Could this Release be the Biggest Zelda Game Yet?
Compared to previous Zelda games, it’s hard to overstate just how massive the sales of the newest game are so far. The most recent (2023) game in this franchise, The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, often abbreviated to the much shorter TOTK by fans, is a video game growth strategy success story by any definition.
For context, the previous Zelda game was considered a historical commercial success and critical high watermark for the franchise. Released in 2017, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, commonly abbreviated to the more manageable acronym of BOTW, has sold over 30 million units worldwide since its initial release six years ago. As far as the historical sales of Zelda games go, this was a greater success than ever before.
But, the sales of TOTK seem all but certain to soon outpace the sales of BOTW. TOTK sold an astonishing 10 million units on its launch weekend alone, and since then has sold over 18 million units. Again, it’s been less than a year since TOTK came out: the number of units moved has reached an unprecedented level. TOTK sales alone have been credited with reviving the slowing sales of the Nintendo Switch.
How did Nintendo build on BOTW to make TOTK such an obvious example of a successful video game growth strategy?
Nintendo has a reputation for being somewhat guarded about the development process for its games, but despite this, one core strategy can still reasonably be inferred from its success. Nintendo took what was already great about BOTW and made it even better, delivering a game with a level of polish that few contemporary AAA game developers achieve on release. The result was a sequel that made its predecessor feel like a “prototype,” according to many fans.
Video Game Growth Strategy:
Innovate Slow and Steady
Nintendo’s aim to have TOTK improve upon nearly every aspect of BOTW is most obvious in lists of all the tweaks Nintendo itself documented and released for marketing. The cumulative effect of these efforts is impossible to miss if you’ve played BOTW and TOTK.
While it’s common for AAA developers like Nintendo to improve sequels, the scope and level of changes TOTK made to the BOTW formula is unusual. More commonly, AAA developers like E.A. or Activision release yearly sequels with relatively minor tweaks between each Madden NFL or Call of Duty. Frankly, if you’ve played one, you’ve played them all. The most cynical gamers deride the latest entry in these franchises as cash grabs, directed not at giving old users a new experience, but repackaging the old experience for new, younger gamers. While this growth strategy has its benefits, it also alienates the existing user base over time.
In the lead up to TOTK release, some Zelda consumers were worried TOTK would disappoint in this way, when Nintendo’s marketing released TOTK would be reusing the setting from BOTW. In hindsight, it’s now clear there was no reason to worry. The six years that Nintendo spent developing TOTK is self-evident in gameplay: a casual consumer couldn’t confuse it for BOTW. Indeed, while I’ve watched a friend play BOTW, I confess it has been painful to watch at times. BOTW suffers in comparison to TOTK. And that’s the finest compliment you can give a game sequel: that it makes its predecessor feel so incomplete.
In other words, Nintendo opted not just to repackage a BOTW experience for the next generation of gamers who had not played BOTW, but also targeted those who had played BOTW but were looking for a gaming experience that would feel substantially improved. Rather than leaving one generation of games behind in search of the newest one, TOTK has been deliberately marketed to maintain appeal to older games, as detailed in another Insight to Action article, “Billion Dollar Brand Strategy Examples.” It’s a smart video game growth strategy that appeals to multiple customer segments.
Video Game Growth Strategy:
Nintendo’s desire to have TOTK under-promise and over-deliver is also arguably responsible for the success of its video game growth strategy. In the AAA video game industry, this common sense idea is not common practice.
Over the last ten years, especially as the live service model for video games has exploded in popularity, it’s become all too common for AAA games to release in unfinished, buggy, or even downright unplayable states. The end result are releases that over-promise in their marketing and under-deliver in their gameplay. No Man’s Sky (2016) and Cyberpunk 2077 (2020) are just two of the most infamous examples of this trend over the last decade. While largely considered “fixed” by most at time of writing, no-one would seriously deny that both game’s reputations and sales have suffered substantially for over-promising and under-delivering.
TOTK was wisely released to do the opposite. You can see this was Nintendo’s goal, because the marketing intentionally concealed the full scope of the gameplay from players. None of the trailers on release showed the Depths, one of the new locations, which makes up one-third of the entire game’s setting. This ensured that players would get more gameplay than even the marketing promised.
At the same time, Nintendo’s commitment to quality control ensured the game would play without issue. Indeed, Nintendo delayed the release of the game by a year, so they could spend time polishing it and eliminating bugs. This step is truly unusual in the video game industry.
Nintendo tried to ensure people would have the best possible first impression of TOTK, that the marketing would under-promise, and the gameplay over-deliver. Nintendo’s approach paid off. TOTK stands out in an era of unfinished and buggy releases. It has a scope as grand as any of the other AAA games, but a level of polish few ever achieve.
Video Game Growth Strategy:
On the Path to Be the Biggest Zelda Game
Nintendo’s success with TOTK speaks to the power of its simple but effective video game growth strategy. TOTK appeals to consumers of the previous game through its substantial gameplay innovations, while also drawing in a new generation of gamers. And it took the approach of under-promising and over-delivering, maximizing first impressions and word-of-mouth response. I suspect that if this article were written a year from now, I would be able to report with certainty that The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom is Nintendo’s most successful Zelda game yet.