A Glimpse of Game and Interaction Design in Citybound
This post is dedicated to Ian Paschal with whom I not only had very fruitful discussions about all kinds of things, but who, most importantly, keeps on telling me about the importance of game and interaction design, not as an afterthought, but as a main objective that is ideally explored and reached through iterative prototypes, which confirm something to be actually fun, or show that something is not right yet.
So dear Ian, I noticed your comments about this becoming very passionate (while still obviously being good critique and not naysaing). It seems as if my recent actions gave the impression that I only care about very detailed simulation and the technology behind that and that I will not pay enough attention to game design. I completely understand that it might look like that and I think it is my job to clarify some things that I think everyone will find interesting - hence the post.
First, what I'm doing right now is not even writing the game yet, it's more like writing the engine for the game. The Roads & Traffic prototype was a tech-demo, not a game prototype, and yes, the UI was atrocious and actually prevented many people from appreciating all that was in there. The economy prototype will also be mostly a tech-demo. Maybe I should communicate that better.
But: once I have these two ingredients (traffic + economy), interaction design will become the main focus for quite some time, and I want to do it in exactly the iterative way you suggest.
You are right that all this implies the assumption that this detail and sophstication will actually benefit gameplay - and this has been my central assumption indeed. Although with game design, as you say, words are pretty meaningless and the best theories don't help more than an interaction protoype, let me try to outline my motivation and explain how I want to make Citybound fun.
Let's assume that the context of a current-gen city building game is a given. Now let's see how Citybound will be different.
Starting with the planning mode, two things are interesting: first, my drawing tools, which I only showed as proof-of-concepts so far are already much more powerful and yet can be more intuitive than what other city builders have. Less frustration and more powerful expression should obviously be more fun. Second, the fact that you plan stuff and then implement the plans, instead of directly modifying the game world: I used to be worried that this obviously makes interacting with the game feel less direct and thus less fun. In reality, because you don't have to be so careful in planning mode since you can easily edit plans, you can actually experiment much more freely and it ends up feeling more direct - at least according to my own brief experience with the road and earlier planning tools.
Next, what I always lacked in city-building games was clear, understandable feedback beyond magically changing RCI demand bars and mysteriously rotting buildings. And this is exactly where detailed simulation actually starts having a purpose. For me it is very different to see that "there is demand for a school here (according to some statistics/number of people in the area)" versus "if you build a school here, these exact people will save this much time in their daily schedules, which could attribute for an average increase of their happiness of X, for example this family would now have enough time to go to a park together...". Once you get this level of detail not only in the simulation, but you expose it well, as feedback to player actions, I think you get very rewarding "I'm actually caring for real people here" choices for the player.
To bring the point home, I don't focus on the simulation and technology because it's academically interesting and cool in a nerdy way, instead of caring about game design - no, I actually do all of that to make completely new depths of gameplay possible, which will then of course need to be iterated to make sure it's not frustrating and actually achieves its potential. I hope with my reasoning I look not too ignorant while working on the technical underpinnings.