If you want to learn something, read about it. If you want to understand something, write about it. If you want to master something, teach it.
– Yogi Bhajan
Successful designers are those that have the discipline to edit their work. Generating gameplay ideas is exciting and easy; discerning those with potential and removing the rest takes resolve and vision. But you’ll never get where you are going if you walk down every road — you must cut!
Removing game elements is usually straightforward. They are almost always part of a collection of similar elements, so they can be compared on an apples-to-apples basis. They are often specific instances of a general system — the Assault Rifle is an instance of the Weapon system, the Goblin is an instance of the enemy AI systems — which means that most of the work that goes into them can be applied to other elements and isn’t wasted. An element is associated with a certain amount of work that must be scheduled for the models, textures, effects, sounds and animations, so it is easy to measure its impact on the overall scope. And finally, since an element is by definition discrete, it can usually be removed with virtually no impact on the rest of the game.
“Is this mechanic going to be fun?” is a good question, but impossible to answer. Prototyping can help, but it still takes discernment to recognize the potential in a prototype. It also represents an investment of resources, which can bias the team toward keeping a prototyped mechanic that ought to be cut. “Can we implement this mechanic?” is also a good question, but “can” is not “should” and “implemented” is not “tuned”. “Has a mechanic appeared in another game?” is a useful question, but isn’t necessarily relevant to the current game. “Does everyone agree this mechanic is good?” is a seductive, but destructive, question; it replaces a designer’s instinct with general consensus and will lead to “downhill design” where the only possible solutions are the easiest ones. The single best question for determining the potential of a mechanic is “Can the player be taught to enjoy this mechanic?”
Answered honestly, this question has far-reaching implications. If a player never uses a mechanic, it might as well not exist in the first place. If a player fails to realize that a mechanic exists, it is too subtle or the game is overly complicated. If a player refuses to learn a mechanic, it probably doesn’t fulfill a fundamental aspiration for them — they will never be interested. If a player is unable to learn a mechanic, it is probably unintuitive or it clashes with other aspects of the game. If the designer cannot distill a mechanic down to teach it, they likely don’t understand the mechanic themselves. If a mechanic can only be learned through explicit tutorial, it probably has an awkward or obscure control scheme. Any of these problems are fundamental enough to warrant removal.
On the other hand, if a mechanic can be taught effortlessly — or better yet, players discover it on their own — or if mere awareness that an experience is possible is enough to motivate them to learn how to access it, this is a sign that a mechanic is reaching them on a subconscious level. This kind of mechanic can be integrated into their thought process and lead to a fluid flow experience.