30 minutes with Eiji Aonuma: The Zelda series director on building and shipping one of gaming’s biggest franchises
On the first day of E3 2013, a succinct and surprising email from one of our Nintendo contacts arrived in our inbox while we were eating dinner across from the Los Angeles Convention Center. The man didn’t waste any time. “Do you want to interview Eiji Aonuma?” was practically all that the message said.
Naturally, we responded yes.
The next night, we stopped by the Symphony of the Goddesses concert to enjoy the new Second Quest arrangements, and to interview the Symphony’s conductor, Eimear Noone. We told everyone that we’d be sitting down with Aonuma the next day. To our surprise, we found out that he had actually been at the concert, but left early.
“Do you want to interview Eiji Aonuma?”
Eimear told us that we would love sitting down with Mr. Aonuma. So we decided to give Mr. Aonuma the interview he deserved. We spent hours ensuring that each question we wanted to ask would be something Mr. Aonuma wasn’t expecting. No prying for information we knew we wouldn’t get. Just a great half-hour with some great questions.
The thirty minutes we spent with Mr. Aonuma paint the picture of a man just as self-conscious about his work as anyone; a genuine creator with an intense desire to balance freedom with making people happy. In the interview below, Mr. Aonuma touches on what he’s proud of most while acknowledging what makes him most vulnerable, providing a deep look inside the brain of the man who creates one of gaming’s largest franchises.
“We would love to take some of your experience and hand it off to all the people who admire all the work you do.”
I met with Eimear Noone yesterday. She wanted to say thank you for the chocolates.
Ah! That was not recent… a while ago?
Oh, was it?
I think it was a while ago.
Well, she wanted to say so, and that she says hello. We know a lot of folks over at the Zelda Symphony. A lot of them are good friends of ours; Jeron Moore is a great friend of ours, and they were all super excited that we get to sit down with you today. Hopefully they can live vicariously through me!
I actually wanted to say hello to Ms. Noone, but the crowd being what it is, we were a little bit concerned if they knew that I was there, so actually Bill Trinen escorted me out swiftly after the concert was over.
We noticed, and everyone wanted us to say “Hi” here.
[holds up 3DS] We were hoping to get your golden pants.
We have a new theory about The Legend of Zelda. It’s that the Triforce is actually cut from the golden pants. We must obtain the pants.
Yeah, we have some actual questions.
We’ve got a bunch of Zelda fans that would love to hear from you, and we get questions all the time. Everyone says, “What if you could meet Aonuma? What would you ask him?” And what I’d like to do is pick your brain and get your perspective on a lot of the work you do, because you’ve been doing this now for decades. And I would love to take some of your experience and hand it off to all the people who admire all the work you do. So, hopefully we can accomplish that.
I’m also very thankful for this opportunity to hear the voices of my fans and find out what they want to know.
Alright, so I’ll get started. Obviously you’re developing A Link Between Worlds, which is a sequel to A Link to the Past. We’re wondering how the overall development of the Zelda series has changed since A Link to the Past was shipped twenty years ago now, and how has the change in development and in Nintendo changed A Link Between Worlds and it’s development and made it a different Zelda game?
“To think that what was originally A Link to the Past can now be created on a PC so easily by one person speaks to how far we’ve come.”
Actually, I didn’t work on A Link to the Past. At that time I was working on another project, and Mr. Miyamoto was working on creating A Link to the Past. But, having played it, I was really, really impressed, and that was actually the game that made me want to direct my own game. And then I started working on Zelda, and some twenty-plus years later here I am working on A Link Between Worlds. But Mr. Miyamoto always wanted to do more with A Link to the Past’s story, and he’s actually tasked me with doing that for quite some time, so I’m really happy to have come to that point where we’re actually working on continuing that.
And because I wasn’t directly involved in A Link to the Past’s development, I can’t really speak about how development has changed, so I can’t really respond to that part of your question, unfortunately. But what I can say is, well… I was working on Zelda after it became the 3D Zelda, so that’s when my involvement started. But taking this flat world and creating one with dimension is something that we are working on doing. And it’s interesting, because when I proposed this to my staff what I actually did was I took the flat, two-dimensional world of A Link to the Past and, on my PC, created a version of the same world with dimension. And to think that what was originally A Link to the Past can now be created on a PC so easily by one person speaks to how far we’ve come.
What made you decide that this was the right… because you talked about how Miyamoto has asked you for a long time to make something in the world of A Link to the Past. Was the 3D something that made you decide that this was the right time to do that? Or was it something else that made you think, “now is the time we want to make the sequel”?
“With the 3DS, Mr. Miyamoto challenged us, ‘What do you want to do with this? Given these features in the hardware, what do you think you can create with it?’”
With A Link to the Past, the sense of dimension that we gave in that game was kind of faked, because we did it through applying shading and things like that, so there wasn’t actual height, it was simulated height. But now we have the ability – especially as we create more and more 3D Zelda games, we have more skill, we also have more flexibility with the hardware – to give it actual dimension. And also, with the 3DS, when we were presented with that hardware, Mr. Miyamoto challenged us, “What do you want to do with this? Given these features in the hardware, what do you think you can create with it?” I’ve always been thinking of that kind of sense of dimension in A Link to the Past, and with the 3DS we can really take that to where it needs to go.
So, I’m gonna step back and ask something a little more broad. A lot of us are creators, and we make things and we ship them, and one of the toughest things you can do as a creator is just show your work to the public. And you’ve done this a number of times, and I just would love to know how you feel whenever a game you make ships or you have demos on the show floor, and how you feel when your work is just out there and people use it.
I’m always worried. I’m always worried and excited, a combination of both two things. I’m always thinking of how well they play; will they think what I thought was fun is fun? For example, with The Wind Waker, when it was first released there was some criticism. Some people didn’t like the direction we were taking Zelda; they thought maybe it wasn’t the direction they had anticipated or the direction they wanted to go. The same thing with The Wind Waker HD; I see people out there playing, and I’m just hoping that they understand what the value is in revisiting this world and with this new kind of presentation of this world. So, same thing, like I said, it’s excitement and worry at the same time.
“I’m always worried and excited. I’m always thinking of how well they play; will they think what I thought was fun is fun?”
That’s awesome. Just on a personal note, I know from running the Zelda Universe message boards that The Wind Waker gets a lot of criticism. I personally believe that it is the most beautiful Zelda game, and it’s the reason why I’m sitting in this room. It’s my personal favorite. It got me into the series. I just wanted to tell you that I think it was a fantastic decision. It’s a great design.
Thank you. [laughs]
Along that lines, though, we obviously do have a very active user base that likes to voice a lot of their opinions about the Zelda series. They may not know whether or not you guys look at what they say – which I would love to believe that you do, because we care. And I’m just wondering: what is the largest change, or the most important change, that you’ve made to the Zelda series as a whole because of feedback from fans?
Hmm… I think the project that reflects our reaction to fan opinion is probably Twilight Princess. The incentive for us to create that different version of the Zelda universe was certainly as a result of The Wind Waker criticism that we received. Fans were saying that it wasn’t what they were looking for, it wasn’t what they were hoping for, so that’s why we went with this different graphic presentation. So I think that’s probably the one, the biggest change that we made.
I still remember eight years ago at E3 when we ran that first video of Twilight Princess. It was received very well; there was a standing ovation! So I still remember that moment very well.
“The incentive for us to create [Twilight Princess] was certainly as a result of The Wind Waker criticism that we received.”
I wanted to ask, how has your relationship to the fans changed? Because, in the old days, you had to rely on market analysts and the press. But, nowadays, you have the internet, you have fan sites, you have Miiverse, where you can connect to fans directly. Has that changed your connection to the fans or your perception of the fan base?
It certainly has changed. When I started, the voices I was hearing were heard indirectly. Someone did a market analysis like you said, and I heard the results of that. Now, with fan sites and Miiverse, its almost as though we’re sitting in the same room, kind of like we are right now, because there’s no go-between; it’s direct. But with regard to how fan voices or fan opinion affects my daily work and my creative process, I certainly have the fans in mind when I’m creating something, and I want to create something that will make them happy, but it’s my creative responsibility to also give them something they didn’t know they wanted. An element of surprise always has to be there, because I’m a creative person; it’s my job. If I just took the opinions of fans, I’m just gathering information, I’m not creating my own ideas. In that sense, I like to leave a little bit of distance between myself and my fans, because it’s that distance that allows me the space that I need to, again, deliver something that you guys don’t expect.
And with regard to the kind of opinions or fan response that I really want to hear, it’s “What stayed with you?” What left an impression? What made you feel happy? What made you feel sad? That kind of information is really helpful to me. I understand that people will have specific requests with regard to a certain dungeon, or “We want to see this particular item in the game,” or something like that. But even more than that I really value the emotional experience that people have, and as a creator it’s very important for me to leave an impression, and I’d like to hear what those impressions are.
In the original Legend of Zelda, Link is named Link because he is a link to the player. However, in more recent Zelda games, Link has become more of a character in his own right. In The Wind Waker, his facial expressions were a large part of the game, and it was emotional to see him wave goodbye to his family on Outset Island. And in Skyward Sword, Link even has a relationship with Zelda. So do you feel that Link is becoming less of a link to the player and more of a character in his own right?
It’s actually very tricky. I still want the player to feel as though they are Link; they are in Link’s shoes doing all these actions. But, at the same time, he also needs to be a character in a game in a space. So what we’ve tried to do with him is make him a character that the player wants to be. Someone who’s shoes you want to be in or that you want to act on behalf of. But it should also feel like it’s the player. So we tried to make him appealing somehow; make him cute, or handsome, or cool. Something that draws the player in. Because otherwise, if he’s just this blank slate, then there’s no draw; there’s nothing that makes you want to be put in his shoes and take on these challenges. So it’s a balance, and it’s certainly something that we struggle with and something that we’ll probably continue to struggle with when making Zelda games.
I think I speak for all the Zelda fans when I say that it’s the hair that makes you want to be Link. It’s the fabulous hair.
[laughs] Ah! So the hair is very important. Got it.
That’s why everyone also wants to be Groose.
Groose has great hair! [gestures to hair]
The red head?
Does he have a different Japanese name?
We like Bado very much.
How long has The Legend of Bado been in development? I assume it’s been at least ten years now. We’re very anxious!
[laughs] I’ll keep that in mind.
“I really want to hear, ‘What stayed with you?’ What left an impression? What made you feel happy? What made you feel sad?”
Okay, so, another question. In my travels, something I’ve found is that the people who know Zelda are not always the people you would expect to have played Zelda or even video games. I likened it almost to a secret of people who just love Zelda and you’d never know it. And this always makes me wonder about the experiences that people have had, and there’s always a story that someone has to tell about this person they met that knows Zelda and you never thought. I’m wondering if you have any stories like that, of a person you may not have thought would’ve played your games, but you met them and they have and it changed their life in some way.
I think you probably know this one – Robin Williams. He was such a huge fan he named his daughter Zelda. So, when we did the recording for the commercial, I met him and he is in fact a huge Zelda fan, and I was very flattered and very proud.
Oh, but please share with me if you have information about hidden Zelda fans, because there might be a group I don’t know about!
I would just love to tell a little story. I also have my own new startup company, and I was seeking venture capital investment, and I met the investor and he invited me back for lunch the next day. And we went up to this very fancy restaurant, he took me up to the top of a big building, and we sat down and talked for an hour about my company. And at the very end he goes, “So, you do Zelda?” and talked about how he and his son went to the Zelda Symphony, and how his son goes to Zelda Universe, and they played Zelda together, grew up on Zelda. For me, this is amazing. You’ve really built a series that ties people together in, I think, ways that none of us can even imagine how vast this is, and it’s so amazing to me.
That’s a great story. Thank you very much. [smiles]
Alright, we’ll wrap this up with one last question, and it’s probably the single most important that I could ask – it’s very important. Everyone in the Zelda community, ever since Hyrule Historia came out, has had just one burning question. Where does Super Smash Bros. fit into the timeline of Zelda?
[laughing and gesturing toward himself] The Super Smash Bros. space is like a black hole. It’s something that doesn’t exist, where you have all these characters from their own special places coming together to battle it out.
So that black hole, it’s always there. Regardless of what platform you are, it’s a space that exists. And if it switches platforms all those characters just get sucked up into that space.
I think we need to draw a new timeline, then. [gesturing] We have the timeline, and then we have, all around it, it’s all in Super Smash Bros.
Yes, that’s perfect!
Thank you so much; I truly appreciate you taking this time for us. Hopefully this won’t be the last time we get to speak to you.