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!

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 008

The 8th Episode of Your Turn Next is now available!

This episode kicks off with with a discussion of what we’ve been up to lately in terms of conventions, games, playtesting, and more. We also discuss Ryan’s shiny new 3d printer and what this technology could mean for miniatures games and board games as we look to the future.

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:

YTN Episode 004

The 4th episode of Your Turn Next has just gone live!

Join the YTN team and a special guest as we wrap up the playtest discussion using the Forming First-Rate Feedback blog post from June 19th and then discuss world building in games, books, and movies.

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:

Forming First-Rate Feedback

You may not hear it very often, but I firmly believe that many folks currently in game development are there at least in part because they knew how to give great playtest feedback. Playtesters work closely with game developers to help create a superior finished game and are, in essence, junior developers on the project. So when a game developer position is available, it’s only natural to think of these junior developers and consider the best among them for a full-time position.

Creating great playtest feedback ties into the playtest practices I talked about in The Science of Playtest article, but that’s really just the beginning. A playtester could have truly impressive playtest practices and an amazingly insightful mind for game development yet still provide very little to the playtest process unless they know how to communicate their playtest feedback effectively.

One of the reasons it’s so difficult to give great playtest feedback is that the gaming culture is often rooted in knee-jerk reactions and hyperbole. When visiting forums or social media groups, how often have you read extreme commentary about how good or bad a game (or card or model or whatever) is based on little to no actual experience with the product? Unless you don’t go on gaming forums or social media groups, I’m guessing you’ve seen such feedback quite a bit.

Good playtest feedback is basically the opposite of that. You want a good understanding of the game (or card or model) before expressing anything more than your first impressions, and you want to avoid hyperbole since it’s a barrier to clear communication. Consider, for example, how much clearer it is to say you think something “should cost 1 more point (or mana, gem, etc.)” versus saying you think it “is ridiculously overpowered.” In one case, the game developer knows exactly what you think. In the other, it would be very easy to overcompensate when attempting to correct the game balance.

Here are a few other things to keep in mind.

Always present a potential solution. The number one tip for effective feedback is to always include your thoughts on how to fix the problems you’ve identified. The game developer might not use your solution exactly as written, but it gives a clear picture of the direction you think the change should go and the scope of the change. “Based on the past several playtest games, we think this card should cost 1 more gem” is a good example of showcasing the direction and scope of a recommended change.

Balance being clear with being concise. There’s no perfect formula for finding this balance, but feedback that is too verbose has the potential for your message to get lost in the noise while feedback that is too terse won’t sufficiently explain how or why you’ve reached your playtest conclusions. When you reach the end of a section of playtest feedback, reread it and ask, “Did I sufficiently explain how I reached my conclusion?” and add some detail as necessary. Then ask, “Did I talk about things that have nothing to do with my conclusion?” and trim those out as necessary.

Prioritize your feedback. Sometimes, you’ll have quite a bit of playtest feedback, and that’s great! But you’ll also want to prioritize playtest feedback. Whether you use a numbered list or a color code or a “high, medium, low” system is up to you, but some sort of priority system is super helpful. There’s a lot of playtest feedback to consider, and a way to quickly identify the most important problems your group identified will help make those a priority for potential changes.

YTN Episode 003

The 3rd episode of Your Turn Next has just gone live!

Join the YTN team and a special guest as we discuss The Science of Playtest blog post from June 1st.

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 games we discussed this episode, well… it was mostly just Werewolf: