Earlier today, Nintendo Life posted an interesting article that posed the following: what if instead of one big console release every 3-5 years, Nintendo released each new The Legend of Zelda adventure in yearly episodes? The rationale is that instead of trying to expand a single game to the 50+ hours that fans expect we’d instead get 10-20 hour chunks, all focused on being worth buying individually while coming together to form a full game in the end.
I’m against the idea myself, but I went ahead and put together a pros/cons list. (I address not just “episodic” releases as we typically think of them, but the possibilities for Zelda as a yearly franchise.)
Now, just because I’m against the idea doesn’t mean I think it’s all bad. For example, if Zelda was released in smaller chunks that’d mean less development time and thus less of a painful wait between games. I’m not so sure that the best way to sustain brand excitement is to force painfully long waits in between games. Other series manage to continuously satisfy their audiences despite yearly releases: Assassin’s Creed comes to mind; I don’t think its popularity has ever been greater.
There’s no reason why Zelda can’t do just as well at satisfying its audience. It’s not as though the Zelda team hasn’t proven they can accomplish such a feat: Majora’s Mask for example was completed in under a year and released less than two years after Ocarina of Time, and feels very much like an “episodic” entry itself due to the nature of its development. I don’t necessarily expect that a yearly Zelda release would be quite so packed to the brim with side content, but it’s at least good example of how a smaller Zelda game can still be great.
Another big plus as far as I’m concerned is the ability to address gamer feedback more quickly. With less frequent and larger releases, the flaws are there to stay - even if they’re scattered throughout the whole 50 hours. More frequent releases could mean greater dependence on and accountability to the tastes of the audience instead of trying to reinvent the wheel every time and getting caught up in big experimental changes instead of refinements.
I gave three reasons why an episodic approach might actually work out to be a good thing, so for the sake of fairness I’ll give three reasons for the other side.
I really, really don’t think the decision to make a smaller Zelda experience would go over well, even if once the five years are up we wind up actually getting more content than we would have with one five-year game. Smaller scale is understandable enough on handhelds - but even then if you look at the general trend for the handheld games, you’ll notice that they aren’t as popular as the console iterations. There’s something about ambitious scale that just goes with Zelda. Even Majora’s Mask was ambitious, if not with its “size” or “length” then with the amount of life they packed into its world.
My other two reasons are closely connected and have less to do with Zelda specifically and more to do with one of the flaws with an episodic approach to game development. The first is that “episodic” almost always means incomplete. In an effort to complete a game as cheaply and quickly as possible, ultimately a lot of ideas will get cut. Tighter deadlines mean less time for bringing everything together, and that often results in a feeling that something was cut. Remember The Wind Waker‘s missing dungeons? Even the very polished Xenoblade Chronicles has some obviously-missing content - you get a glimpse of an unvisitable area in the game’s ending scenes.
The other and personally the more damning reason is that an episodic approach ultimately means that you’re making a game under the assumption that you’re going to be able to make a sequel - and this is a terrible assumption in any profit-driven industry. There’s a proverb that goes something like this: “Live each day as if it is your last, for someday you will be right.” I think that keenly applies here: “Make every game as if it is your last, for someday you will be right.” It’s pure conceit to believe that a franchise can go on forever unless it continues to meet the demands of its audience. And while I did list one reason why yearly or episodic releases might actually help in this department, the fact of the matter is that episodic content as a rule presumes serial production, and that’s never something you can guarantee you’ll be able to deliver.
I have a feeling I already know the answer to this question but - what do you guys think? Would an episodic or yearly release of smaller titles still do the job? Or should Zelda retain that ambitious big-hitter approach that made it famous in the first place? Leave your thoughts in the comments!