Zelda: Breath of the Wild devs explain the surprising process that helped make it GOTY 2017

Photo illustration showing Zelda producer Eiji Aonuma and director Hidemaro Fujibayashi standing with Link.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is GamesRadar+'s Game of the Year 2017 and this is your shocked face. But one big reason why the wildly inventive game still manages to feel so good may be more surprising. I spoke with Breath of the Wild director Hidemaro Fujibayashi and producer Eiji Aonuma about making the game earlier this month (it also just so happened to be the day after before BotW won basically everything at The Game Awards) and this is what they told me. 

Lots of games let you do what you please, lots of games surprise you, and lots of games feel really good, but rarely do the three intersect so fully. Fujibayashi said making the game work on those fundamental levels came down to ensuring all of the potential interactions between the player, objects, enemies, and the rest of the world behaved well. Beyond that, it required taking a hard look at their preconceived notions about video games.

"And then we thought, 'Oh no, why do we actually have to do that?' And a lot of that was re-thinking things specific to Zelda," Fujibayashi explained. "You know, 'Zelda games have always been like this so we have to make it like this.' But thinking about it from the user's perspective, we wanted to give them more creativity and freedom, thinking, 'Well, no. It doesn't actually have to be like that.' We definitely learned a lot from that whole process. And hearing how people have reacted to that makes me very happy."

It makes me happy too, as a longtime Zelda fan who was getting tired of the usual approach. But here's the surprising part: Breath of the Wild feels so cohesive because all of its developers regularly played the game from start to finish (also Because Nintendo, though that's beyond the scope of this article). Near the end of development, that meant 300 people put down their tools and spent roughly a week doing nothing but playing Breath of the Wild. Sounds so simple! But with a project of this massive scale, it's super rare.

The producer's job is to make sure budgets and calendars line up, and Eiji Aonuma was concerned: "Initially I thought if we did this we wouldn't have enough time to finish the game, but as we did this more we realized, 'Oh, the staff's motivation is really up too!' And so we realized that we needed to do this to the end.'"

The approach paid off. And Fujibayashi was quick to add that its benefits went beyond the the obvious sense of "more playtesting, more polish."

"When they hear the story about 300 people testing the game at the same time, I think what a lot of people misunderstand is [in thinking] that the big leaps ahead came from all of the data we got out of that. And obviously we did get a lot of data out of it. But I think what was even more important was just the fact that people were able to see exactly what they were working on in the game, and also what the people next to them were working on in the game, and figure out, 'Well, what can I do to make that part of the game better?' Getting that group understanding of how everything was working together really leveled up the staff's work, and I think that's a big part of how we came to the level of quality that the game has."