Your division has just been purchased by a massive French media conglomerate, and you’ve been given the Sisyphean task of creating a game that’s “like X, but better.” If you succeed, your team will get massive bonuses and tendinitis. If you fail, you just get the tendinitis. If you haven’t quit at this point, you’re going to have to accomplish the most difficult task a game developer can: carving out a beachhead in an established genre.
There are many reasons to create a game in an established or even hotly-contested genre. A hot license might have become available. Creating content might seem more appealing than redesigning the wheel. A key figure on the team may have been a longtime Mario addict. A publisher might not sign onto the game until someone can point to an existing one.
Or maybe someone else made the decision that the team is going to “out Warcraft” Warcraft. Whatever the case, you have to make that happen on 1/4th their budget and in time for a Christmas release. Failing to meet this challenge can break months of work, as well as your team’s enthusiasm.
Thankfully, we’ve got the missteps of 30 odd generations of games behind us to study. Some of the rules that emerge from these are relevant to all games, not just beachhead games. But we won’t talk about those. Some rules appear to be broken from time to time by a successful game or other. Upon closer inspection, however, the game usually breaks the superficial aspects of the rule while reinforcing the fundamental point.
A favorite professor of mine used to say that if your painting has enchanting eyes but you can’t make anything else in it work… paint out the eyes. That element of the painting is causing a local minima, which is to say that element of the design might be good in and of itself, but it’s keeping the painting from reaching a point where the overall image was great.
Examples of this in your genre might include: sniper rifles in an FPS, powerslides in a racing game, minigames in a Wii title, healing crates, bosses, rocket jumps, or any other big or small element. Of course, the really good features shouldn’t be the only ones on the chopping block. Not only will this free up time in the schedule that would otherwise be occupied by been-done features, but it creates space for genuinely new solutions and makes producers very, very happy.
Removing these old structures changes the player’s experience. Probably the best example of "strip and add" success is Wii Sports. As traditional mainstream tennis games go, Wii sports is poorly lacking. There is no ball selection, no racket selection, no character selection, no arena selection, no stats to power up... not really much but playing tennis. Even player control of the character was removed from the formula. Ultimately this lets the player concentrate exclusively on the unique new aspect of racket control, and allows them to play it in a different context.
Unlike Sega’s Virtua Tennis or Rockstar’s Table Tennis, this makes Wii Tennis great for pick-up games with non-players, as well as giving existing video tennis players something new to enjoy. It also let the developers narrow in on getting the feel of a solid backhand swing just right.