably change, given the industry he works in, so he’s since played games like SkyrimFar Cry, and The Witcher. He also mentioned that he played some Grand Theft Auto but wasn’t into the violence. “While playing those games, I do find some ideas, but it’s not that it connects directly to Zelda to where I would take something and use it in Zelda. It’s more of something I keep in the back of my head while developing the game.”

Aonuma also realized that gamers don’t always need, nor like, to have their hands held, something he also mentioned in another interview we covered a few days ago. “I heard that American users are more eager to figure things out on their own, rather than having to go and find certain items in certain places. I am actually the same way. I wanted to add that element to Breath of the Wild.” The team intentionally made Breath of the Wild’s Link into a lone-wolf figure to avoid having the traditional companion character who guides him through the game. “Companion characters in the past have always navigated and showed the path, and because we wanted players to choose their own path, we didn’t want the companion element there to distract the players.” It also adds to the fun of the exploration. “Link is kind of a lone wolf in this game. I wanted to create that feeling so that whenever he encounters somebody, he has the element of, ‘Oh, I just saw somebody!’ and the warmth that you would feel.”

Exploration isn’t the only part of the gameplay that Aonuma wanted to make fun. Dying is perhaps the least fun part of playing a video game, but there’s also a certain satisfaction that comes with finally getting through a difficult section or conquering a tough boss. “I wanted to create a game where users could have fun dying,” he said. “If you wanted to, you can go fight the final boss from the get-go, you don’t have enough power or stats, so you can’t defeat the boss. But through trial and error, we want the user to figure out when they may be ready to battle the final boss and know when that time is, which they can decide on their own.

“If there is a little spike of difficulty, you can always go around it and avoid it until you are stronger or you are ready to fight it. You can always revisit that difficult area you may have encountered.”

“I wanted to create a game where users could have fun dying.”

Right before development on Breath of the Wild was completed, Aonuma surprised even himself with the final size of the world. “Right before we completed the game, I actually started [playing] from scratch with a new [save file]. I was trying to explore areas I remembered from my memory, but I kept finding these new elements, and I realized how huge a world I had actually created. That was right before we had finished the game, so you could tell I was surprised.”

The decision to port the game from the Wii U to the Switch provided him with the opportunity to improve some parts of the gameplay. It wasn’t easy for him to ask the staff to do it though. “Asking the staff to change it was difficult for me,” he said. “I actually went back and created a proposal for my staff that said, ‘Hey, if you do this, then maybe you can fix this area,’ and I had to make that proposal to the staff and beg them to do it. Those changes are gameplay related, so they are reflected on both platforms.”

It’s been fascinating to hear Aonuma talk so openly recently about Breath of the Wild’s development and his own personal journey in evolving the Zelda series. It’s admirable that he’s willing to admit when his personal ideas may not always be the best or what players want. We cannot wait to see the result with Breath of the Wild.