The Legend of Zelda had its 25th birthday this week, and to celebrate I’d like to discuss a topic that I’ve been pondering for awhile now: The idea of players forming an enduring, positive emotional connection to a game. In other words, the idea of treasuring a game. In this article, I’ll look at the ingredients that made The Legend of Zelda so successful at forming lifelong bonds with its audience.
Treasure by Design
Everything about The Legend of Zelda spoke of “treasure.” It was packaged in a golden box, with a window peeking through to its golden cartridge. The box was decorated with the treasures you collect in the game. Within the game itself, the goal was to collect golden triangles that had been scattered in dungeons.
More than these obvious elements, Zelda is a treasured game because of the player’s experience as the game unfolds. The land of Hyrule is a vast, open world. There are no instructions within the game, and just finding Level 1 takes a bit of time and exploration. The player is required to commit to a true adventure, full of trial and error, experimentation, and backtracking. Also, because of the inherent nature of Zelda’s structure, the game takes a long time to complete. I believe it took me at least a year to complete as a kid, maybe even longer. The sheer length of my involvement with the game strengthened my emotional bond to it.
The Elements of a Treasured Game
Using The Legend of Zelda as an example, we can identify key traits that characterize treasured games.
4. Enduring Value
5. Social Connection
Let’s explore each of these in detail.
A player’s connection to a game can begin months or even years before actually playing it. For example, a magazine or website might feature an enticing preview of a game. The screenshots might make it look so exciting and fresh that players decide it is the “best game ever” even before the developers have finished creating it. Once a game has been released, word of mouth can spread, prompting the game to be added to Christmas and birthday wish-lists.
The purchasing process creates anticipation as well. I clearly remember how Zelda’s gold box stood out amongst other games. My dad bought Zelda for me a month before my birthday. I was allowed to open the box and read the instruction book, but I wasn’t allowed to actually play. I couldn’t wait!
Anticipation blazed the trail for my enjoyment of The Legend of Zelda, and luckily, the game itself did not disappoint.
Barriers to entry, or “gatekeepers,” are another essential element of creating value. There are two types of obstacles that, while potentially frustrating in the short run, can drastically strengthen a player’s emotional investment in a game.
1. Obstacles to obtaining the game itself include the cost of the purchasing the game, and the challenges of physically possessing it. When you are a child, these obstacles are much weightier. It took months of saving allowance just to buy one game when I was 7 or 8, and I had to convince my parents to drive me to the store to buy it. In the very early days of NES, my small town didn’t have any stores with a wide game selection, so we actually had to drive three hours to get games! Obviously, this made me value them much more than if they simply appeared at my house.
2. Obstacles within a game are also important. In this case, I’m using the word in the most traditional sense: Things that make the game hard. This can include challenges in learning how to play, time investment required to build skill or stats, and exploration of the game world. These days, we place a high value on making games intuitive (which is a good thing) but that doesn’t mean that games can’t also encourage time and learning investment.
Challenge and obstacles, both inside and outside the game, are vitally important to creating a sense of accomplishment and reward, which in turn make players “treasure” games.
In order for an object to be cared for and special, it must in some way be differentiated from similar products. This differentiation can be inherent to the object itself, or can be unique to its owner’s specific situation. Let’s take cars as an example. A vintage Porshe Roadster is unique by any definition. It is hard to find, has its own brand of styling, and is extremely valuable. Conversely, the first car that a 16-year-old drives in high school is likely to be an aging mass-produced junker without much inherent value. However, that car will hold a special place in its young driver’s mind, simply because it was his or her first.
For me, The Legend of Zelda was unique in both ways. Because it was the one of the first console games with battery backed save, it presented a rich and lengthy adventure that wasn’t possible before. That made it inherently unique. On a personal level, Zelda was one of just a handful of games that I owned as a young child, because I was only allowed to buy one game per year. This made it one of my most prized possessions!
For something to be treasured, it must receive sustained attention from its owner. From a game design perspective, it is relatively easy to pack content into a game via mechanisms like level building and fetch quests. However, this is not enough. Content must be lengthy and engaging. Otherwise the player will get bored and move on to something more interesting. Extending a game with boring content is worse than not extending it at all!
The Legend of Zelda is packed with meaningful content. Every dungeon has a new item that the player must experiment with to learn. The vast world has a variety of types of terrain that unfold as you progress. To an eight-year-old, stumbling upon the graveyard for the first time is a truly memorable moment, and Zelda is stuffed with these tantalizing rewards from beginning to end.
Finally, The Legend of Zelda not only forms a connection from the player to the game, but between players. In the days before the Internet, passing a game was a community effort. I remember the day my friend shared the news that he’d found Level 8 underneath a shrub in the southeast corner of Hyrule. I didn’t believe him, but when I went home, lo and behold, burning the tree worked! The sense of mystery was unparalleled. Of course, there are also games that directly encourage social interaction through multi-player. Mario Kart is one of my favorite examples of this.
I should mention that the most legitimate social connections are formed between real people, face-to-face. Networked games and the genre literally called “social games” attempt to achieve a similar effect, but they don’t form nearly the organic, natural, and lasting connection that in-person interaction does.
Call me sentimental, but every time I see Zelda’s golden cartridge in a used game store, my heart beats just a little bit faster. I remember how much it meant to me as a player, and how much it means to me now as a game designer.
I’d love to capture that quality with Riverman’s games, but I’m just not sure how to do it in today’s world of instant $0.99 instant downloads. Anticipation and obstacles have been all but completely removed, and true social connection has been replaced by social media. Players download games, play them for a few idle minutes, and never use them again.
Pessimism aside though, I think that gamers are longing for games that they can form a lifelong connection to. With modern technologies like 3D graphics, multi-touch and motion control interfaces, and CD quality surround sound, games have immersive and narrative potential far beyond Nintendo Entertainment System. Let’s use The Legend of Zelda’s 25th anniversary as an opportunity for us to dig deeply into what we love about games, so that we can create experiences that players will remember and treasure for years to come.