The Importance of Rapid, Iterative, Prototyping
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Prototyping, the act of creating an original model as a foundation for the end product, is an essential and efficient part of the game design process. It allows us to find out quickly what does and does not work which saves us time and money. It’s the time, before the game design has gone too far, when we set the rules and find the fun. Rapid prototyping saves money by letting us make less-costly mistakes early on and allowing us to bail on bad ideas much earlier in the process. It also teaches us about the game, making it easier to formulate project pitches and press releases.
The key to rapid prototyping is doing it quickly. This is not the time to build assets or large bits of code that will most likely get scrapped before the project even gets started. Prototype with borrowed assets, instead. Begin with a tabletop or paper version of the game. This will not feel the same as digital play will, but it will show the team weaknesses in the rule set and fun immediately with little expense in time and money. A game that lacks the essential elements of fun and great play mechanics won’t improve with fancy graphics and sound. The point of tabletop prototyping is to weed out this weakness.
A tabletop prototyping kit is easily put together. A vinyl hexagon mat with squares on the reverse side provides a game board which can be blocked off with masking tape. Keep on hand two sets of dungeon dice; playing cards; 3x5 cards; and items, such as glass stones and soda can tabs, to use as playing pieces. Block out your game and get it before people as soon as possible.
First Stage Prototyping
It’s important to stay flexible in all stages of prototyping. Use the 80/20 Rule. Brainstorm for every possibility and throw out 80 percent of the ideas. It is vital to avoid feature creep.
Begin to build the game using borrowed assets and bits of code. Pygame.org provides an open source language and games that you can change. Gamemaker utilizes drag-and-drop functionality so that you won’t have to write code or create art assets to start playing. Do not build a new engine or use one that only certain members of the team are familiar with. You want the first prototype up and in front of testers inside of one to two weeks.
If you don’t have testers you don’t know, use moddb.com to find testers. Take their comments with a grain of salt. All you really need to know is whether or not the game is viable as a full game.
Second Stage Prototyping
Once you have gleaned all that you can from the testers, it is time to begin replacing borrowed assets with real ones. Install improvements based on tester feedback. Always have a playable build; it’s important to be able to play and test things. Remain flexible during this time; things will change daily.
Test again with a fresh group of testers. Using the original testers or any number of them will taint the results.
Begin to Build a Vertical Slice
Once you are confident that the game is a viable option, begin to build a level. This is what you will show to publishers and potential stake-holders. All work at this point should be original and the game must be fully functional. The programmers can start building tools now: artist tools, configuration files for rapid changes, and level editors. Polish. Get people excited about the project and start creating buzz.
Now, stop prototyping and make the game.