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Rapid Prototyping: Tips for Running an Effective R&D Process

October 17, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

So you realize that it's important to prototype your ideas before launching into production -- but how do you do it? Arkadium's director of R&D, Tom Rassweiler, lifts the veil on his company's process and explains why it shifted to central R&D for new game prototypes.

As the director of Research and Development at Arkadium, I'm tasked with identifying unique and successful game mechanics for our future games. Based on my experience, I'd like to share some tips on how to implement effective prototyping with the use of an R&D team.

The decision to move to a central R&D model was not made lightly. We have a long track record of successes nurtured via an ad-hoc method of idea-creation based on individual and team initiative. However, a variety of changes in the game industry and in Arkadium's target platforms have dictated our forming a dedicated R&D team.

The use of prototyping and how to predict whether a game will be fun or a flop

Due to new distribution methods, new audiences, and new platforms, the game industry is now rewarding unique, creative game ideas like never before. New, lucrative genres are being discovered and capitalized on, such as endless-runner, mobile asynchronous multiplayer, touch storybook, and unique physics (rope, slingshot, fluid).

In response to the increasing complexity of the industry, the idea of effective prototyping is very hot. Companies such as Double Fine, Firehose Games, and PopCap are extremely vocal about the advantages of the rapid prototyping process. At GDC 2012, there were 14 talks that were focused on prototyping, compared to six in 2011 and five in 2010.

Prototyping is useful because the best way to know whether a game will be fun is to play it. You can discover problems and stop development on unprofitable ideas early. You can focus on the core elements/risks of the game without distraction, and you can collect feedback and analytics from real players about the potential success of the game mechanic before sinking a lot of money into it.

When a company is searching for a new hit game mechanic, quantity equals quality: the more game mechanics you try, the more likely you will find a unique game that has the potential to be a hit. A classic example is Rovio Entertainment. Rovio is frequently cited for having released more than 50 games without a hit before launching its record-breaking Angry Birds. So the more ideas that are tested, and the faster and more efficient the prototyping and prototype evaluation, the more likely you will find that hit game. Had Rovio effectively prototyped these games quickly before releasing them, Angry Birds might have been released much earlier.

Signs that you need more prototyping

The advantages of prototyping are generally well known, and most development teams spend sometime prototyping before each project. However, it is also generally true that teams never feel they have enough time to prototype well, especially when clients or managers are heavily focused on quick revenue.

Often, this tension is good. Teams should have deadlines for prototypes, and short schedules for prototyping ensure that they stay focused and avoid getting drawn into over-polishing. However, be alert for the following warning signs that mean your company may need to invest in more prototyping, and possibly even to create a dedicated team for it.

  • You've pitched games to clients, or started projects and then a couple of months into development (or worse yet, at the point of release) you realize that the game mechanic is neither fun nor intuitive. A prototyping team can keep your company from wasting time and investment on games with deep problems in the mechanic.
  • If you hear yourself saying, "Our competitor uses this solution all the time, and they must have done user testing, so let's just do it that way" -- then you're just following other teams. You're not innovating. Worse yet, you're not learning anything for yourself. R&D can help you develop your own solutions.
  • If you're a company that previously made small games with small teams, but are starting to expand into bigger, more complex projects, you will need to set aside more time upfront for prototyping and evaluation.
  • If you are having problems developing successful microtransaction-based games, you're facing a corollary of the above problem with project size: microtransaction-based games require a lot more time to create content, balance the economy and test. This extra time will be wasted if the mechanic isn't perfect.
  • Finally, be wary if you're having a hard time building a quality brand with your consumers. Building a quality brand requires that you release successful games consistently. Good prototyping can help you avoid releasing flops and ruining your company's image and your player's trust.

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Seb Long
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This is a great article, thanks for sharing it.

I feel that the addition of a User Researcher, or at least someone trained in Human-Computer Interaction (or similar) can greatly benefit the small mixed-skill teams you suggest for rapid prototyping. Considering user's expectations, they way players think, and adding a knowledge of good practice in game usability up front in the early design stages will increase the quality of prototypes (and, by extension, their likelihood of success).

By using metrics to decide which prototypes are 'successful', and which are not, I feel you may be missing out on the most important information. Just like normal telemetry, you're only gaining an understanding of what players do, not _why_ they did it. Did players play the game twice as many times because the instructions were unclear the first time? Were they finding the core mechanic to be the most fun, or some other unknown factor?

Questionnaires and surveys will only get you so far on this front - players are terrible at describing why they like/dislike something, especially children. Instead, by putting the game in front of real players and observing their behaviour (playtesting), and following up with an interview contributes much more valuable qualitative and quantitative information. Playtesting also allows you to pro-actively choose specific demographic/psychographic to test with, rather than relying on self-selecting players via Facebook or other - and solves a lot of security worries.

As a User Researcher, I have both worked with several studios on game prototypes, and run playtesting sessions to evaluate prototypes at whitebox stage. Evaluating, playtesting and iterating with such early builds has been invaluable to those projects, shaping their core mechanics and providing confidence in their ongoing success; information that metrics and faceless, potentially unreliable feedback alone simply cannot provide.

Overall, I agree with your great article; rapid prototyping and subsequent iterative user testing is a fun and fruitful process, and unquestionably leads to more inventive, successful games.

Tom Rassweiler
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Hi Seb, You have some good points here. An effective prototyping team needs a way to evaluate their games and gain insight in to which mechanics are successful and why. Both in-office play-testing and analytics are important parts of the process. Analytics gives insight into the games expected success to that demographic but can’t tell you “why” (unless you use sophisticated split-testing). Watching people play is essential to understanding why specific aspects are working or failing. We use play-testing most often to evaluate clarity of the mechanic and instructions, which is essential to prove before collecting any broader analytic data.

Jason Lee
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Hear hear! Great article, good points, and well organized. I've seen great companies talk at length about this very topic (Harmonix's GDC talk on Dance Central's prototyping process was great), and also seen places where not enough prototyping has ruined a game's development at the 11th hour.

As a designer with only some programming ability, I really value the paper prototype as a way to start getting ideas out there for some games. Although you obviously can't catch a lot of things on a piece of paper, there's a ton of exploration you can actually do and a lot gets illuminated by moving post it notes and index cards around. Starting this way will also give your programmers (or yourself) a very strong grasp of the mechanics your aiming for, helping her/him create a prototype faster and more accurately. Best of all, you can take an hour after work, round up some employees, and essentially make a board game night out of your prototyping process where everyone has fun.

Tom Rassweiler
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Paper prototyping is a great tool to try a new idea very quickly or to test something that could be very complex to build technically (like a multiplayer game).

shachar oz
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thanks for the tips man.

from the HCI course ( i'm taking at the moment i've learned a similar lesson: after you have decided about the app goals, come up with 2 full design ideas and test them on users together (not one after another). let your users evaluate and criticize the experiences at the same time. this way you (as a developer) are not connected to any of the ideas, but actually you stay connected to the MRD and main goal you wish to achieve. your tester will also be able to give you better and more solid input ("in product A you made this feature better, where in B that feature was better.").

The Le
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I am not sure it's necessary to make custom "non distracting" artwork for a prototype -- couldn't you just use a library of existing art as placeholders?

Stephen Chin
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He didn't say it had to be unique; I'd imagine that in a prototype environment, placeholder and reusing assets would be fine as long as it didn't outright conflict with the prototype itself eg don't use an asset of an giant ogre built for a first person RPG to represent a pick up in a sci-fi third person flight game 'cause that's just confusing.

Tom Rassweiler
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"non distracting" is certainly more important than "custom". We actually do have extensive art and sound libraries to help build prototypes more quickly. But, as Stephen mentions, it's important for the art to fit correctly with the game mechanic, and look consistent so that the player can stay focused on gameplay.