I tend to be very outspoken about my belief that gameplay trumps everything else. This is particularly important in video games, where resources are often spent on other things in the hopes that nobody will notice that the game isn’t fun to play. The funny thing is that really well-designed games tend to blend compelling gameplay with good production values.
By way of example, I offer Kingdom Rush. Here’s a fairly standard tower defense game with a couple of small twists. The gameplay is well-implemented and compelling. But I have to acknowledge that the same gameplay with lower production values wouldn’t be as much fun. The design (game, visuals, sound effects, and music) all come together to make a game that’s better than it otherwise might be.
This is the same thing that makes Angry Birds a runaway hit when there were many nearly identical games already on the market (e.g. Crush the Castle) with less uniform design. The gameplay is an important part of the equation, but it’s like a movie script: you still need a director, actors, and countless production people to make it all come together into something great.
Kingdom Rush (and Angry Birds for that matter) holds another lesson that I need to take to heart. Good design needn’t be fancy. If you have simple art that is well executed, consistent, and appropriate to the game’s themes, it can be better than something far more complex.