I favor minimalist designs. Strip everything out and put it back in only very deliberatively with a clearly defined purpose and rationale. Be stingy with stimuli. And when I say everything, I mean everything. Here is some logic for putting things back in:
1. Design around doing not seeing and hearing. Remember Tommy? Stimuli—graphics and sound—as a first principle should be reduced to only those things that the player interacts with: representations of their actions and the target of those actions. Games are skill based—whether the skill is manual dexterity, sensorimotor coordination or cognitive skills (strategy, puzzle games). The heart of engagement with the game is the acquisition and deployment of a skill(s). Though there are many reasons to add in additional interface elements, by starting with only those elements that engage the actions and skills the player will acquire, we see the game at its most stark, naked core. Put another way, for every element added to a blank screen, what will the player do with it? How is it an object of player skill?
2. Let the game take place in the player’s head. Novelty and discovery are powerful reinforcers. Presenting only the minimal elements required for the basic interaction lays the groundwork for internalization of the game. As players recognize the skill involved in the game, play around with it and explore, they come to understand the game through discovery, engaging the game in increasingly more elaborate and sophisticated ways as they develop skills and ability to manipulate it. This process doesn’t happen on the screen, but in players’ heads. The game is in the player, not the device. Less is more. A minimalist approach facilitates this discovery and internalization.
3. Make the game invisible. I have a bias here: I hate rules. And I hate game meters, pop-ups and all these other game ‘mechanics.’ I think of this as the volleyball principle. There are two ways to learn volleyball: elementary school gym class where you are taught the rules, maybe different types of hits and then herded around on the court in a comical imitation of a professional volleyball game with prepubescent midgets: learning a form. Then there’s being on a beach, drinking a beer and being invited to hit the ball around. Eventually, someone may explain how to do certain hits, maybe even the rules, but the experience centers around hitting the ball—and the joy, discovery and skill development that comes with that. Which do you prefer?
So a game that is cluttered with lots of meters, pop-ups, rules—though it may appeal to some people—detracts from hitting the ball around. More importantly, much of what is accomplished with meters and rules, namely important constraints that make the game challenging, can actually be integrated into the minimal elements that constitute ‘the skill.’ For example, why do you need a meter telling you that you are running out of energy? Why not have an avatar that simply diminishes, (a) indicating without the clutter or artificiality of a meter that something is going wrong and (b) building this constraint into the skill itself, making it part of the central process of discovery and acquisition rather than imposing it as a factor extraneous to and distracting from the core of the game. Fundamentally, such meters and rules extrinsic to the basic skill of the game splits attentional processing, requiring mental multitasking. Forced multi-tasking can be fun and challenging, but even if this is the intent, there are probably better ways to accomplish it than a clutter of meters.
Obviously, rules and constraints are critical to good games. But it is perhaps equally critical that (a) they arise and come into play as players’ investment in the game deepens and (b) they are integrated in the basic skill development of the game rather than as an extraneous constraint that interferes with discovery around the core skill. That is, the rules shouldn’t detract from the fun of hitting the ball around.
4. Make aesthetics functional. That statement may seem contradictory as aesthetics in the mind of many are precisely the window-dressing on some mechanic, by definition not functional. However, aesthetics create experience. They are intertwined with acquiring and developing the core skill of the game. The general presentation of video games seems to fall into two general camps: those that are striving for re-creating a virtual or simulated reality and those that strive for a style (not mutually exclusive). Both can potentially contribute profoundly to the experience of the game and both, can equally, be no more than pinball bells, buzzers and lights a-flashing, extraneous and distracting, at best adding nothing, at worst diminishing the value of the game. Following from the above ideas, in designing a theme or visual presentation for the game, discovering and developing the core skill of the game creates an experience for a player. How can visuals enhance or be integrated with that core experience?
The real world is complex and stimulating. In bringing richness of experience to video games, it is not the virtual world itself, with all its bells, lights and buzzers that is important but the players interactions with that world. An environment can be defined by those elements that an organism (person, player, cat, fish. . . ) can interact with: if you can’t grab it, pull it, push it or in someway manipulate or use it, it simply isn’t part of your environment in any meaningful way, just extraneous noise to eventually be filtered out by an active, efficient brain.