How the team behind Zelda made physics feel like magic

Calvin D

At the 2024 Game Developers Conference, the team behind Tears of the Kingdom shared insights into their groundbreaking design philosophy of ‘multiplicative gameplay,’ captivating the audience with their innovative approach. This strategy played a key role in elevating The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom beyond its predecessor, Breath of the Wild, impressing gamers and critics alike with its sophisticated use of the Nintendo Switch’s capabilities, despite the console’s age. The brilliance of the game, as revealed in the talk, was not the result of sorcery but of a deliberate and effective development strategy that appeared almost magical in execution.

Takuhiro Dohta, the technical director, outlined two main pillars that underpinned the game’s design: creating a vast, seamless world for Hyrule and implementing ‘multiplicative gameplay.’ The aim was to allow players the freedom to explore visually compelling locations, from high in the sky to deep underground, seamlessly connecting these diverse environments. Dohta emphasized the importance of not just a large, interconnected world, but one that encourages fun through the innovative gameplay principle where the sum of players’ interactions with objects and actions leads to unique playing experiences.

Dohta elaborated on this by describing how in Breath of the Wild, simple mechanics, like attaching Octo Balloons to objects to make them float, laid the groundwork for the expansive ‘multiplicative gameplay’ in Tears of the Kingdom. This approach allowed for the fusion of objects through the Fuse and Ultrahand abilities, enabling players to craft their unique items and structures. For such gameplay to be realized, it was essential that each interactive element in Hyrule adhered to predictable, physics-driven behavior.

Physics programmer, Takahiro Takayama, highlighted the technical hurdles of integrating physics-driven and rigid body objects. A world fully governed by physics was key to avoiding glitches and ensuring that every object interacted in a believable manner. This meticulous attention to physics not only facilitated the creative interaction possibilities but also significantly streamlined the development process by reducing the need for specialized programming for each action or interaction within the game.

The talk concluded by underscoring another vital component of Nintendo's success: its ability to retain talent. With each speaker boasting at least a decade of experience at Nintendo, it’s clear that the company’s culture of nurturing and preserving its workforce has been instrumental in its ongoing success. This collective experience has empowered the team to craft a world where players' imaginations can run wild, cementing Tears of the Kingdom’s place on the 2023 Game of the Year shortlists. The synergy between experienced designers, artists, and a visionary approach to game physics has indeed brought to life a vast, imaginative world that continues to enchant players across the globe.