I used to think that the concept of a simple, straightforward game was rather icky. Things like classic sidescrolling shooters or run-and-jump platformers were, at best, mere paving stones on a path leading to the “good stuff”. Oh, how naïve I was!
The truth of the matter is that many good games out there are simple. To this day, tried and tested formulae are holding strong against exotic RPGs, “revolutionary” FPS mechanics, and convoluted simulations. People find run-and-jump platforming to be as satisfying today as it was back in the era of Super Mario Bros. Many modern racing games hold the same core appeal of Atari’s Pole Position, throwing on bells and whistles like physics and crash models to convince players that they’re somehow doing something new. Sites such as Retro Remakes and the success of games like Lode Runner on Xbox Live demonstrate that people still enjoy core classics. Why add complexity when you already know what sort of cool stuff players go for?
By using a simple concept for your game, you’re offering yourself several advantages right off the bat. For a start, it’s generally a lot easier to manufacture and polish a product that isn’t bogged down by design complications. Instead of throwing away precious time on building an RPG with fifty billion weapons, enchantments, enemies, and armour combinations, you can craft just a few elements and figure out how to combine them in different and interesting ways. This is a far greater show of design skill than “brute force” content or rule generation. Checking up on Flash portals such as Kongregate will reveal lots of popular games that follow this line of thinking.
If you decide to go along the “retro” route (faithfully reworking a popular concept) there are also quite a few possibilities open to you (as long as you don’t slip up and do something too legally iffy). That’s not to say that you’d necessarily do a cast-iron remake of Sonic the Hedgehog, but taking the core premise and adjusting it to be slightly better can yield some impressive results. Case in point: Tom Sennett and Matt Thorson have a game called Runman, which uses speed and momentum in a way that many reviewers argue was missing from the original Sonic. You’re rarely able to die, there’s no rings to collect, and arguably the game can simply be summed up as “get from A to B in the fastest time possible”. And hey, it does this really, really well.
Remember: there’s no problem with creating something that has a simple premise, or draws inspiration from classic, “one dimensional” games. Titles which have a simple, easily explained (and easily learned) premise tend to rock people’s socks off: the skill lies in what you do with the game rules that you have, rather than trying to create more just to be interesting.