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The triangle rule

May 13, 2023 | Design


Sometimes I'm a bit of a hobbyist game developer and do my fair bit of things in there if I feel like it and have some time. Which sadly isn't too often these days... But still. 😅

So yeah, it's the reason why I'm always interested in this domain and learned something today. The so-called "triangle rule". Btw... Credit goes out to Game Maker's Toolkit for compiling the nearly lost info which Nintendo presented a while back... Link to the video here. Give it a watch. 😁

It's a concept established by Nintendo during "The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild". They had a lot of problems during the design of their open-world map. Inside there are certain very important landmarks, which you need to visit to progress in the game's story. During their first attempt, they tried to design it that way, in which players were led through different ways and waypoints toward those relevant landmarks. This proved to be quite a bad design philosophy since playtesters never really diverged from the main path, and if they did, players were often lost and never found anything. 

That's bad for an open-world game.

So how did they solve this problem, which comes across in nearly every open-world game?

The triangle rule.

To explain it, let's take this example game map with the very important landmarks, marked as a blue triangle, and less important landmarks using a green cross. The player is marked as a red circle.

A picture of a flat example game map with a lot of different landmarks cluttered around

As you can see, the player sees a lot of different landmarks, even a lot of the different very important landmarks. The player is then overwhelmed but after a moment the "optimal path" for the quickest story progression can be observed and followed. As a result, you don't really have much incentive to explore this map and visit those smaller landmarks since you have way too many bigger ones around.

The trick to solve this is to place geographic features like hills or mountains. which look similar to triangles 😉

An interesting thing, that happens, in this case, is that players seem to focus on the triangle's tip most of the time. There you can place a smaller landmark to gravitate the player's attention and then most of the time are inclined to follow this path.

In that case, one of two things happens. Either the player scales the mountain or walks around it. As you can imagine, this incentivizes exploration, especially if you place other smaller landmarks at these points.

Also, placing those "triangles" across the map hides landmarks behind them, which helps with the "overpopulation" problem we talked about earlier.

A picture of the same example game map but with some mountains and hills sprinkled around to "declutter" the game map.

See... The same map. The only difference is that we places some mountains strategically, which incentivizes exploration.

Nintendo even made a player heat map during play testing with both variants and it turns out this change helped dramatically.

So yeah...

Personally, I think that's a really interesting concept that was brought up there and I would find it interesting if studios of that caliber would reveal their secrets a bit more often. A lot of interesting stuff happens there... But yeah. 😥

See ya