MMO Burnout: Lessons MMOs can learn from The Legend of Zelda Tears of the Kingdom


Like most MMO players, I am, first and foremost, a PC gamer. However, like many gamers born in the ’80s and ’90s, I also have a deep love for Nintendo and its various properties. It is also probably no surprise that 2017’s massive open world entry to the long-running Legend of Zelda series, Breath of the Wild, was one of my favorite things to come out of Nintendo in… well, ever really. BotW gives some MMOs a run for their money in terms of map size, explorability, and sheer amount of content.

When rumors started swirling of a sequel, I thought there was no way it could surpass Breath of the Wild. At best, I expected it to give us essentially more of the same, which, to be honest, I would have been perfectly happy with. But after really sinking my teeth into The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom over the past month, I’m blown away by how much depth the sequel has added by simply giving players tools like ultrahand to glue things together, and Zonai devices that allow them to add functions to their creations like movement, flight, and cannons. And that’s before taking into account the fact that the map, while it is largely the same landmass, it has been changed not only by the passage of time (five years or so by fans’ best guesses), but also essentially doubled in size if you factor in the depths and sky islands.

Of course, every time I pick up a single-player game like this, my brain starts comparing it to some of my other favorite games, which are, by and large, MMORPGs. For instance, the paraglider functions very similarly to Guild Wars 2’s gliders, and the alinear, open-world storytelling reminds me of The Elder Scrolls Online. I think MMO developers could learn a lot by studying Tears of the Kingdom. Here are a few of my biggest highlights.

Make the tutorial feel like part of the game, then take the training wheels off

Let’s not kid ourselves, most MMO tutorials are bad. For one thing, they’re usually boring as heck, especially if you’re an alt lover like me and end up doing them a dozen or more times. All too often, they feel completely divorced from the rest of the game, in terms of location, gameplay, and story. Even worse, they are usually really bad at teaching you the mechanics of the game. I guess people who have never played an MMO need someone to tell them how to use WASD to move, spacebar to jump, and how to open their inventory and equip the bronze dagger, but MMOs almost always rely on veteran players to explain the intricacies of class roles, enemy mechanics, buffs/debuffs, and gear stats to newbies.

Tears of the Kingdom’s opening area is gated until you finish the tutorial quest, sure, but in a lot of ways it doesn’t really feel like a tutorial. It introduces you to each of the game’s new runes – ultrahand, fuse, rewind, and ascend – organically, and it gives you space to explore and experiment with each rune after you acquire it.

Granted, TotK doesn’t have a lot of the complexity that an MMO has, given that it has no classes, and of course boss fights are simpler when there is only one player involved, but I still think MMOs could learn a lot from this game’s introduction.

Give me reasons to experiment with different weapon types

My stamina sorcerer in The Elder Scrolls Online has had a bow equipped since I picked one up in the tutorial seven years ago, and he will probably continue using a bow until that game goes dark. The game doesn’t give me a good reason to use anything else. In fact, it punishes me for switching to a two-handed sword because I have to level up that skill line from scratch if I want access to its skills.

Because weapons break in Breath of the Wild, you learn to use whatever you have on hand. Even if you have a really good sword that you like, you don’t want to waste it killing a random Bokoblin, so you may switch to a weaker spear you don’t care as much about, and even if you have a powerful greatsword, such a slow weapon won’t be the most effective thing against a speedy lizalfos. This forces you to learn how to use a wide variety of items and what situations they do best in.

This is further expanded in Tears of the Kingdom because of the fusion system. Not only are you playing with different types of swords, two-handers, and spears, you also get all kinds of interesting fusion effects. Sure, you can fuse one weapon onto the end of another to increase the attack power and range, but that’s only the beginning. Fuse a gemstone to a sword to fire magic projectiles. Pop a wooden board onto a claymore to blow enemies around. Attach a flamethrower to a spear to burn enemies from a distance.

Why can’t MMOs give me more reasons to try different weapon types? For the most part, axes, daggers, swords, and maces in MMOs differ only cosmetically or at best offer slightly different passives you will never notice. I’m not necessarily advocating for a weapon-breaking system like in TotK, but maybe make it situational. In real life, mace combat is very different from sword combat, not to mention the wide variety of sword types the human race has come up with over the centuries, so I wish MMOs would make the types of weapons I’m holding have a meaningful impact on my gameplay. I think both Guild Wars 2 and New World do a good job of this, but I’d like to take it one step further by introducing different enemy types where the mechanics of those different weapons are more impactful, prompting players to adjust their play based on what’s in front of them if they want to be efficient.

I would also love it if MMOs could find a way to incorporate the crazy building features that Tears of the Kingdom sports. Let me build a horse-powered flamethrowermobile that clears out whole camps of goblins or a fan-powered flying siege engine to combat giant rock monsters! But that’s probably not practical in a world where you have to think about other people and griefing and all that. Still, I wish there were more room for this kind of player creativity when tackling things in the open world.

Instant travel doesn’t have to ruin exploration

Like a lot of open world games, Tears of the Kingdom has instant travel to shrines and skyview towers you’ve been to. Certain MMO players like to paint travel convenience as the death of immersion and exploration, but I don’t find that to be the case in TotK at all. It’s all about how the game rewards exploration (more on that in a moment). Sure, if everything of interest is clustered around the travel points, then I’m never going to stray from them, but isn’t that still true even if the game makes me hoof it from place to place? If the world is poorly designed, even without quick travel, I’m still not going to be interested in exploring the landscape; I’ll make a beeline for my destination and pay as little attention as necessary to the game until I get there. I see no reason that games can’t respect my time and give me instant travel.

Reward exploration

I was 40 hours into Tears of the Kingdom before I finished my first dungeon. Not because the puzzles or boss were difficult or because it hard to find (the opposite really); I just love roving the open world in these games, solving shrine puzzles, uncovering koroks, and delving in caves. That’s more fun to me than progressing the main story and quest. Rewarding exploration doesn’t have to mean providing actual gameplay rewards! A story I can tell about a cool Easter egg I found is a reward in and of itself. This is something I feel many older MMOs did well, but it has become a lost art in recent years.

Maybe devs do this less now because they think, “Well, people are just going to blitz through this area leveling as fast as they can, so what’s the point?” or “It’s all going to end up on a wiki or YouTube video, so why bother making something fun and obscure?” I think that’s the wrong way to think about it. Even if you’ve watched a YouTuber demonstrate something, it’s still fun to go there for yourself, either by seeking it out or stumbling into it and going, “Oh! This is that cool thing I heard about!” Just because you read about the Grand Canyon in school and saw a flyover shot on TV doesn’t make it any less impressive when you see it in person.

Give me fun ways to traverse the landscape

In most MMOs, if your characters want to rest their tired feet, they basically have one travel option: mounts. Aside from cosmetic differences, there’s not a lot of variety to them. Guild Wars 2 did some cool stuff with different mount types, and World of Warcraft recently upped its mount game a little with Dragonflight, but by and large, in most MMOs, you hit a button to pull out your pocket horse/wolf/goat/dragon and it makes you go fast and maybe fly.

Tears of the Kingdom has mounts too; there are wild horses all over Hyrule for Link to tame, and you can even ride around on a bear or a deer in a pinch. But they are but one tool in a kit of travel options. You can also get around on your paraglider, with weird vehicles you assemble from Zonai devices, riding falling debris up into the sky by rewinding time, or even by building bridges over obstacles you don’t feel like dealing with out of random junk glued together. It never feels like a chore to get around, and sometimes simply getting where you’re going is as much of an interesting exercise in creativity as the puzzle shrines.

Most of all, it’s hard to describe to someone who hasn’t experienced Breath of the Wild or Tears of the Kingdom just how incredibly freeing it is to be able to climb any random surface in the world. It kind of rewires your brain; I tried to play Jedi: Survivor the other day and kept trying to climb walls to get places. Maybe it wouldn’t work in every game, but it’s surprisingly freeing in Zelda, and I would love to see it in more MMOs.

MMO gamers are often divided over flying mounts, between players who like the freedom to land on top of every random building and see things from a new perspective and those who are grumpy that it allows players to simply float over the topography without challenge. I see climbing as a great compromise between freedom and keeping the player grounded in the world.

Players like housing even if it serves no real gameplay purpose

Did this game really need housing? No, not at all. Is it cool that it has it? Absolutely! Players love being able to customize a little piece of the world, from arranging rooms to displaying cool weapons they found and in-game photos they took. It makes them feel more immersed in the world, and gives them a creative pursuit for when they feel like taking a break from beating up monsters.

There’s not much more to say here. Give us housing systems, MMOs! If you can find a way to give them gameplay benefit, great, but even if not, players will spend so much time (and money) in them.

Player community is built around shared experience, even when they aren’t grouped up

One of my friends was commenting just the other day that even though Tears of the Kingdom is a single-player game, it is a very social experience for her because she knows so many people who are playing and trading stories and tips. MMOs often fall into the trap of thinking that they need to push players into groups to encourage social-ness, but really, if your game is well designed, players will socialize more organically even without this pressure. I was in guilds before MMOs even had that function built in. If you meet another person on the street who plays the same MMO as you, you have an instant connection, even if you are trapped on different shards and never meet up in-game.

There’s nothing wrong with group content – some of my favorite MMO memories come from goofing around with friends and guildies in dungeons and such – but it’s not the be-all end-all of social interaction some companies seem to think it is.

The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom is an incredible experience that strikes the perfect balance between paying homage to the franchise’s past, iterating on its predecessor, and pushing beyond it to make the land of Hyrule more fun than ever to explore. It has drawn me in in a way that precious few non-MMOs have done over the years. If I could snap my fingers and make one single-player game (massively) multiplayer, it would be this one because it would be so much fun to bring a party of friends along and mess around in this game’s freeing, weird, and wonderful world. That isn’t likely to happen – Nintendo, by and large, has an aversion to online play, and when it adds it, it usually does it badly – so the best I can hope for is for more MMOs to learn what they can from Tears of the Kingdom and incorporate its best features in future titles.

Get to it, MMO devs!

Are you burned out on MMOs? It happens. But there are plenty of other titles out there with open worlds, progression, RPG mechanics, and other MMO stalwarts. Massively OP’s MMO Burnout turns a critical eye toward everything from AAA blockbusters to obscure indie gems.
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