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Feature Uncreep

It's interesting how games change during, and after, development. There are two main kinds of changes. The first is when a previously important feature or mechanic no longer has meaning. The second is when a previously important feature or mechanic still has all the meaning it did previously, but no longer feels important in the context of the game. They come from very different places.

Let me give an example of each, starting with the first. The combat system in The Viceroy was the thing I was proudest of when I made it. And I took a huge amount of time to do it, because all the ships are cleverly automated and move and fire in ways I consider to be both realistic and exciting. But, in practice, it was pointless. Well, worse, not only was it not fun (people would have preferred controlling the ships instead of yelling at them as they slowly tried to turn) but was anti-fun. It ended up being something you had to keep on top of, moving your little fleets around to hunt down rebels, but didn't want to do. Cool as the system was, with its explosions and shooting noises and little ships blinking in the awesome majesty of hyperspace, the game would have been (and will be) better without it. Why did it happen? When it all comes down to it, it was a misunderstanding of the what the game was or could be.

The second example has come up all the time in the development of our new game. Previously glorious systems are rendered less... weighty by even weightier systems coming on line. This doesn't make them worse, but it makes them feel like they matter less relatively to the newer things. I'm not talking about power creep so much as the cumulative weight of the game increasing to the point that, for instance, our original thirteen State Choices needed to be expanded to the now 21 far more diverse, powerful and costly State Choices to prevent the tendency to set it once and forget it. It didn't matter less over time in an absolute sense (because it had always been set at the beginning of the game and left) but it mattered less relatively as all the other menus and choices became things you'd stop and reconsider as game-play continued. This meant that is was a meaningful choice, but only once per game. Whereas now it can be a meaningful choice again and again as conditions such as rebel strength and your need for government income wax and wane due to geographical realities. You don't have to change them, of course, but you could, and the choice has meaning. Why did it happen? I think that, when it comes down to it, this sort of change represents an understanding of the game, and why its various parts work together as an experience, as a collection of meaningful choices, as a game.

I'm starting to find it easier to change, remove and add features with After the Empire. Very little in it feels like it's an untouchable keystone, like so much did in The Viceroy. But the odd thing is, with all that feeling of freedom in design even at this late date, After the Empire is much closer to its original concept (and its original version!) than The Viceroy is to its original idea. The mechanics and features feel more like tools to reach the concept and the fun, not the point in of themselves. I hope this new perspective helps me to continue to move the mechanics and systems of The Viceroy closer to its concept and purpose, which is, in the end, to give people a series of meaningful choices.

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