Zelda: Breath of the Wild is Beating All Expectations in Japan - Game Design Gazette

Thursday 11 January 2018

Zelda: Breath of the Wild is Beating All Expectations in Japan

It's official. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is the highest-selling Zelda game in Japan since 1998.

To put this in perspective, Breath of the Wild has sold 935,835 units at retail, besting 2007's The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass—a game that was designed specifically to appeal to Japan.

This is surprising for the same reason that Super Mario Odyssey's performance in Japan surprised people: because it's a vast sandbox-style game, and Nintendo felt for the longest time that the Japanese market didn't enjoy such large games where it was easy for the player to get lost.

It all began with Mario

This was a notion that first came up during the development of Mario. At some point, Nintendo noticed that while the 2D Mario games were selling upward of 2-3 million units in Japan, 3D Mario games weren't selling quite as much. Where New Super Mario Bros. Wii had sold over 3.6 million units in Japan by 2010, Super Mario Galaxy had only sold 1.01 million.

Statistical data in hand, late Nintendo president Satoru Iwata voiced this observation in the presence of the company’s investors in May 2010.

“As we see it, one reason why a number of people who love 2D Mario do not want to play 3D Mario appears to be because they are afraid to be lost in the 3D world by not knowing the exact directions, while they feel that they can play with 2D Mario with no such issues,” Iwata explained to investors at a financial results presentation. “One of the development themes of the original Super Mario Galaxy was to create a 3D world where people may not be easily lost, and the spherical shape was adopted as the game play theme for this reason.”

Both Super Mario Galaxy games attempted to create a more straightforward form of 3D exploration to better appeal to the Japanese audience, but neither succeeded at this goal to an extent Nintendo were happy with. This led to the development of Super Mario 3D Land, which aimed to merge 3D movement with the straightforward A-to-B stage design of a 2D Mario game.

That game did successfully accomplish the goal Nintendo had assigned to it, and sold over 2 million units in Japan alone.

How this affected Zelda

In the interim, The Legend of Zelda brand had gone through three major events:

1. Zelda: Twilight Princess had taken an incredibly long time and relatively high budget to develop. It had sold multiple millions in North America and Europe, but less than 600,000 units in Japan.

2. On the other hand, Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, which was developed on a much lower budget, had successfully managed to use the allure of simpler controls to appeal to a large audience in Japan. That game went on to sell just over 900,000 units.

3. Shigeru Miyamoto had become of the opinion that fewer and fewer people were “interested in playing a big role-playing game like Zelda” in Japan.

As a result of the aforementioned events, when the time came for the next Zelda to be developed, Nintendo designed the game around what they felt were the playing habits of the Japanese audience. This led to The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, which took a cue from the last couple of Mario games and removed any "unnecessary" exploration that could potentially intimidate the Japanese market.

Related reading: Why Zelda Skyward Sword Has No Overworld (And Constantly Nags You)

Unfortunately, Skyward Sword did very little for the Zelda brand, either in Japan or overseas. The game was bereft of an overworld to explore and was designed around individual, disconnected areas that contained dungeons. Zelda's western audiences weren't exactly thrilled with this decision as it made the game felt less like an adventure where you explored a vast province. Meanwhile, in Japan the game only sold 350,000 units—far less than either Twilight Princess or Phantom Hourglass.

Nintendo's experiment hadn't paid off. What the company had failed to consider was that Mario and Zelda were two different kinds of games that appealed to two different audiences, and thus needed to be treated differently. While Mario games benefited from having a vast space to explore, they didn’t need one for their appeal to come through. Zelda games, on the other hand, had built their audience up almost entirely on the promise of exploration, and when you took that exploration away, you took away the series' core essence.

Following Skyward Sword's global performance and feedback from players, Nintendo arrived at the same conclusion they had while working on Twilight Princess: that Zelda's Japanese audience was not large enough to be worth designing these games around, and that the tastes of the western audience should play a larger role in the design of the next game.

Breath of the Wild

By this point, vast open-world games like Skyrim, which emphasized exploration and actually encouraged the player to get lost, had become a noticeable trend in the West, alongside other games that emphasized player freedom such as Minecraft. Meanwhile, Nintendo and Monolith Soft’s own expansive RPG, Xenoblade Chronicles, had amassed the sort of critical acclaim that Japanese RPGs had not received in years, largely due to its vast alien landscapes and the way they made the player feel as though they were on a grand adventure.

The direction the next Zelda needed to go in was obvious: it needed to be vast and exploratory. It needed to be high on interactivity the way Zelda games had always been, but without compromising anything in terms of scope. It needed to challenge players and turn these challenges into talking points that could serve as word of mouth. In essence, it needed to do everything that Nintendo had wanted to avoid doing with Zelda ever since the middle of the DS/Wii era and their “blue ocean” approach.

This is what ultimately led to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which is the largest and most open-ended Zelda game in the series' history. Breath of the Wild isn't just impossibly large, it also gives the player a great degree of freedom to explore and play the way they want to, with no artificial boundaries or areas that are locked behind story completion. The game is, in Nintendo's words, designed to make getting lost fun.

In terms of sales, the worldwide performance of the new Zelda speaks for itself. Breath of the Wild has shipped around 6 million units between its Nintendo Switch and Wii U versions—but it is in Japan that the heights the game has achieved are truly interesting. As of last week, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has sold 935,83 units between Switch and Wii U at retail, making it the highest-selling Zelda since 2007.

And that figure doesn't even include digital sales of the game.

What's even more impressive is that in the long run Breath of the Wild might actually manage to be the best-selling Zelda in Japan since 1998's Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

How did this happen?

So, how did this happen? I mean, Japan doesn’t like exploratory games, so they say. They don’t like getting lost, and new audiences are gained by making games more accessible and straightforward, not more complex and difficult. Luckily, there are a few plausible theories regarding just why Breath of the Wild has managed to find a large audience in the Japanese market.

1. There is an audience for vast, expansive games in Japan: Did you know the PlayStation 3 version of Grand Theft Auto V has sold somewhere in the range of 800,000 units in Japan at retail alone? Meanwhile, the initial release of Grand Theft Auto IV has sold nearly 300,000 units, with the complete edition having sold an additional 150,000 units. A large enough contingent of Japanese videogame players is obviously not opposed to large games, provided they are framed within a context that is appealing to them, whether it’s living the American thug life or starting forest fires in Hyrule. While Breath of the Wild may not be speaking to the more casual audience that played Phantom Hourglass, it is reaching out to an audience that is new to it regardless.

2. The right platform: Like a lot of videogames in Japan, Zelda benefits from being released on a portable platform. Where Skyward Sword suffered from being on the Wii, Ocarina of Time 3D and Majora’s Mask 3D both benefitted from being on the Nintendo 3DS. Ocarina 3D, in particular, has performed admirably, selling well over 600,000 units in Japan. In light of this, it isn’t surprising that the new Zelda is benefitting from being on the Switch, which is somewhere in between a home console and a portable itself.

3. Promotional activities by Nintendo: In the years following Zelda’s 25th anniversary in 2011, Nintendo have actively promoted the brand both in the West and in Japan through a steady stream of concerts and games. Re-releases of games such as Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask on the Nintendo 3DS have helped expose new players to the series everywhere, and have had a positive impact on the brand’s level of awareness on the whole.

What next?

The obvious question now is: what’s next? How do you push the Zelda brand beyond that 800-900k figure and make it appeal to even more people? Can it even be done in Japan, a videogame market that is now famous for its steady decline?

I believe it is. The answer to this problem is something that Pokémon has promoted since 1995, that Monster Hunter’s popularity has been built upon since 2005, that Dragon Quest discovered in 2009, and that both Animal Crossing and Splatoon have leveraged to great effect in Japan as well: communication and interaction between players.

By this, I don’t necessarily mean multiplayer—although, that is the most direct approach—but anything that encourages players to communicate and cooperate with one another. Pokémon does this by allowing players to trade and battle together, whereas Dragon Quest IX did it through the use of its SpotPass feature, which enabled players that passed each other on the street or in the train to acquire new treasure maps that led to rare enemies and loot. Given all the examples that already exist in the market, we know there are a number of ways to approach player-to-player communication.

Zelda actually has tried something along these lines in the past. The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords, Hyrule Warriors, and Tri Force Heroes have all explored the idea of cooperative multiplayer from different angles. Unfortunately, it hasn’t quite ever worked out for a variety of reasons (a topic for another time), but luckily that doesn’t seem to have discouraged Nintendo from trying again.

Speaking to IGN at E3 2016, Zelda series producer Eiji Aonuma stated: “I would like to take what I learned from Breath of the Wild and see if we can somehow fuse those learning points into another multiplayer Zelda. For example, with Tri Force Heroes, which followed a similar format of Four Swords, there was a multiplayer involved in that game. That’s definitely a possibility and we will continue to [experiment] throughout the Zelda franchise.”

Sources of sales data: Nintendo Co., Ltd. and Media Create Co., Ltd. Chart includes retail sales only.