Video games, like any creative endeavor, start out as an idea. This idea should be developed and then given a specific form. Innovative projects should be tested first to check whether their assumptions are actually as interesting as we think and whether they can be implemented at all. It is for this purpose that prototypes are made.
In this article:
- What is a game prototype?
- What are the game prototypes for?
- What to consider when prototyping a game?
- What to avoid while prototyping a game?
What is a game prototype?
A prototype is a very simplified part of the game focusing on a specific mechanic or other elements. Its goal is to create a game piece as quickly as possible to give the idea a tangible form and see if there is any point in developing it further. Prototypes cover more than just mechanics: they are also created for locations, cutscenes, or character sounds to test the composition, estimate the length of individual animations, or simply check if what we hear matches what we see.
What are the game prototypes for?
There are two main goals of prototypes: to check the idea's playability and assess the risk. In other words, assessing whether the potential game element will be interesting and whether it can be done technically with the resources at our disposal. If a single mechanic causes problems at this stage, it will only get worse after adding more elements. In addition, working on a prototype often allows you to indicate potential issues and things that need to be considered before any serious money is spent.
Game prototyping tools
In addition to the game engine and programs for writing code and preparing graphics, it is important to properly write down the core concepts and design decisions. For this purpose, we can use the entire mass of available tools, such as:
- Miro - a virtual board with powerful personalization options. Perfect for brainstorming.
- Machinations.io - a website that allows you to build and test game logic using ideological diagrams. All you need to do is to set the dependencies between systems. The analytical functions will simulate and estimate the balance of assumptions.
- Figma - a platform that allows you to create interface mockups together and add simple animations to them. The graphics can be later exported and used directly in a project!
What to consider when prototyping a game?
A prototype is a very basic implementation of an idea. It is part of the pre-production process, which is primarily about checking various concepts quickly and at a low cost and choosing the best from them.
Here are some good practices to consider when prototyping:
- Creating various versions of the same idea - sticking to one vision makes us blind to other, potentially much better solutions.
- Involving the whole team - the more people create their own prototypes, the more diverse points of view and ideas you will get.
- Imposing restrictions - unlimited creative freedom is, paradoxically, the most significant restriction. Working with constraints, such as selecting a specific theme, is one of the best ways to unleash creativity and get ideas you wouldn't usually come up with. These are the principles of various Game Jams - the first versions of some cult productions, such as Hollow Knight, Superhot, or Mini Metro, were created.
- Using placeholders - you don't need to create detailed models for a prototype. As long as it is clear what the object in the game represents, you can even use stickmen and basic shapes. Have some assets from bundles you bought or from previous productions? Even better!
- Analyzing - just because an idea doesn't work doesn't mean it should end up in the bin right away. First, consider why it is not working. What's missing? Can we fix it relatively quickly in the next iteration? Maybe swinging a sword is not satisfying because the animation is a bit too slow? Or perhaps it is difficult to judge the range of the blow because the camera angle is weird? The same goes for working ideas! Understanding why something works can often make it easier to pinpoint why something else is not working. It is the knowledge that can be used for future projects.
What to avoid while prototyping a game?
- Spending too much time on a single prototype - prototyping shouldn't take more than a week.
Adding unnecessary details** - the prototype is supposed to work, not look like an almost finished product.
- Optimizing code and graphical assets - There will come a time to develop better solutions when you start building the core game. The placeholders and makeshift code are perfectly fine at this stage.
- "Imagine that ..." - although the visuals should be very simplified in prototypes, it should still be clear what is happening on the screen. Sometimes it's hard to find a way around it, especially in the case of animations. Still, we shouldn't build a level using just cubes and demand anyone to figure out that one of them is a loot box and not a trash can, for example. Sometimes a simple change is enough, such as giving our "box" a different color.
- Making one mega prototype instead of several separate ones - it's easy to try new solutions on already existing files and scripts. Unfortunately, this approach very quickly leads to clutter and the mixing up of lines of code. So if we test a completely different approach to the same problem, let's avoid building up what we already have.
There is no one pre-set recipe for a good prototype. It all depends on the project we are creating and what aspect we want to test. Just as there is no universal recipe for creating the perfect game, picture, or movie, you just have to combine and check different ideas like a scientist. Nevertheless, by following these few simple tips, you will be able to brainstorm much more efficiently! This way, you can extract the maximum amount of knowledge that will help you create even better games! :)