To me, it’s all about the little things that make me happy; a perfect cup of coffee, a bowl of warm salty popcorn or the first bite of a tasty burger. Wait, those are all food related… I also have other examples like uhhh; a smile from a stranger, pressing play on a new album or a spontaneous kiss from my wife. Anyway, so it is with games. I admire an attention to detail. It makes me happy when I notice someone put extra care into something for no real apparent reason, other than its nice. Even more so when it mostly goes unnoticed.
As a consumer I didn’t really notice these things, but as a game developer you are constantly assessing if the work you put in is actually worth it. Spending many hours just to make your main character be able to play paddy cake with an npc probably won’t sell you more copies, but then again… well, who knows.
This post is also to remind me of small game design lessons that you will never learn at the University. I know I didn’t. I want to catalogue them so I can strive for the same attention to detail. It’s also a way to say thank you to the person that made it happen, whoever that might be.
I got the idea to write small posts about these little things while replaying The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap, so it’s only fitting to start here. I initially was going to do only 1 example, but during my playthrough I noticed a couple more so I decided, why not.
This to me is a perfect example of putting in the extra effort. Teleportation in most games is simple and easy. You click on a name or place on a map, and it takes you there. Sometimes this happens with a cool animation and sometimes it goes straight to a loading screen. But what if you take a moment to think of ways to that make it cooler/better or just more memorable.
In Zelda’s case they decided to make use of an animal buddy. He shows up when you play the ocarina, but notice he doesn’t show up immediately, there is a small timeout that can imply he’s a real bird (maybe he was sleeping or looking for worms). Then there is the beautiful fact that the player can dodge him, this gives him more character, after all, he just flies to where he heard the sound come from. It also creates opportunity for the player to play around with a simple mechanic as teleportation. Run towards him, run away from him or do a “cool” roll right before grabbing on to his talons.
Of course I could have used The Legend of Zelda A link to the Past for this example, and it does deserve all the credit, but I was playing Minish Cap so, sorry alttp. Actually I believe it’s done a bit better even in alttp because there you actually free the bird yourself. I always imagine him being so thankful that he repays you by flying you places.
NPC’s that are alive
How can you make your NPC feel more alive? Well, you can start by giving them idle animations and names. Make them all look different and unique. But this is also a cool extra way to do it. Make them acknowledge you. Look at these little Picori, turning their heads to follow me around the room. I guess they don’t trust a stranger standing right behind them. Also notice how their heads have many direction frames (12?), but their bodies only 4 and yet it looks surprisingly fluent. Maybe it was done to save some time, but then again you don’t really want to move your whole body if it’s not necessary anyway. So I’ll go with conscious choice.
“I want to see a negative before I provide you with a positive” –Eldon Tyrell
Matching these broken puzzle pieces is an easy tasks, it’s more about collecting and choosing than finding the one that fits, but still! Instead of hearing just a loud “NNNN” sound when you try to fit an incorrect piece we get to see it with our own two that it doesn’t. It also makes sense because with puzzle pieces you often only know after you tried. More importantly though, it makes a right fit all the more satisfying. Click!
Pickups, collectables and UI
In the first GIF you can see what happens when you walk into a rupee. It magically floats above Link for just a moment and moves along with Link from his initial position. This enforces the feeling you actually picked it up, the rupee gets elevated and then dropped into a pocket? Or maybe it was done to enforce the idea that Link holds everything above his head? I don’t really know, but I do know it feels better than the rupee just disappearing.
This second GIF shows the same animation, but this one is more about the health interface. See how the current/active HP you have is bigger than the rest? Smart smart smart.
I also noticed something interesting while playing. In most Zelda games, cutting grass and weeds feels more like a chore. There isn’t much to gain when you have full health and those couple rupees usually don’t matter too much. They’re nice to get, but you (or at least me) don’t go out of my way for them.
In Minish Cap however, there is more stuff to find in the tall grass, like Kingstone’s and Mysterious Shells. They both have their own value and nice to find. Certainly makes wailing away at those evil bushes more fun and rewarding.
In most Zelda games you get a sword laser attack when your full health, which is obviously a bit strange because it makes the player even stronger when he doesn’t have to be. In Minish Cap you can learn a technique that unlocks it when you are on low HP, giving you saver way to find some hearts and get back into the game. But it’s not just about balancing, in my experience while playing the other games I was mostly annoyed when losing the laser power and not very excited when unlocking it. In Minish Cap it creates excitement because you actually need it!
I think this is a good example that there is always room for change and innovation. Even with old ideas, traditions or stuff you take for granted because… it…just…is!
Making items or abilities useful in many different areas is always a big plus. Most items in Zelda games have many uses but I like this use and enemy in particular. It’s not like you having to use the hammer to flip an enemy and then the sword to kill it. You can kill these mummies just fine with a sword or arrow. But just because it’s possible doesn’t mean it’s the most efficient way. If a player decides to try to burn all that flammable fabric he will be rewarded. I never even tried in my first playthrough many years ago. I think this is called depth. Depth is good.
Of course, if you also have little things that made you smile, I would love to hear about them. Or if you found this in any way interesting and would like to see a part 2 about a different game, let me know too.