Breath of the Wild is getting a sequel because the team had too many ideas for downloadable content, Zelda series producer Eiji Aonuma told me last week in Los Angeles. We also talked about how the Link’s Awakening remake came about, why Zelda games haven’t offered button remapping, and work conditions at Nintendo.
Aonuma spoke through an English-Japanese translator in a private area above Nintendo’s E3 booth. He wouldn’t answer most of my questions about Breath of the Wild’s sequel—I suppose they’ve gotta save some material for next E3—but he did share some other interesting nuggets about the series. (One tidbit that didn’t make the cut: Aonuma’s team is working on BOTW2 while Grezzo, the developer behind the Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask remakes, is heading up Link’s Awakening.)
Below is a large chunk of our interview, edited for brevity and clarity.
Eiji Aonuma: The original game was released 26 years ago on the Game Boy. Getting that Game Boy version is a little hard to do these days. So I’ve wanted to remake this game for a while.
When I create a remake or reimagination, I don’t want to just make it completely the same; I always want to incorporate new elements. For even people who have played the original, I want it to be a fresh experience. So I was looking for that opportunity.
There was also a discussion separately of an idea of incorporating something where users can arrange something on their own in the game. In Zelda, I was thinking what that could be. We landed on the idea of dungeons. When we were thinking about arranging dungeons, creating a puzzle on your own is always a little bit hard, so we thought, “What’s an easy way to have players be able to arrange things?” We thought maybe room arrangement or a map arrangement would be an easy way, and it’d feel like solving a puzzle. That’s how we landed on the [dungeon editor] Chamber Dungeons.
Once we landed on the idea of arranging dungeons, we were thinking, in Link’s Awakening, pretty much every room is about the same size, so we thought this would be a perfect fit for incorporating the Chamber Dungeons, and that’s how this reimagination came about.
Jason Schreier: When you guys are planning out Zelda games, what makes you decide to go with a remake as opposed to a sequel like Link Between Worlds?
Aonuma: Everything’s case by case; each title’s a little bit different. There could be times where we start with the idea of “let’s make a remake,” and then add new elements. Or if we’re creating a sequel, sometimes it could be that there’s something that would be fitting for a sequel versus a remake or something else. Again, it’s case by case.
Schreier: Developers tend to be creative people who want to be doing new things—is it challenging to do a 1:1 recreation without having the urge to tweak and change things?
Aonuma: I guess in some ways yeah, we are a little bit restricted on going wild and free with new ideas. But at the same time we have the creative opportunity to think about how to maintain the original essence. We would have to think about things we would change or improve on or polish to make a remake. In that way, I think it’s a very creative process.
For this game specifically, we thought about the original game and people who have already played it, but we also wanted to make it accessible for new players. So we incorporated both perspectives, and that’s how we tweaked the game this time around, with both ideas and the feedback.
Schreier: What made you guys decide not to add any new dungeons?
Aonuma: Obviously we have improved the original version, and we wanted to do that. But also we wanted to keep that memory of originally playing the game—the essence of what made that game what it is, and by recalling your memory for the past when you have beaten it, if you have beaten it, I think that makes it even more impressionable if you play it again.
Schreier: If this Chamber Dungeon mode is successful, will you make Zelda Maker?
Aonuma: I can’t predict the future, but if people do love this idea of arranging dungeons, I’ll keep that in mind going forward.
Aonuma: When we have a button arrangement, we very much put thought into how we do it, because there’s a specific way we want players to feel. In some ways, if we freely let players do customizations on key assignments and such, I feel like we’re letting go of our responsibility as a developer by just kind of handing everything over to the users. We have something in mind for everybody when we play the game, so that’s what we hope players experience and enjoy as well. But we understand also that players have a desire for free customization.
Schreier: Also, physically disabled players might not be able to play the way developers intended.
Aonuma Definitely, that’s a very good point, and that’s something we’ll keep in mind going forward, thinking about that.
Schreier: When we talked in 2014, you told me you wanted to reconstruct the idea of puzzles entirely. What do you want your next big innovation to be?
Aonuma: [Laughs.] I can’t tell you.
Schreier: I mean from a big-picture perspective, similar to the idea of reconstructing puzzles in a Zelda game—that’s a good challenge. What’s the next big challenge for you?
Aonuma: One thing we learned from Breath of the Wild is that when we focused on creating a dungeon that has multiple solutions, it turned into this great title. That’s one thing I want to polish up and use for inspiration going forward.
Schreier: I thought Breath of the Wild was a masterpiece—a lot of people did. But is there anything you wish you could’ve done better?
Aonuma: I can’t really speak to that too specifically—I might use the ideas I have for a next Zelda, or whatever Zelda series I might be working on in the future.
Schreier: There’s been a lot of conversation here in America about overtime hours, the hours it takes to get games like this out the door. What’s your team’s stance on overtime?
Aonuma: When creating a game, game development is all about the people. So if one of them or any of them aren’t well, that definitely affects the game and overall quality, and that’s just not good. We always try to think flexibly about delivery dates, and in the past I’ve apologized for delays. That’s because staff comes first, and I always want to think about it when creating a game.
Schreier: Did you work long periods of overtime for games like Breath of the Wild?
Aonuma: Overall as a Nintendo work culture, we focus on flexibility. And so even the staff have that flexibility of when to focus, and use their energy on something, or they have a little bit of leeway in their work schedule, don’t have to exert themselves so much. They can maintain that balance themselves. Especially for Breath of the Wild, it was the same, and we focused on the staff. We didn’t have anybody be exerted or anything like that, and I think we were able to achieve our goal.
Schreier: I’m curious to hear about your day-to-day life, since it seems like you’re supervising a lot of projects—how do you spend your days? Are you playing a lot of builds?
Aonuma: Every day’s a little bit different. Just to explain maybe an average day: In the morning I’ll check my mail, take care of that. In the afternoon, it depends on what’s needed—sometimes one of the teammates will ask for advice or I’ll play through something just to make sure it’s fun. And then before I go home I’ll check my email. Lately I’ve been able to go home pretty early, so it’s been good.
Schreier: What made you and the team decide to make a sequel to Breath of the Wild as opposed to a new Zelda game?
Aonuma: When we released the DLC for Breath of the Wild, we realized that this is a great way to add more elements to the same world. But when it comes down to technical things, DLC is pretty much data—you’re adding data to a preexisting title. And so when we wanted to add bigger changes, DLC is not enough, and that’s why we thought maybe a sequel would be a good fit.
Schreier: Was this sequel originally planned as DLC?
Aonuma: Initially we were thinking of just DLC ideas, but then we had a lot of ideas and we said, “This is too many ideas, let’s just make one new game and start from scratch.”