"It'll be like the Walking Dead, but with intense tactical combat."
"It'll be like Minecraft, but with an epic story."
"It'll be like Skyrim, but bigger. Oh, and better written."
These are the kind of pitches I heard on a weekly basis when working at OSU's Game Lab. Of course, they didn't stop there. The people pitching would often have pages of design documents, detailed analyses and sometimes even production schedules. These were often intensely thought-out proposals. It was always hard to give the necessary reality check.
Over the past months, I've had the chance to work with several renowned designers in the board game industry. I've noticed their pitches tend to look rather different.
"It'll be like Ascenscion, only we cut out the unnecessary 'honor' resource and let players attack each other directly."
"It'll be like the Lord of the Rings LCG, only we focus on the monster-slaying itself - instead of the broad thematic elements and multiple complex systems - and focus on getting that system to be as fast and fun as possible."
"It'll be like D&D, only we'll focus entirely on one-shot play. Players will be able to go from no knowledge of RPGs at all to having a character and starting a game in 15 minutes, and the full session will be over in under 2 hours. This is exactly what we need for gaming conventions."
You can probably see the difference. There's a saying that Michelangelo, upon being asked how he carved his statue of David, replied, "I just cut away all the stone that didn't belong." While this might not be a real quote, there's undisputable wisdom in the concept.
In general, I've noticed that amateur designers tend to take concepts they like and focus on adding things on top of the existing design. Conversely, experienced designers tend to focus on figuring out how much they can cut away from a design in order to focus on their ideal experience.
What's most interesting is that this method even holds true in the board game industry. If a board game company wants to add a whole new resource in or a bunch of cool new options to a roleplaying game - it only takes a day of writing out new rules (not weeks of coding to test the new stuff). Once you add in production realities, it becomes even more important for the game industry to cut away anything that isn't core to the experience.
Adding intense tactical combat to The Walking Dead would be as unnecessary as adding an epic Bioware-style story to Minecraft. And while surely no one would argue that it'd be great if Skyrim was even bigger and better written, those two statements are actually opposed when it comes to practical concerns (the more content you have, the harder it is to make sure it's all brilliantly written).
Of course, sometimes it pays to do something bigger and with more variety. Sometimes a great idea is hiding within an existing bad game and it just needs a few extra options to fill it out. Also, if you want to make a sequel to a game the market expects you to deliver something that builds on its predecessor. However, great designers seem to ask themselves the following question - whether consciously or not;
"How can I create the experience I'm looking for with the fewest possible resources?"
Resources can mean rules, systems or anything else that clutters the experience. Do you truly need a combat system in your gritty and often-violent fantasy noir? The Wolf Among Us didn't seem to think so. How many buttons does your non-stop action title need? One Finger Death Punch answers, "Two". At first, they even tried to do it with one. What kind of scenery does your mind-bending puzzle title with bizzare environments require? Antichamber was quite happy with environments that are barely a step removed from wireframes.
So what about the big, ambitious games with millions of sub-systems completely unnecessary to the core experience? What about our Grand Theft Autos, our Guild Wars 2s and similar? Getting all those systems to intermesh perfectly is like composing a masterful symphony. It's absurdly hard, takes a full orchestra to play and it's not necessary to make music that people will enjoy. However, if you have the resources and expertise to make a truly great one - it'll have a status all its own.
And yet, Portal is still king when it comes to many critics and Minecraft is a phenomenon. Creating a brilliant, focused experience is usually far superior to the alternatives. If you want to make a version that innovates on top of Minecraft, you don't add a ton of extra systems (modders will have fun doing that anyway). You streamline the concept to Terraria, which also lets you do some new cool things that Minecraft can't do as well (thanks to the different perspective of a 2D platformer).