I've heard from many people that the ideal game is the one that has everything. It's a game where players are constrained by nothing. These people believe in a sandbox where their very imagination is the only boundary. They believe in game with no limits.
On the surface, this game sounds great. Who wouldn't want an infinite number of play mechanics? Who wouldn't enjoy the complete freedom of the ultimate kitchen sink game? But ironically, a title with too many avenues of influence becomes less of a game and more like life. This game would be horrible.
Of course, this game isn't feasible. The scope of its game world reaches well beyond what technology can accomplish. But what if we collapsed this game world into one small room, keeping the infinite game mechanics? What if we could do anything we want in this tiny space? Would it be fun? No. Because it's not this theoretical game world's sheer size that dulls it. The huge set of game mechanics is the villain, and its downfall is that there's just too much to do.
Games are always just systems waiting to be understood. Fun is in the learning, and the payoff is in our influence over these systems. But a player wields influence only through game mechanics. Anyone would agree that by adding mechanics we inevitably complicate the player's influence over their world. But while game mechanics always add complexity to player input, they rarely alter game output.
A good example of mechanic complexity is the legendary Shenmue. While its interaction-heavy gameplay was a novel concept at the time, the industry at large has since avoided such complication in games. Players simply don't enjoy a game about everything. High mechanic counts dilute a title's identity and possibility for engagement. In these following paragraphs I will explore specific methods for distilling a game's fun by reducing its mechanic set.
The Play Aesthetic
All works of literature, film, and music possess their own particular aesthetic. This is the piece's overall feel and character. Not surprisingly, a work's aesthetic reflects the sensibilities of its creators. When judged by a sensitive audience, the aesthetic must always display a great sense of cohesion. Great artists are careful not to include something that just doesn't belong.
Games are no exception in possessing their own aesthetics. Interactive media even have their own distinct form, the play aesthetic. This is the overall feel and character of the gameplay, and it too must seem cohesive. Where painters use their brushes to create a unified composition, designers use gameplay. Where artists need to generate a harmonious color palette, game developers should engineer a set of congruous mechanics.
God of War conveys a strong play aesthetic, centered squarely on brutal violence. The meat of this experience is fluid melee combat and how to master it. The Blades of Chaos exist solely to support the feel of flowing, sinuous battle.
Most players would agree that God of War's play aesthetic is unique and instantly identifiable. Platforming is secondary to combo chains. Environments contain a sense of dread and the storyline firmly rests on simple, violent revenge. This overall cohesion does much to characterize it, but the unity of gameplay alone is enough to define God of War. This is a worthy goal for every title.
Strong aesthetics are always simple and identifiable. It's no mistake that Picasso's Guernica and Sargent's Madame X evoke a straightforward but powerful emotion in their audiences. Great stories like Moby-Dick, Lolita and The Old Man and the Sea get their strength from foundations that are simple and robust.
Designers must engineer their play aesthetics in the same manner. The overall look and feel should be something palpable. If part of a game feels "tacked on," the designers have violated this rule. Masters of many art forms have long been practicing aesthetic techniques, but most game designers have not yet caught on.
The ways in which game mechanics interact manipulate the play aesthetic. When players possess a more limited arsenal of influence, odds are greater that particular mechanics won't appear out of place.
Players must feel as though their possible actions form a cohesive whole. They must think that they sufficiently understand the system of their game world. Therefore we must make our systems strong enough to be understandable. The inclusion of too many game mechanics is the surest way to dilute this strength and rob players of their valuable insight.