I’ve been working on a digital game for the past week or so, and in the process of designing and refining, I’ve found myself simplifying the rules quite a bit. Maybe the player character doesn’t need to gain experience points, if increasingly powerful equipment can have the same effect as increasing intrinsic stats. If the control scheme is so simple that it doesn’t allow movement that would be possible in real life, that can be a tactical challenge rather than a clumsy system. Simplification is a process that can turn a good game into a great one.
This isn’t always true, of course, but often games are made better — purer, more fun, or more accessible — by having their rules made more simple. The Legend of Zelda series is effectively an indirect distillation of Dungeons and Dragons: kill a big monster, and you get more hit points. Instead of six stats, an experience counter, a level, and some spells, you get hit points and a selection of items. Likewise, when Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas added fitness and skills to the series, I’d argue that it didn’t provide anything especially good.
This doesn’t always go well, of course. BioShock is an example of a game which was simplified poorly. Given that it was based on the System Shock series, the developers made a conscious choice to remove some options from the game. Several of these (the ability to carry around health-increasing items for one) would have, in my opinion, strengthened the game.
Developing a game is like writing a book. Every gameplay element, every statistic, should be necessary or beneficial to the game as a whole. If an aspect of gameplay is extraneous, it should be cut. That’s not to say that the extra little things that enrich game worlds should be removed; Duke Nukem 3D‘s toilets and Half-Life 2‘s physics toys can stay. I’m talking about more essential gameplay elements. Does the player character really need 12 different statistics? Would four really be too few? Do we need to keep track of running stamina, flashlight life, or inventory weight? Sometimes, the answer to one of these questions is “yes,” but more often this fat can be trimmed off of the game model, and can make the game better for it.