Zach Mumbach's been in the video game industry for a long time. He's worked on AAA franchises like Dead Space and Battlefield, and is now working at his own studio that's already shipped one game and is hard at work on a second. But even the most hardened video game developers are stunned, delighted, and just a little bit envious of The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom.
"Tears of the Kingdom is overwhelmingly impressive," he says. "The bar is set so unbelievably high. Even for me, having worked in AAA for 17 years, I see that game and I'm jealous. Because clearly they got the time that they needed to make it really good."
The games industry is in the middle of a watershed moment thanks to Nintendo's latest masterpiece. Tears of the Kingdom is dominating the conversation on social media, as fans fall in love with its immersive exploration, complex building mechanics, and interconnected systems.
But developers are able to have an even deeper appreciation for the mastery on display in Tears of the Kingdom because of their own personal experiences with game development. While you or I can rightfully celebrate the game for everything we love about it, there's something more powerful about hearing praise from folks who know a little bit about what's actually going on under the hood. For instance, we've seen a handful of devs go nuts for the game's physics engine alone.
The game programming flex of all time. pic.twitter.com/id2K5uE5mz
— William Armstrong (@WillWArmstrong) May 21, 2023
IGN spoke with five game developers — ranging from indie devs working on their first solo projects to devs with decades of AAA experience — about the most mind-blowing parts of Tears of the Kingdom, and if a universally-loved game like this is inspiring, deflating… Or a little bit of both.
Game Developers Share the Most Impressive Parts of Tears of the Kingdom
When trying to pick just one element of Tears of the Kingdom that stands head-and-shoulders above the rest, our interview subjects had a hard time choosing. In fact, we got five different answers from our five different developers.
For Mumbach, it comes down to the open world design. On a five-minute horse ride to his next objective, Mumbach says he's constantly distracted by visual cues Nintendo has planted across every inch of Hyrule's expansive map. But somehow, Mumbach says the sheer amount of content never becomes overwhelming because of the way the developers present it to the player.
"The open world is probably the best-constructed open world ever. I can drop you anywhere in the Tears of the Kingdom map and you can spin your camera around, and if you see a space that looks like something should be there, you will be rewarded for going there. Every single time… And that just isn't a thing I think any other open world game is even close to."
The praise reaches a whole new level when incorporating Tears of the Kingdom's building and physics engine into its meticulously-designed open world. At EA, Mumbach worked as a producer where he was in charge of breaking development processes down, including figuring out how many people and how much time was needed for development to go smoothly. But even with that experience, he says he can't begin to imagine how things work behind Nintendo's tightly-shut doors.
"To make these vehicles that work the way they work with the physics, like the gliders? And the fact that you can put rockets or fans on the back of this glider, but then it's also understanding where I am standing on the glider at all times? And constantly updating the trajectory of the glider based on my little tiny stick deflection movements? That's like a whole game to me. Go make that and you win an award for making that. And that's just a little part of this game."
James from indie studio Natsu Kaze is a solo dev working on Maple Forest, an indie game clearly influenced by top-down Zelda classics like A Link to the Past and Link's Awakening. Zelda is one of James' favorite series and main inspirations, and he's similarly impressed by the Ultrahand building mechanics — even though he admits he was initially worried the construction kit was just a gimmick.
"When I first heard Nintendo was adding building to the game, I kind of sweat a little… And then the game came out, and I was blown away," James says. "The building mechanics don't hurt the game at all, they strengthen it! Now that the game has released, it's obvious Nintendo thought carefully about Breath of the Wild's core strengths, its absolute freedom of exploration and it rewarding player curiosity and experimentation, and dove in and built what was surely an extremely time-consuming and expensive physics and building system to make that core shine even brighter. It's crazy, and it's amazing."
In describing their favorite parts of Tears of the Kingdom, many developers found themselves inadvertently rediscovering their love for Breath of the Wild's open world design. Tears of the Kingdom is a meatier, more fully-realized version of its predecessor's core vision, which makes the bones of Breath of the Wild's innovative elements even more impressive.
Another indie developer, Aaron McDevitt of Aero GPX, puts it another way, calling attention to Tears of the Kingdom's deep sandbox, saying Nintendo's open world Zeldas "are basically begging the player to interact with the world and game in whatever way they want in order to progress. No two people will play the game the same way, and that's beautiful. It fosters replayability, a sense of community, and creativity all in one fell swoop… I do think it would be awesome if developers were more open to giving their player characters just enough capability, agency, and sandbox flavor that could result in players finding unique ways of approaching problems and progression through their games."
The player's ability to solve puzzles however they want is another feature that leads to viral moments on social media. Videos of unconventional problem solving spark conversation, from players sharing their own unique solutions, to folks wondering what exactly Nintendo intended.
— Luigi (@looygi) May 25, 2023
"None of it is 'cheating' or 'going against the designers’ intentions' because it’s all within the realm of what’s intended. The intention was to give the player a plethora of toys and a sandbox in which to play with them. Nintendo doubled down on letting the player win however they wanted to. I could see other studios and games benefitting from letting their grip loosen on the 'intended solution' to the puzzles and challenges they throw at players."
Finally, Retro Studios artist Taylor Rohrig calls out how Tears of the Kingdom benefits greatly from building off another masterpiece, Breath of the Wild. Specifically, returning to the same Hyrule feels like revisiting a real-world place for the first time in years. Rohrig also notes that Nintendo stepped up its game in the character department this time, fleshing out the people Link interacts with on his second trip through this Hyrule.
"I feel like everywhere I go I'm genuinely meeting new people, new NPCs that are making the world feel like, 'Yeah, Hyrule is coming back, what I did in the first game actually matters, people are able to rebuild and live their lives,'" Rohrig says.
What Should the Industry Take Away from Tears of the Kingdom?
In the years following Breath of the Wild, many games have tried to recapture its essence. We've seen more games than ever with stylized grass waving in the wind, ambient piano soundtracks, and paragliders in the wake of Zelda's success. But few games have replicated its true secret recipe: Unparalleled exploration and player freedom. So, I asked these developers what lessons the industry should take from Tears of the Kingdom, and what takeaways big game companies might end up taking instead.
Returning to Rohrig's point about Hyrule feeling more alive in Tears of the Kingdom, Mumbach thinks more games could benefit from building off the worlds established in their predecessors rather than creating brand new worlds with each new entry. We're already starting to see this fairly often — God of War: Ragnarok and Spider-Man 2 come to mind as two recent examples, while the Yakuza series successfully returned to the same map for over a decade — but Mumbach thinks even more developers should take note of this practice. Mumbach says he would love another game that takes place in Skyrim, for example, where towns, people, and the environment have all undergone massive shifts.
Developers were torn on whether major studios will incorporate building mechanics into games following Tears of the Kingdom's mainstream success in that department.
"I hope the Tears of the Kingdom-style building is not shoehorned into games where the core design philosophy was originally not created with that in mind," Covington says. "Now, for games that do have creative sandbox building in some form or fashion, I definitely think those creative teams will be taking a hard look at how Zelda has implemented their systems and physics, but I don’t think it will make such a monumental splash on the industry in the way that Breath of the Wild called out all open-world RPG designers."
Mumbach says he "guarantees" executives at big game companies are telling their development teams that their games need building mechanics. But that doesn't mean we'll see building mechanics in all the finished products, as most dev teams will likely push back and say systems like that will take too much time — and too much money — to create.
"I don't think we'll see a bunch of people trying to make this game. I think that they'll be having conversations about it, but I think ultimately it's a unicorn. It's not a thing you can just go out there and emulate."
Tears of the Kingdom was created under extremely rare, near-perfect conditions. For starters, Nintendo built this game with seemingly-unlimited time and budget, as an interview with series producer Eiji Aonuma revealed the game was delayed a year purely for polish. Nintendo Switch's historical sales success also meant there was no rush for Nintendo to deliver Tears of the Kingdom a second before it was ready.
Plus, there's the fact that the Zelda team started development with Tears of the Kingdom's engine, overworld, combat, art direction, and more already in place from Breath of the Wild, giving them a massive head start in creating new content and systems right from the jump. Finally, the Zelda team — led by Aonuma and longtime director Hidemaro Fujibayashi — is filled with experienced, senior developers who have been working on the franchise for many years. All of these elements came together to allow Nintendo to develop a generational game under circumstances that will be difficult for anyone — including Nintendo itself — to repeat.
"I don't want to be negative, but even if most developers took the correct lessons from Breath of the Wild and now Tears of the Kingdom, I'm not confident most of them would be able to do anything meaningful with them," James says. "I don't think Zelda's design is something that can be learned or copied without incredible effort — Nintendo is just full of world class talent working in an environment that's letting them realize their full potential. The result is masterpieces like Tears of the Kingdom."
For developers creating games at work while playing Tears of the Kingdom in their free time, it can be daunting to feel like Nintendo has set a bar that's impossibly high to reach. But the devs we spoke to are up to the challenge, understanding that every team making games has something valuable to share with the rest of the industry.
"It is a big inspiration," Rohrig says. "The Legend of Zelda series as a whole is what got me into wanting to be a game developer. So anytime I play anything Zelda it is usually some spark of inspiration, I want to have an impact on someone like Zelda had an impact on me. And if anything I can do in my game development can create a story that can be that for someone else, then I'm going to be happy."
Logan Plant is a freelance writer for IGN covering video game and entertainment news. He has over seven years of experience in the gaming industry with bylines at IGN, Nintendo Wire, Switch Player Magazine, and Lifewire. Find him on Twitter @LoganJPlant.