During one of the panels at OrcaCon last weekend, we discussed the various stages of playtesting. It was an interesting discussion, but as I thought back on the panel later, I realized that there was an element of the discussion we didn’t talk about, and that’s the stages of game prototypes, a very important consideration when talking about playtesting games!
Different game developers approach prototyping differently, and there are plenty of successful methods of prototyping rather than clear “right” and “wrong” approaches. I will caution would-be game developers against paying to get their game created by an on-demand printer too early in the process, however. I’ve had more than one game developer tell me they wish they waited another iteration (or five) before spending money on on-demand game printing.
In my book, the first game prototype is the mechanics test. At the earliest stages of game design, you don’t even know if you’ve got a functional idea much less a fun idea, so you don’t want to spend hours upon hours making an awesome prototype of something that doesn’t work. So grab a marker and some card stock and figure out if you’ve got something that works. It doesn’t have to be pretty. It’s just a quick and dirty test of the new game mechanic in your game. I’ve subjected my wife, Jess, to some truly ugly prototypes to test mechanics for a new game idea. You’ll typically know very quickly if you’re on an interesting track or should just scrap the idea and go with something else.
The second game prototype is the proof of concept version. If you’re working towards a specific goal rather than sandboxing it, you might start here instead of starting with your innovative game mechanics. The proof of concept prototype helps determine if your vision for the game as a whole is going to hold up. You’ve got some cool new mechanics, and you’ve got foundational mechanics like rolling dice or drawing cards, but how does it all come together? It might take several iterations, but the proof of concept prototypes will help you see what needs to change and how. Your final proof of concept prototype still won’t be pretty, but it will be a true and playable game.
Stages three and four will look very similar physically and could arguably be considered a single step. Since I’m writing this blog, however, I’m calling step three the gameplay prototype. In this stage, you’re definitely moving from game design (the big picture) into game development (the detail work). By means of example, you might take the two character decks from your proof of concept game and turn them into ten different character decks. You’ll expand upon your core ideas to add more diverse gameplay and more unique player choices. You’ll also start iterating on the appearance of your game, making the playtest components easier to read and understand even though they still aren’t as pretty as they will be in the final retail version of the game.
Stage four is the game balance prototype stage. At some point, you’ll need to stop adding new content and start focusing on balancing the content you have, the content that will be part of the final game. This stage could have many, many iterations, and it’s full of analysis, playtesting, and revisions. At times, it can be discouraging because the forward momentum is less visible than other stages, but it’s a crucial part of the process. During this stage, you’ll probably also start receiving final artwork for aspects of the game, which can build even more excitement for the final prototype.
The fifth and final stage is the game mockup. You might not have the exact card stock for the final game, and there might be a few missing illustrations or icons, but the game mockup is essentially your finished game. You won’t want to make big changes at this point in the process, but you shouldn’t skip the game mockup either. It could show that certain icons or colors are difficult to differentiate or that certain fonts are difficult to read. Stages one and two helped with the game’s design, three and four were the core of the game’s development, but stage five is as much a part of game production as it is game design and development.
So that’s how I see the five stages of game prototyping. Feel free to comment if you agree or disagree with these thoughts or if you have game prototyping ideas of your own you’d like to share. Thanks!