I'll tell you about some design issues and the process of working through them, even though I can't actually tell you any of the details. Sorry about that, but you'll still get the gist.
One of many things I've been working on is a new card game, to be released in about 100 years. It's "somewhat similar to Magic: The Gathering." I have One Big Idea for what makes it new and different, and I've played the prototype a fair amount. It's fun. I've played probably dozens of my own prototypes, and having them actually be fun is a kind of rare and great thing, so that's a strong signal to keep going.
I discussed this game with several other professional game designers, some of whom actually worked on the real Magic: The Gathering. The problem, I said, is that even though it has the One Big Idea that makes it play a lot differently, it still is just too close to MTG. Like how do I not have a card that destroys a "creature," or that deals 2 damage to a creature, or Llanowar Elves, etc, etc. Even cards like Ball Lighting are hard not to have.
In my prototype, many specific cards are like MTG cards. Even though I think that's good for the game, I think the audience has a strong, almost irrational love of the "new" and would actually prefer a game to be new and different than for to be the best it can be if that means a lot isn't new. Every single designer I talked to including the MTG guy said don't be afraid to copy MTG. They said the more you copy it the better, probably, because it's damn good (I agree it's damn good) and that my One Big Thing and my completely different business model are more than enough to make it stand apart. They said of course many of the staple cards should be in the game, and not to avoid a bunch of good ideas just because they are in MTG.
Well, I didn't really listen. I think those designers are underestimating the board/card game market's desire for the new, even though I wish they were right. What I needed was a second Big Idea in addition to the first. I had a few ideas, some driven by mechanics and some by theme. One that was driven by mechanics was a bidding system that is somewhat similar to the bidding in Chess 2. This system added A LOT of depth and strategy and "yomi" to the game, so it showed lots of promise. It was totally unwieldy logistically, but I was looking for depth first, and to sort the rest out later. In order to address the logistical problems, I then tried a simplified bidding system that was just easier to keep track of. This reduced the depth slightly, but there was still plenty. Then I tried the same game but with the bidding system removed entirely, to see what it would be like. It felt like a breath of fresh air.
I have a specific point about that, that will come up later. You might expect the reason that it was a breath of fresh air was because of the game flow being logistically smoother without worrying about the trappings of keeping track of your bidding resource. Actually, this wasn't the reason. (The simplified bidding system was easy enough to track already.) The reason was actually the mental fatigue. It was just completely draining to actually play the game. It had "too many decisions," you could say. Let's come back to that concept in a bit.
I moved on to several other ideas, which I will just skip past. There was another idea, a theme-driven one, that was always on the table. Going with this theme would surely suggest several new mechanics, so it could be a way to kill two birds with one stone, when it comes to being "not exactly MTG." The thing is, I had other themes in mind that I liked a bit more.
Someone Else's Game
I think one turning point for me was at one of the meetings of professional game designers that I go to. At this meeting, Ron Carmel (co-creator of World of Goo) was presenting a prototype of a video game idea he had. I think it's confidential, so I can't really tell you about it, but I can say in totally vague terms that it involved the idea of some characters working together to achieve a goal. It also had a Big Idea in it, an interesting game mechanic. In one sense, the game was about the mechanics of the characters working together. Or was it about the Big Idea mechanic? Or was it about the *maps* you play on? Or was it about creating new maps as part of the actual gameplay? Or was creating new maps not part of the gameplay, but more like a modding thing in an FPS that's outside of gameplay? On top of all that, Ron was very interested in exploring the personal relationships between the characters, and what those meant emotionally.
Different designers could identify various things they liked, or thought had promise, but we were struggling to figure out where to go or what manner of advice to even provide. One designer said, "The problem is that you're not sure if you want to build a car and drive to New York or build a boat and sail to Japan." I thought that was very appropriate in that it expressed that we didn't know which problem we should even be solving yet. Ron asked for advice on which direction to take, noting that again he liked the concept of making the personal relationships of the characters come through. A few pointed out that perhaps the mechanics needed to make this the best game possible would push it in a different direction from maximizing the impact of the relationship stuff.
Ron asked Jonathan Blow, creator of Braid, what he would do when faced with such things. Specifically, he said that the ending of Braid expresses an idea, and that the mechanics of the game are very aligned with it. So was it that he designed mechanics to support that idea and make it happen, or was it somehow the other way around? Mr. Blow explained that though it might look like the idea for the ending inspired the game, it didn't at all. In fact, the game was very far in development with some completely different ending that he was never really satisfied with. He said his subconscious mulled over this for months, and eventually the current ending for Braid occurred to him. That ending, he said, has a kind of shallow coolness to it, like a trick ending sort of thing, but that in addition to that it deals with a deep thematic concept that the game is all about. He likes it because it's satisfying on two different levels, and it grew out of mechanics.
What sets games apart from other mediums is the interactive part, the systems we play with, the mechanics of how things work. Those have to be center stage in designing a game. Jonathan Blow's advice was that if the mechanics are telling you something, you have to listen. Go in the direction they are telling you, not in the direction you thought you wanted.
My Card Game Again
So back to my thing. As soon as Mr. Blow said that, I thought "Damn, I have no choice but to explore the theme that the mechanics in my game are already sort of suggesting. Ok, fine." So I did. I tried two more Big Ideas (game mechanics) to add to the first. They grew out of that theme, which is a good thing. I have honestly been struggling with the game though. At another design meeting just recently, I discussed this with Soren Johnson (Civ4, Spore). I explained that both of these two new Big Ideas together were making the card game better in some ways, worse in others, and generally mentally exhausting as well as logistically too much to deal with again. Soren thought that my very first Big Idea that the whole thing is based on was also highly mentally taxing. (I'm personally able to deal with the mental strain of it, but adding those two other Big Ideas on top of it was stressing even me.) Soren said that as designers, we want to give the player hard decisions and that's what we spend lots of time working to create when we make strategy games. But, he said, what we often don't realize is that giving people a truckload of hard decisions isn't ultimately good. It sounds good at first glance, and it sounds like you should turn your "hard decisions knob" up to 10, then keep going up to 11 if you can because that's the best strategy system you can give the player. But really, it just becomes too damn much. Fun gives way to mental strain and fatigue.
Amen to that. If we're talking only theory, I would say we should turn strategy up to 11. But having actually played these versions with too many decisions going on, I've experienced first hand the unfun state of analysis paralysis. As much as I would prefer to turn "decisions up to 11," Soren seems to be right. Perhaps 9 will be enough, ha.
Soren's other feedback was of my two new Big Ideas, one of them was thematic while having a lot of gameplay possibilities, so he advised to keep going with it. The other he was more skeptical of and it did seem that it's adding too many logistical problems and to many things to track. He wondered if that idea could be thrown out or vastly simplified and repurposed as a way to actually reduce the analysis paralysis inherent in that very first Big Idea that it's all based on. (Interesting suggestion.) He emphasized the value of limiting decisions on early turns to less than a zillion possible choices, and letting the complexity open up over the course of a few turns at least.
I don't know where any of this will end up, or if it will really come together, but I thought I'd share with you some of the creative process, and how the problems and advice of different game designers can affect each other.