Monday, June 29, 2009

Simple Prototypes; Complex Virtual Worlds (Part I)

In Part I of this article, Dr. Ricardo Rademacher, CEO of Futur-E-Scape, begins his journey of creating a virtual world prototype by reviewing the existing literature on prototyping.

Prototyping is a word you will hear time and time again in the production of a game and often touted as the most important phase of game development. Given that it is the first incarnation of your game idea or game world, mistakes and success at this early stage can multiply as the project goes forward. But what exactly IS a prototype? And what does a prototype mean in the context of creating a virtual world?

In my own personal attempts to create a virtual world, I have created several versions and called all of them a prototype. And in my experience, while the definition of a prototype is elusive there is a key characteristic that is universally agreed upon: simplicity is the key to prototyping. The simpler the system, the quicker you can get to testing gameplay. As well, it is easier to fix a simple system rather than a complex interrelated one. However when we apply this definition to the creation of a virtual world, we come upon an immediate stumbling block: Virtual worlds are not simple. And thus my journey through the prototypes has been a journey of reconciling the simplicity of a prototype with the complexity of a virtual world. What follows is a quick survey of what others have to say about prototypes and a few personal thoughts on how to apply simplicity to a virtual world prototype.

There is a certain common sense element to how we define a prototype. We somehow just "know" what it is or isn't, even if we can’t exactly define it. Even on paper, there is no clear definition. For example, Jeanne Novak (Game Development Essentials, 2009) defines a prototype as a “A working piece of software that captures on-screen the essence of what makes your game special, what sets it apart from the rest, and what will make it successful.” While she goes on to suggest that prototyping should be done using non-computer resources (like board or card games), this is of little help when trying to determine what you prototype about your virtual world design. We also have Meigs (Ultimate Game Design, 2003) who has this to say on the subject: “Short of complete actual engines, there is no way to test game ideas in any efficient way. Some game ideas, by definition, are easier to prototype than others.” Therefore we are left with not only an ambiguous definition but also a pessimistic one.

There are however a few resources that give us more concrete guidance. Salen and Zimmerman (Rules of Play, 2004) give us the following advice: “early prototypes are not pretty. […] still, the prototype is more than an interactive slideshow --- it is a genuinely playable game that begins to address game design challenges of the project as a whole." They point out the development speed benefits of using simple programming languages and techniques for your prototype. So from this we can take away that our prototype should be simple and quickly developed so as to address issues in game design early in the development schedule. Richard Bartle (Designing Virtual Worlds, 2003) gives us a little more targeted advice: "prototypes are necessary partly for commercial reasons -- they demonstrate to investors that the team can produce the goods […].” And thus from this we see that the prototype can serve a function beyond that of merely testing gameplay.

Dr. Ricardo Rademacher is a native Chilean who obtained his Physics PhD in 2002 and is the founder and CEO of Futur-E-Scape, LLC. Created in 2004, this company is dedicated to the creation and research of educational virtual worlds. He also speaks at various educational and entertainment conferences and has written several publications on these subjects.

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