It won’t take you long when reading articles about games development to come across the term ‘gameplay loop’. It is an integral part of games design, and yet it will be a term which the vast majority of gamers will never really consider. Sadly, this means that many people will also have failed to notice how the landscape of gaming changed on March 3rd, 2017. On this date, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild redefined the gameplay loop with its combat, exploration, and collectibles.
Firstly, let’s clear up exactly what we mean by gameplay loop. The gameplay loop is the way that a game maintains your interest beyond the initial experience. Ultimately, it is why you keep playing. For example, an RPG has a fairly simple gameplay loop at its core: fight enemies, gain experience points, use experience points to level up. Then, fight bigger monsters, gain experience points and loop onwards.
Many games’ loops may revolve around placing the player into more challenging scenarios after providing them with a new weapon to use, or a new gadget to explore. It is essential that the loop rewards the player, yet continues to push against them. The time before the reward, sometimes known as the ‘grind’, has always been a frustrating period for gamers. For years and years, the grind wore players down.
Breath of the Wild took a different approach; what if the annoying grind became an amazing main gameplay experience?
The combat in Breath of the Wild is the first massive shift in the gameplay loop. Normally, in adventure style games, your avatar increases in combat efficiency through a combination of better equipment and levelling up. This, in turn, works to improve your base statistics.
It’s a system that often creates large sections of play where you simply have to mash the opposition to earn enough money or experience to push on. In Breath of the Wild, you are free to fight any enemy you want, provided you can get to them (more on that later). By using the core combat mechanics, taught to you right at the beginning of the game, you can defeat any villain with enough skill and patience.
Taking on easier enemies immediately rewards you with their lesser weaponry and items, yet these are still useful for key game mechanics later in the game. Take out challenging opponents, and again you are immediately rewarded with their weapons. Of course, these weapons and items are more valuable, or useful, later in the game.
Effectively, the gameplay loop for combat in Breath of the Wild relies on player skill but provides immediate gratification and development. No grinding, or spending hours trying to earn the right to battle bigger baddies. It is this clear challenge, and instant response, which simply embarrasses similar games to Breath of the Wild.
Exploration is the second innovation Breath of the Wild makes to the traditional gameplay loops. In most games, exploring the world you find yourself in is a means to an end. Travelling around is a way to move you from reward to reward, acting like increasingly impressive graphical loading screens.
While this is perfectly functional, it leads to realistically dead time just spent moving around. Of course, Breath of the Wild needs you to move from key moment to key moment. The innovation comes from how the journey between these moments actually enacts a whole different style of gameplay.
Combat with enemy encampments is a part of this. But, only a small part of it. As you travel, you will come across trees, flowers, vegetables, rock ores, and animals. Unlike other titles, these seemingly useless scenic props actually act as important items in the game. By collecting these, you open up a whole host of other options. Cooking food, preparing elixirs, gathering firewood, mining minerals, and stocking up on meats are as much a core of the game as fighting monsters.
These side tasks allow you to flourish elsewhere in the game through healing yourself when injured, keeping yourself warm in the frozen wastes, cool in the desert, or earning you valuable rupees at the stores. In this way, Breath of the Wild turned the commute from place to place into a separated, linked, and equally essential game. Like the combat, the frequency of these mini gameplay loops, and the immediate rewards they offer, makes all other open-world games around it look simply out of touch.
Where Breath of the Wild really innovates is in the way it uses collectibles. The status quo of collectibles in gaming has, pretty much always, been that you discover a large amount of a well-hidden item and in return, you unlock a reward. This reward could be an in-game usable, concept art, character model, or a heap of other options.
These sorts of collectibles and their rewards have often been a gameplay loop reserved for the purely dedicated. Here, the gamer is willing to pile more than just hours into a game. In response, the reward for this mass collection is normally something epic and incredibly valuable (in-game, of course). However, the crux has always been that you must hoard all of the collectibles to receive anything at all. No full collection, no prize.
Breath of the Wild realises that is a ridiculous gameplay loop to build an experience around and so dispenses with the all-or-nothing approach.
Completing in-game puzzle dungeons, called shrines, or solving mini-puzzles scattered around the map gives you orbs or seeds. Orbs are used to upgrade your health or stamina, and seeds upgrade your inventory space allowing you to carry more items. There are 120 orbs available, and 900 korok seeds. A huge amount.
However, you only need four orbs to upgrade each time. In addition, the number of seeds required increases each time you upgrade your inventory space but starts with just a couple of seeds. In Breath of the Wild‘s gameplay loop, you are rewarded as you go not just at the end.
If you do collect all the upgrade orbs, the reward is worthy of the time required to get there. Breath of the Wild turns collectible hunting into an ongoing series of mini-loops, something seen in both the game’s combat and exploration, providing an extrinsic reward as you go. In turn, these little successes drive you to continue on and earn the big success by collecting everything.
Ultimately, Breath of the Wild takes three large, multi-segmented gameplay loops and transforms them into smaller gameplay loops working together. You are rewarded, and challenged, as you proceed through the game and not simply at the end of a larger loop. The critical success enjoyed by the game has shown that this style of gameplay is incredibly popular, and is something gamers want.
Games developers now have a very real problem on their hands. Do they take the arguably easier route, and provide a singular reward for a massive amount of a player’s time? Or, do they respect the player enough to understand that their time is valuable? Breath of the Wild is a stunning game for many reasons, but the way it has shifted the conversation of gameplay loops in games will be its masterful legacy.
What are your thoughts on Breath of the Wild? Do you agree or disagree? What other games do you believe have awesome gameplay loops in them? Let us know in the comments below!