Maybe you've heard of the 40 second rule of open world games. It says that there has to be something that catches the players attention every 40s on average. Luke Stephens did an excellent video on this, where he tries to find out how well the 40s rule applied in a variety of open world games. This article is meant to expand on the idea to find out how open world games manage coming up with so many interesting ideas.
The first category of points consists of those which can be seen from far away and are interesting enough to make the player want to go there. They are important to get the player's attention and give them a goal, even if they scrap it later when they see something else. When players look for something to do and they can't find anything, they feel like the world is empty, so having big, obvious points of interest make sure the player knows what he could do.
My journey started here. I saw the long bridge in the distance and found a raft that allowed me to go in that direction. And here I saw a small house:
An alternative to interesting objects like the bridge, are unexpected things. In this picture I saw a sign on a wall:
This idea of unexpected things also applies to nature, like with these unique types of trees:
But even small hints can determine the destination of players. While gliding above a forest in this picture, I noticed that many points were shimmering below me. After landing I found out that this was a forest full of apple trees.
Because the world can't consist of big points of interest every 40s, there have to be smaller things the player can do. You'll notice that there are multiple kinds of them. Here's a list of what I found on my journey.
These POIs make the player think and try out ideas:
Bomb-able stones: Treasure chest in ground: There's a sword inside of the bones: There's a stone under the leaves, with a Korok under it:
These POIs give the player a reward for reaching a certain point or overcoming a challenge.
These POIs just look interesting and you can rarely interact with them:
I was surprised to see a frog under this stone. Not because I expected nothing, but because I was pretty sure there was a Korok under it. Stones in Zelda BOTW have an extremely high chance of containing something interesting under them. When you see a stone on it's own you can almost be sure that there's a Korok under it. This makes you excited when you see one of those stones and makes you pick up any stone you see. Here the game played with my expectations and used the motive of the stone to surprise me.
As a player it's very relaxing to just go with the flow of the game and always find more interesting things. While analyzing the game I noticed that almost all my routes where crafted in a certain way to lead me to other POIs. One example of this is this forest. Games like Minecraft have no structure in their forest, so you almost always just walk in a straight line through them. Zelda on the other hand makes sure that the straight path is almost always impossible and leads you other ways instead. This can make a small forest seem a lot bigger, because you spend more time traversing it. Here are a few pictures of that forest. Can you see the "recommended" path or paths? There was a shrine behind that bolder in the middle: