The 5 Stages of Prototypes

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!

Developing Resources

In one of the earliest blogs on this site, I wrote about how print-on-demand services and crowdfunding sites have made it easier to get game ideas into players’ hands. Even the best game idea in the world is still a long, LONG way from being a great game, however. Once you’ve hashed out your game design and played through a quick proof-of-concept version of your game, you’ve still got quite a bit of game development, illustration, graphic design, financing, production, and fulfillment to consider.

Just as print-on-demand services and crowdfunding make the financing, production, and fulfillment more attainable, the resources available to aspiring game developers are increasing as well. Since game development is a behind-the-scenes sort of activity, you’re unlikely to find dev groups in banner ads on Facebook or Board Game Geek, but a little bit of searching is sure to produce results, and once you start joining such groups, it’s easier and easier to find others.

  1. Facebook has multiple groups for folks who create Kickstarter projects, are involved specifically in game projects, or are involved in the game industry in a variety of capacities. Because these groups are online-only, they have the same strengths and weaknesses of other online-only groups. They have large communities where you can make some great contacts, but they also represent a very impersonal method of communication. If you find one particular group less receptive to new members, just look elsewhere.

2. There are also numerous groups for local game developer meetups. Their Facebook groups, forums, or email lists can be a bit tougher to find, but it’s well worth the effort. These groups can be an excellent resource, because they allow you to actually sit down together and test games! Different developers approach games in very different ways, so getting a broader perspective on your design can be a huge benefit to your game development process. As a bonus, local meetups also get around the impersonal nature of the online-only groups.

3. The last resource I want to mention is organized online communities for game developers. Unpub is great example. They run playtest events at stores, conventions, and other venues all over the place. It’s a bit of a quiet season right now as I write this due to the holidays, but in the summer months, you can find multiple events weekend after weekend. You might also be able to find a more regional game development group in your area like Playtest Northwest in my backyard.

The right resource (or resources) for you will vary from person to person. Look at the folks involved, the type of community they have, and the sort of feedback you’ll be able to get on your development. For anyone in the Pacific Northwest, it’s hard for me not to recommend Playtest Northwest. Forgive me for the upcoming tangent, but these guys have a “core belief” message that’s tough to beat:

TEAM – Working as a team makes us all stronger. Designers, artists, playtesters, developers, and customers are all members of our project teams.

TRUTH – Always start from the truth, and the story never changes. Being open and honest shows respect for others and respect for yourself.

TRUST – Earn a person’s trust, and they’ll be with you always. We’re all human, and we all make mistakes – own them, fix them, and build stronger bonds.

Anyway, if you plan on making games or were just curious about how the proverbial sausage is made, I hope you enjoyed today’s blog. If you know of other resources for game developers or wanted to share some positive experiences you have had with a particular dev resource, we’d love to hear about it. Share in the comments below or over on Facebook with your thoughts!

YTN Episode 011

The 11th Episode of Your Turn Next is now available!

We start out this episode talking about what we’ve been up to lately in the world of gaming which transitions into the topic of what I’m calling multi-games, games where different players are playing different games at the same time to form a cohesive whole. What do you think of this emerging gaming trend? What other games would you put into this category?

Let us know in the comments or via email if you have any topics, questions, or ideas you’d like us to discuss in a future podcast. The email address is: contact@clockworkphoenixgames.com

And if you’re looking for links to some of the things we discussed this episode, here’s where to find more about:

Balancing Asymmetrical Games

Game balance is always a challenge, but asymmetrical game balance has a whole pile of challenges all its own. In Your Turn Next Episode 9, we discussed some of the games we enjoy that include unique elements for each player, and today I’d like to write a bit about how to approach those elements during the game development process. There are three primary methods game developers use when developing asymmetrical gameplay elements, and we’ll briefly explore each of them.

First, let’s define what makes something a gameplay element with asymmetrical game balance. Quite simply, asymmetrical game balance elements are those where the players have different tools at their disposal to try to win the game. Card games where players draw from a common deck of cards and board games where players use a common set of rules use symmetrical game balance to ensure the chances for each player to win are equal. Games where each player has a different character with unique abilities or a unique set of cards or skills at their disposal have asymmetrical game balance. With players’ resources being inherently unequal, ensuring strong game balance can be a real challenge.

The Playtest Method is the first and simplest method of creating asymmetrical game balance. When using the playtest method, a game developer will simply implement their ideas for each character (or faction or deck or whatever) and then playtest, playtest, playtest. The  weaknesses of this method are that it can be very time-consuming and early iterations of the game may have serious balance flaws that color playtesters’ future feedback. The strengths of this method are that it can handle extremely disparate character concepts and can be used regardless of a game’s level of complexity.

The Baseline Method is the second method of creating asymmetrical game balance. When using the baseline method, a game developer will create a single character (or faction or deck or whatever) and then create all of the other characters around that initial baseline. A second character might be faster but weaker, a third character might be slower but be able to take more hits, etc. The  weaknesses of this method are that it requires all of the characters to be relatively similar and sometimes creates the impression that the baseline character is plain or even boring. The strengths of this method are that it generates a strong starting point for final game balance and it typically requires less dedicated playtest time than the other methods.

The Modeled Method is the final method for creating asymmetrical game balance. When using the modeled method, a game developer will list out all of the variables that can differ between their characters (or factions or decks or whatever) and create a mathematical model to set the game balance between them. Mathematical models vary drastically in complexity based on the degree of differentiation between the characters. The weaknesses of this method are that it requires a specific skill set to perform effectively and can falter if the game developer does not understand the strengths and weaknesses of each variable. The strengths of this method are that it can handle fairly diverse characters and generates that strong starting point for final game balance.

Personally, I lean toward using the modeled method. I’m sure part of that is simply that I’m a math guy and find mathematical modeling to be one of the most enjoyable and rewarding aspects of game development, but I also find that it produces strong results. I’ll switch over to the baseline method if my character elements have only minor differences between them or to the playtest method if the game is simply too complex for a comprehensive mathematical model to be a realistic option.

YTN Episode 009

The 9th Episode of Your Turn Next is now available!

This episode kicks off with an introduction of a man who needs no introduction (unless you don’t know him), Geordie Hicks. We also chat about what we’ve been up to lately before discussing a listener-recommended topic, asymmetrical game design.

Let us know in the comments or via email if you have any topics, questions, or ideas you’d like us to discuss in a future podcast. The email address is: contact@clockworkphoenixgames.com

And if you’re looking for links to some of the things we discussed this episode, here’s where to find more about:

A Game by Any Other Name

During the podcast about skill, luck, and social elements in games (Episode 6), we very briefly talked about whether certain activities could be classified as games or not. Those couple of sentences have spawned multiple discussions about what truly makes something a game or not a game. The topic has come up a number of times with my fellow podcasters, with other folks in the game industry, and at the Penny Arcade Expo convention. Rather than trying to summarize all those discussions, however, let’s start with the absolute authority on everything – the internet. The first definition for “game” to pop up in my web search was that a game is “a form of play or sport, especially a competitive one played according to rules and decided by skill, strength, or luck.”

Based on my discussions, one of the most common elements that some gamers want to infuse into the definition of a game is meaningful player choice. Personally, I want my games to have lots of meaningful player choice. If the outcome of the game feels completely random, it’s not a game I consider enjoyable. But we’re not trying to define a good game, simply a game, and it’s pretty hard to argue that Candy Land and Chutes & Ladders are not games. They don’t involve a single meaningful player choice, yet they’re among some of the top-selling board games of all time. A large portion of betting games similarly lack any way for the player to influence the outcome. There are, in fact, numerous checks and balances in place to ensure that the outcome remains completely random. We could claim these activities are not games, but the gaming commission will likely disagree. So I think we’ve got to concede that something can be a game even if it does NOT have meaningful player choice.

On the flip side, we could argue that a game must have an element of luck, but that’s a far more difficult position to defend. Numerous “classic board games” do NOT involve luck elements or randomization. If Chess and Go are not board games, I think we very quickly need to reassess our definition.

Another common element that some folks want in the definition is that a game has a winner. The definition noted that a game was a form of play or sport, “especially a competitive one,” implying that winners are at least common in gaming. Certainly, many games have winners, but entire genres of games do not have this particular element. The vast majority of role-playing games do not lead to a single player being declared the winner, plenty of video games past and present never reach a “You Win” ending, and numerous party games have arbitrary winners or no winner at all. It seems pretty clear that you do NOT need to have a winner to have a game.

It would sure be nice if we could say all games are fun. Unfortunately, most of us don’t have to think back too far to come up with an experience with a game that was NOT fun. Perhaps it was because of the behavior of another player at the table, perhaps it was because of some bad luck regarding the luck-based elements of the game, or perhaps the game itself is simply not one you would ever find enjoyable. But as noted earlier, we’re not trying to define a good game but simply a game, and we’re unlikely to find a game in all the world that every single player would agree is fun.

So we could say a game is something you play. It’s in the definition above, and no one can really claim that it’s wrong, but the word “play” isn’t quite as clear as it could be since we “play” music and movies and such. So what if we shift that just a bit and call a game an activity that has one or more players? It still isn’t a complete definition of a game, but I think  it includes a lot of game activities our previous criteria ruled out. Whether a game is player choice oriented or luck based, co-operative or competitive, fun or un-fun, a game DOES have one or more players.

And the last portion of the game definition the internet started us with is that a game has rules. This is another element that’s come up in conversation fairly frequently. One could potentially argue that the rules aren’t always codified or that they aren’t always clear, but there is always some form of rules underpinning a game. I think we could make the case that rules are what separate a randomized event from a game. A ball falling on a spinning plate with numbers and colors on it is not a game, but if you add in the betting rules of Roulette and add some players, I think most readers could agree we’ve got a game there. Again, we’re not defining a good game, just a game, and a game DOES have rules.

So that leads us to define a game as “an activity with one or more players performed in accordance with established rules.”

What do you think? Is that an accurate definition of a game? Are there activities we’ve accidentally included that are not games? Are there games we’ve excluded with our definition? Perhaps most importantly of all, how would you personally define a “game?”

The Waiting Game

You may have noticed that humans aren’t the most patient people. They’ll risk injury and thousands of dollars in damage to get home one car length earlier than they would have otherwise. So it should come as no surprise whatsoever that people don’t like waiting for games.

If you spend much time on gaming forums or social media, you’ve probably seen someone complain about the delayed release of a game, an expansion, or new miniatures for a hobby miniatures game. Recently, you’ve probably also seen an increase in complaints about delays regarding crowdfunded games on platforms like Kickstarter. Today, I’m going to write about some of the reasons delays occur in the industry of traditional games (card games, board games, hobby miniatures games, and role-playing games).

Quality Control

I can’t back this up with mountains of data, but I believe that issues of quality are the #1 cause of game delays. By the time a company gets the proof copies of their game, it’s nearly time to release the game to the public. If there’s anything wrong with the colors, the components, the rulebook, the packaging, or any number of other variables, the company is faced with a difficult choice – release a product that’s lower quality than desired or delay the product’s release.

For hobby gaming miniatures or miniatures intended for inclusion in a board game, those delays could be quite severe. If a miniature intended for hard plastic production goes all the way back to the sculpting phase, it could cost two years or more. If it’s “only” a smaller change to make the miniature easier to produce or reduce warping or something, that can still mean a delay of several months. That degree of impact makes it easy to understand why some miniatures are released even if their scale is slightly wrong or if the individual parts don’t fit together quite as perfectly as we’d like. If the final product still looks great and the problems aren’t insurmountable, the company might stick to their desired release date rather than attempt to resculpt something a slightly different size or re-engineer the components for easier assembly.

Even a card game or role-playing game could face production issues that incur a hit of several months to the desired release date, and we haven’t even mentioned non-production quality control situations yet. If a piece of art isn’t up to snuff or a card design turns out to be confusing, the game company must make the tough decision to delay the product or make sacrifices in terms of quality.

Changing Course

Changes are an interesting source of delays because many change-induced delays occur before a product is announced. This means many of these delays are transparent to the game’s customers, but changes are another really common cause that games are released later than originally intended. In some cases, a game will be redesigned half a dozen times or more, each iteration chewing through development and playtesting time that should be moving the game toward its final form rather than meandering through different ideas that don’t stick around. I’ve seen games go back to the drawing board half a dozen times or more and have even seen solid game designs put on hold for years or even indefinitely. And substantial changes in art direction or graphic design have the same kind of impact as game development changes.

Course change delays are most visible to you as gamers when we’re talking about expansion material rather than new products. If the plan for the next expansion suddenly changes, especially late in the project’s life cycle, those changes can cause delays to the expansion’s release schedule.

It’s also worth noting that changing course does not always relate to the product itself. If game developers or artists or editors or graphic designers are moved into different projects, the new member of the team may lead to delays. Sometimes, they’ll make changes that directly cause delays, but most times the shake-up in personnel will simply incur delays as the team adjusts to its new composition and as new members get up to speed.

Breaking New Ground

The last big origin of delays I want to mention is breaking new ground. If a company has never used a particular manufacturer before, any estimates of how long production will take and how long those aforementioned quality corrections will take could be significantly off the mark. This risk is increased several times over when a company enters a whole new segment of the market such as making their first board game that uses a licensed intellectual property or their first pre-painted miniatures line.

That already increased risk is then magnified tenfold for a company that is attempting to produce a game for the very first time. Every Kickstarter campaign must include a “Risks and Challenges” section as part of the base template for releasing a Kickstarter project. For first-time game makers, that section should be sure to note there’s a HUGE risk of missing their estimated release date. They don’t yet know how any changes will impact their schedule. They don’t yet know how quality concerns will delay production. This is why you’ll often see a new company’s subsequent Kickstarter projects use more conservative delivery dates than their initial offering.

In conclusion, I think the key when dealing with game delays is patience. I realize that’s a whole lot easier said than done, but you can rest assured that game makers out there are even more excited about getting their awesome new game ideas into your hands than you are to receive them. Any delays are just as frustrating to them as they are to you.