This is a business. Let’s just get this out of the way right now. If you have a problem viewing design, or even the entire video game process, through the lens of business, then you should probably stay away from big budget projects; stick to small independent projects, which is perfectly fine. Otherwise, one of your goals is to make money. It’s not your only goal, but it is A goal. Deal with it.
Too often, however, people equate selling power with feature list. They erroneously theorize that, though they already have feature X, adding feature Y is, obviously, twice as good, so let’s “just, like, do that n stuff”. This philosophy and the mandates it bequeaths are, at best, an over simplification to the point of hair pulling rage, and at worst, a game destroying albatross.
If your goal is making games that people want to play; if you goal is making games that people force OTHER people play, and have it do so on the strength of the design – not license, not tech – then it is not about checking off your list of features that seem to sell. It is about finding the Core of your game, and nailing the ever loving crap out of it. Nail the five levels of player satisfaction: implementation, feel, mastery, purpose, and choice. If you do not nail the Core experience of your game, then you might as well not bother.
Gears of War
Gears of War is one of my favorite games, because it exemplifies what I am talking about. The story is, to be honest, crap. The enemy cast is, no denying it, severely lacking. The locations are, at times, a little bland. But what they did was find their mechanic (cover based shooting) and nail it to a previously unreached pedigree. The key word here is pedigree. Yes, they were not the first game to have cover. What they were, however, was the first game to do it RIGHT; to do it CLEAN; to make you grab your friend and go, “DUDE”.
Once you have your core mechanic nailed and refined, then you throw that kitchen sink in there. When a game knows its Core, the second time around is just refinement. That’s the money. Your mechanics keep getting tighter and tighter. This process of refinement allows you the freedom to build upon your stable foundation, and while games that don’t have a solid Core can still be good, they tend to be polarizing. Even worse, games without a strong Core tend to shift focus between sequels, and instead of the tight refinement you see in games that nail their core, you see attempts to “appease fans and newcomers alike!” Yikes.
Checking Features VS Nailing The Core
Uncharted and Resistance are great examples of how to do this right and how to do this wrong. Uncharted knew its Core: the Indiana Jones game. Find the perfect mixture of free form platforming with cover based shooting, and when it came time to the do the sequel, it was just a matter of taking that Core and refining the shit out of it. It gave them the freedom to explore stronger methods of storying telling; something that I feel paid off in spades. It become a game of the generation.
The first Resistance, on the other hand, had no idea who it was and what its Core should be. At times Call of Duty with aliens, at times Half Life 2, and at times a realistic take on Ratchet and Clanks’s wacky weapons. None of these were taken to any kind of ultimate conclusion, and so, when it came time to do a sequel: no this, no that, change this, change that. There was no refinement, just more throwing darts at a board. The day I heard them tout the number of people that could be included in a multiplayer matchmaking session (40!) was the day I knew: just checkin that feature list. It was a whole new set of attempts at the Core, and it showed. As a whole, it is one of the most polarizing series I know.
Nailing the Core is not the end all be all. Just picking a mechanic and refining it won’t score you megabucks, as it has to be something that is compelling to other people. Not to mention the many of other things that draw people to your product, such as being a movie license. The key, though, is to remember that at some point adding one more mechanic takes away from the time and energy you (and others) can devote to the previous features. The question we must ask ourselves is wether we want to design the kind of game that makes you call your friend to yell “DUDE!”, or do we want to make the kind of game that makes you shake your head and say, “dude…”