If you want to make a game that succeeds creatively and commercially, prototyping will almost certainly be a key step in the design and development process.
Prototyping serves as a point at which early ideas and concepts can be crystallised, pivoting the process of game design into the production pipeline phase. And while many design changes will likely be implemented after prototyping concludes, it can be powerful in defining your final product.
Chances are, if you’ve put any time into the study of game design and development, you already know that sketching out a game’s core elements is a vitally important process. And yet many misconceptions about how to get the most from prototyping persist. It is in many cases a rapid process, with a focus on ideas over polish, and yet there is considerable nuance to the art of prototyping. It can often thrive as a deliberately rough and ready process, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be handled with care. Which begs the question; how do you get prototyping right?
This article offers seven tips for those looking to understand and implement impactful videogame prototyping.
1. Start With A Clear Vision
While prototyping is about embracing experimentation, it is essential to set certain parameters and framings. Particularly the game’s vision and listing the unknowns.
Understanding what your game is, and, more importantly, why it should be made is the key to any hit. This vision gives everyone on the team the context to make decisions and so autonomy, resulting in quicker and more accurate iterations..
Secondly, prototyping is about gaining understanding about a game vision, so state the unknowns you and the team are seeking. It may be something very specific: ‘Can this control scheme work?’, or broader such as ‘can this be fun?’ Either way having the questions at front of mind will allow you to prioritise your work and focus only on what’s needed.
2. Don’t Paper Prototype
Paper prototyping – generally using paper, pen and other basic stationary to explore game design concepts – has a captivating allure. The notion that lavish, deeply interactive games can start life in such a basic form has long beguiled press and consumers, and to an extent, the industry itself. Educators can be particularly enthusiastic about the form, and it arguably has a function as an accessible way to begin to understand game design as a whole. In some cases, paper prototyping can work well – perhaps if you are making a traditional card or board game in digital form, or working with a puzzle concept or trivia game.
But by the same logic, it can also stifle genres that are challenging to represent in cutout sketches and graph paper. You can’t, for example, use paper prototyping for making arcade or action-orientated games. In those forms, controls and dexterity are important; but impossible to capture via pieces of paper. Using paper prototyping in those cases can even erode potential game feel, and has a knack for pushing any genre towards a card or board game feel. Paper prototyped action games can too easily feel like they are made up of tokens, cards and chance rolls, rather than characters, narrative and action.
Additionally, paper prototyping is rarely faster than other contemporary methods. It’s worth noting here that ‘paper prototyping’ also covers examples where other simple physical materials are used to explore the concepts of a game’s design. Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima famously used LEGO bricks and camcorders to prototype the early 3D entries in his acclaimed series. The logic at that time made sense.
25 years ago game development tools did not offer the potential for rapid workflows. Today, however, the simple primitives and free moving cameras in Unity, Unreal and other engines offer considerably faster ways to build functional game concepts, and are supported by a bounty of free or affordable assets and plug-ins. Much quicker and more flexible than scissors and card.
3. Be FBR!
Being FBR (‘Fast, Bad and Rong’) captures the spirit of what prototyping is: Making mistakes, quickly.. ‘Fast, Bad and Rong’ communicates the idea as a functional sentence, even if it isn’t perfect. But how can you be FBR?
- Don’t worry about good: Prototyping is about exploring the potential of your ideas – not making something polished or final.
- Make mistakes, quickly: Prototyping is where the cheapest and most consequence free mistakes happen, so make ASAP. Noodling over a grand plan when you could be prototyping can waste valuable time. Equally, that grand plan may fall apart if you don’t give proper attention to prototyping.
- Be brave, don’t fear failure: Making a shit prototype is good, it means you didn’t sink years of your life and millions of dollars into a shit game. But keep making bold, interesting decisions and you’ll soon have a bold and interesting game. Even if not on the first (second or third) try.
4. Make It Look Bad
It can be tempting to pack your prototypes with vibrancy and flavour, little bits of refinement here and there. The thing is, that can prove something of a distraction, and muddy clarity around the direction the prototype is taking things in.
It’s all too common to see prototypes made up of a range of colourful and eye-catching assets from different asset packs – or ‘asset pack bashing’ as we call it at Department of Play. That approach can leave the prototype looking janky and mismatched. As much as we assert the value of FBR, do not build something that misrepresents the game you are trying to make, or that sports such a clash of aesthetics that it becomes distracting.
An almost nice looking prototype can prove significantly challenging to those less familiar with the technical side of game development. Leaving them to judge on merits other than the gameplay.
A simple technique to solve this issue is to ‘grey box’: remove all or some of your assets and materials and replace them with grey, blueprint or a wireframe material. This gives a more consistent look and signals strongly ‘this is placeholder artwork’, allowing everyone (yourself included) to focus on what matters: The gameplay.
Prototyping the visual style can be done in parallel with concept sketches and mock-ups.
5. Build Only What You Need
As you approach prototyping, it can be easy to feel you should build out every element of a game. That may be required in some cases – and shouldn’t be avoided by default when games are very simple or straightforward – consider a simple tile-matching or other puzzle game. But in many cases, a lean, economical approach is best.
Always challenge yourself with the question: ‘is this needed to explore the game’s design and function?’ Focus on prototyping elements that are about the game’s mechanics, interactions and systems of your game. There will be exceptions, of course; a hypothetical creative illustration game where interaction with its aesthetic is core to the user experience might require prototyping of that aesthetic, for example.
Overall, though, don’t be afraid to hack your way around features:
- Sometimes an existing video may suffice as a placeholder asset, cutscene, or even a visual backdrop.
- Often a non-functional wireframe is all that is needed to represent something that is way too complex to build or inessential to the core experience.
- Many game elements can be automated or faked, such as bots for multiplayer games.
- Equally, in many cases you may be able to explain context to a user as they play, rather than putting in a time consuming feature or function, such as tutorials or UX prompts.
6. Build a Template Project
While prototyping is so often about working fast and lean, it can still take a full day to set up a scene in an engine like Unity, especially when considering the effort of integrating assets packs, plugins, code frameworks, controller mapping and so on.
Are you making prototypes frequently or constantly around similar genres and settings? Then consider stripping back a developed prototype to its core elements. That gives you a base project that you can copy, making each subsequent prototype easier and more efficient.
At Department of Play we have developed DoPUF (Department of Play Unity Framework). This consists of:
- A code architecture that necessitates quick to write, decoupled code. F
- Classes that handle basic game logic, like levels, as well as saving, UI and sound.
- Our favourite asset packs, including 2D, 3D and audio.
- Common mobile functions, like notifications, in-game ads and haptics.
- Analytics and advertising SDKs.
DoPUF lets us build and deploy a test project to the store within an hour, meaning we can quickly turn prototypes into distributed testing, or even soft launches within a week.
7. Be Like Autopilot
Aeroplane autopilot systems are commonly engineered using a safety-focused approach called ‘design diversity’. In many cases three separate teams will each make distinct autopilot software that later exists as a functional whole within an aircraft’s systems. However, the trio of softwares will run on distinct computers and may even deliberately use entirely different architectures. When in use in a plane, all three software systems will have to reach the same conclusion before a proposed course of action is implemented by the aircraft. This system is employed to avoid bugs causing potentially devastating outcomes.
While bugs in prototypes may not be quite so dangerous, the design diversity approach can be highly useful as a means to identify valuable design findings.
Having more than one team prototyping your game,can lead to divergent results and more diverse, informed insight. Every team has different backgrounds and experiences meaning they’ll solve problems differently. These teams can highlight both ideas full of potential, and help accelerate the process to conclusions such as a game’s lack of viability.
Third-party external teams can help bring this design diversity to your process. Department of Play has a prototyping service available that can complement your own, by delivering your team quick, creative, device-playable games.
The tips shared here do not intend to present an absolute or complete guide, because the rules of prototyping change with each individual game. We hope you find them useful, and we’re always here to discuss prototyping – or any element of your game, from its design to monetisation and market performance. If you have any questions, or want to talk more, do get in touch.