Released in 2017 and developed by Nintendo for the Switch, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was lightning in a bottle, almost singlehandedly bringing Nintendo out of a financial dark age after the disaster of the Wii U and reinventing the formula for a series that had descended into stale repetition. Breath of the Wild makes a lot of brilliant design decisions, namely offering players unprecedented freedom in an open world to do and go wherever they please, where the only bar to entry is skill and not an arbitrary level. While it is fascinating to praise this game for all of its successes, I find it more interesting to comment on where it fails, in particular its game economy and how it easily teeters off balance.
In order for a game economy to function, it must have two very important elements: currency and resources. Resources can be classified as anything the player uses to progress to a goal, and currencies can be anything a player uses to acquire resources. To call a game economy balanced, the designers must consider how the player might juggle these two elements during gameplay and monitor all of the avenues that contribute to the economy. Just like a real economy, game economies are based on transactions which can deplete or restore the player’s resources and currencies at varying rates. For example, the most common transaction found in Breath of the Wild is exchanging rupees, the standard currency in the game, for items or vice versa, by exchanging resources for rupees. Another example of a transaction in this economy would be eating food to restore health, and expending a resource to refund the player’s allowance for mistakes.
Since all games revolve around a repeatable loop, a balanced economy must also act as a self-perpetuating loop of depleting and replenishing resources. If players find themselves unable to replenish their pools of resources and currency, then they will become unable to participate in the game’s economy. Conversely, having too many resources would discourage players from engaging with the economy or abusing it to trivialize the game’s challenges. Thus the game must be able to provide enough avenues of income to the player while also providing enough ways to spend that income. In the case of Breath of the Wild, most of the player’s resources will come from foraging, which the game strongly encourages in its opening minutes and does not require expending any resources. However, finding rupees is incredibly rare and the only reliable way of obtaining them is by trading items found throughout the world in shops, thus giving a major avenue of spending, often referred to as a “money sink,” to contrast the biggest avenue of income. Moreover, Breath of the Wild introduces multiple smaller tradeoffs, such as sacrificing a few weapons for rare crafting ingredients from a strong enemy, using items that can be used to cook food to upgrade armor, or setting a wooden sword on fire to keep warm in the cold. The game features an undoubtedly complex economy whose wheels turn incredibly quickly, gaining and expending resources at a rapid pace to further encourage foraging so that the player can continue this engaging cycle.
However, Breath of the Wild’s brisk economy not only acts as its biggest strength but, later on in the game, its most troublesome downfall. For example, as players upgrade their armor throughout the course of the game, they take less damage, thus giving them less incentive to eat food and heal. By itself, this would not be an issue since it would simply act as another part of the game’s progression, however the game in turn responds to these changes by giving players access to more powerful healing items that can heal their ever growing pool of health by expending less and less resources. What starts to happen in this situation is that players start to hoard more and more items, since the pace at which resources are gained do not change. Furthermore, the player has the ability to carry an infinite amount of crafting ingredients but only a limited amount of crafted items, leaving the player with multiple pages of resources with nothing to spend them on, which is when Breath of the Wild’s economy really starts to break down. Thus the economy falls into the trap of trivializing the hardest challenges in the game and an endless hoard of items that actively discourages the fun foraging to keep up with an increasingly demanding world.
Despite its failings to stop the inevitably disastrous end to what makes it truly fun, Breath of the Wild is still a technical and design marvel by Nintendo which I would personally recommend to anyone. I only hope that the issues in this game may be resolved in some way in Breath of the Wild’s coming sequel if Nintendo decides to continue the successful formula they have created.
Thumbnail. Breath of the Wild. https://www.redbull.com/int-en/zelda-breath-of-the-wild-fails-red-bull-games.
Fig 1. Samuel Kleis. Panorama.
Fig 2. Samuel Kleis. Foraging meat.
Fig 3. Samuel Kleis. Desert panorama.
Fig 4. Samuel Kleis. Full item screen.