One great technique from design thinking is the reframe.
This is where you figure out how to solve a problem through a new understanding of the problem's context. If you're stuck finding a solution, change the problem. And not just change it, but get a whole new understanding of it.
At the end of 2016, we were really struggling to improve Subnautica's showpiece submarine, the Cyclops. It drove like a bus compared the Mini Cooper like Seamoth. But more than just the handling, its gameplay was really lacking a purpose.
We had long considered its main purpose was as a gate - there was no other way to get to the deeper depths required to beat the game. But driving a clunky bus for hours at a time just to surpass a gate was tedious. We had already built the world with this pacing in mind and already released it, so we didn't want to rework the basics it or remove it entirely. But we knew there must be a way to make it a nicer experience.
We also had these big creatures that we wanted players to be scared of. But how were players supposed to react? We had already decided to make a non-combat game, so fighting was off the table. So that left us with...running away? Where's the fun in that?
One of our programmers (Scott Thunelius) and I were trying to figure out how to get ourselves out of this mess. First we took a step back to get inspired from the great submarine films. We loved this tense waiting ambience in Hunt for Red October:
And who could forget this scene from U-571, where the crew turns off their submarines engines to evade a torpedo. They are sitting in the dark, far from the surface, and virtually holding their breath, hoping that they don't die in the next few moments:
These clips gave us the seeds of thinking about the Cyclops in a totally new way.
Our old way of thinking was "make the Cyclops fun and gameplay-rich". In Subnautica terms, that meant gating, challenge, resource management and some timing. We also wanted player skill to be an element.
Our new way suddenly became "make the Cyclops a tense and delicious experience". In Subnautica terms, that meant feeling scared, hearing ominous sonar pings, hearing and seeing creatures through the observation window, and hiding in the dark. Suddenly, we could make the player feel hunted.
Once we started thinking of the Cyclops as facilitating an experience, instead of gameplay, the design suddenly started falling into place.
The new Cyclops
Instead of making the submarine handle better, we changed the most terrifying creatures to be drawn to sound, which meant you now had to be quiet to avoid attacks. We gave the sub different speed modes, including a "silent running" mode, which let it move relatively silently, but slowly. We let you turn the various cabin and headlights on and off, which saved power and let you hide.
We added creature detection, to get those great "ping" vibes from Hunt for Red October (except instead of torpedoes, we have leviathans).
This all gave us a nice speed/noise tradeoff, where you could go fast if you thought there were no dangers nearby, but had you turning off the lights and power, sitting in the dark, hoping you wouldn't be discovered and attacked.
We also added a damage display to make the effect of creature attacks more noticeable and tense:
All these changes worked together to create tension and the feeling of being hunted. Instead of the reflexes and skills around piloting, this shifted completely into you feeling like you were hunted. It became a game of cat and mouse - with you being the mouse.
Here's the final update in action:
I think we could've worked for months trying to make the Cyclops more "fun", but it never would've been as cool as what we ended up with. But we never could've arrived there if we didn't change our understanding of the greater context.
When you feel stuck, see if you can reframe your problem. You might find a better solution. One one that takes minutes, instead of weeks or months.