Arts & Culture

Breath of the Wild: a Broken Game Economy

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.

 

Works Cited

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.

10 Comments

  1. Oouuu!! My cousin plays this game! I’ve never actually played it but I enjoy watching her play it. Great job Samuel!

  2. I love this game! Great job

  3. Yeeahhh…. I started finding too many Royal Broadswords, but never using them because I just use the master sword all the time XD. How do the korok seeds factor into the problem? Does it alleviate anything, or make it worse?

    • Korok seeds are a bit of an interesting topic because they’re more like little extra things to find on the side rather than a key component of BOTW’s economy, not to mention they have exponentially diminishing returns. The only thing I think it hurts is reducing the amount of meaningful decisions you can make with what items you do pick up since you’ll have so many open spaces for them and weapons get even more durable as you go. I really like the idea of games throwing many resources at you but you the player are unable to take advantage of all of them, leading you to make decisions on what to sacrifice or waste. Other games do this very well, but Breath of the Wild not so much.

  4. i don’t see how getting rupees is a problem you just sell your resources
    and also the better you get at the game the harder mobs you fight and therefore the economics is balanced for example i fought a silver lynel and almost ran out of food and i have a huge inventory!
    but other than that good articale

  5. The Breath Of the WILDERNESS HAHAHAHAHAHA

    Never played it it looks fun but yeah you are right

  6. Quite educational. It was interesting to look at a game from a fresh point of view. Nicely done.

  7. Hmmm…interesting point…I did notice that I had way too many apples last time I played XD.

    One more thing though is that the enemies get harder the further you advance in the game, turning green then black then white, which helps with the economy crash. However, I do agree that the endless inventory thing is a bit silly.
    Overall, very intriguing article! I suddenly realize a lot more about game economics–World of Light has a pretty broken-backed economy as well.

  8. Very nice article! I agree with most of this, except for the infinite standard resources/limited craftable resources. The infinite resources means as long as I’m in the area, I can keep picking up items and whatnot, and for any daily task I’ll usually have enough of it. So, yes, it does throw some things at you in huge quantities that can get overwhelming and you just start mindlessly picking up. However, you do have to think about which items those are: Generally Bokolin/Moblin parts, raw meat, a variety of flowers, and certain types of fruit. Outside of those resources, you are going to have to go hunting down what you need to progress (ie Lynel/Guardian parts, Insects, Dragon Shards). All of those “basic” items lead into “basic” craftables: Restore 5 hearts, upgrade Knight Armor, etc, etc. The more of them you make, the more you fill your limited craftables inventory, which in turn eats up room you would otherwise use for the “rare” craftables, the high level potions and food you make out of more difficult to find items. There is a progress in item scarcity, just like there with armor/weapons. You go from having a tough(ish) time of finding apples on the Great Plateau, to seeing one every 10 feet hanging on a tree somewhere. But at the same time, you can’t find Lynel horns on the Plateau, you can’t even being to access them until you get near the edge (relatively) of the map.

    (I do totally agree with you on rupees though, I often find myself going back to the same three Talus’s to kill and get gems from every time I need more.)

  9. I love this game! great job!