Making It a Game
The game took shape during the fall and winter of 1984; by early 1985, it had reached an early alpha stage. All the important features were in place, considerable debugging and polishing remained, and some housekeeping functions still needed work. But one problem towered above all others: The game just wasn't entertaining. It functioned well as a simulation, but it didn't grab the player. I struggled with this problem from January until it was completed in July. The problem broke down into several sub-problems.
First, there was too much information for the player to assimilate, and little of that information was truly significant to the player's decisions. The solution to this problem was to simplify the game by lobotomizing all countries save the two superpowers. My original intent had been that the petty wars between minor countries could drag the two superpowers into a nuclear war, but in practice, I found that minor countries generated lots of petty activity in addition to their minor wars. The only way to clean up the game was to reduce the minor countries to the status of pawns. Note, however, that in the process, I concentrated activity onto the two superpowers. That sharpened the conflict and improved the game.
Polish, polish, polish! Take a minimum of six months after alpha for polishing.
Another problem was that the critical information wasn't immediately obvious to the player. Fortunately, an easy solution to this problem presented itself: instead of expecting the player to go looking for it, I shoved it into his face. At the beginning of each turn, the news display popped up unsolicited and presented the most important news item. This required that I develop a criterion for the "importance" of each news item. It wasn't difficult; all I had to do was assign a native importance to each verb and then adjust that native importance by the intrinsic importance (power) of the countries affected.
The third sub-problem was the most subtle: The information needed to be organized for the player. Months of effort went into sorting it out, adjusting font sizes, reorganizing screen layouts, and, most importantly, layering the information by priority. My proclivities as a control freak were to give the player as much information as possible, but I failed to realize that too much information can be just as uninformative as too little. And so I struggled through the basic problems of graphic design.
In the end, there was no breakthrough. No single idea or alteration transformed the game into the award-winning design that we shipped. A slow, tedious process of playtesting, polishing, and tuning, spread over six months, was required. For reasons outside of my control, publication of the game was delayed by four months, during which time I continued to polish, polish, polish. I now believe that this extra polishing was the most important factor in the success of the game.