Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Simplicity is the Glory of Prototyping

In this article, programmer Nels Anderson explains how to maximize the benefits of prototyping.

Prototyping is one of the most important phases of pre-production and it is important that the (likely limited) time spent prototyping is made as productive as possible. Some studios are renowned for the amount of resources dedicated to prototyping. Unfortunately, most do not have access to a bottomless wellspring of money and time. One way to help maximize the value of prototyping is to think of it as brainstorming with evaluation.

Ultimately, prototyping really is a collection of brainstormed ideas that have been taken farther than a white board or sticky notes. Keeping that spirit of brainstorming is important to successful prototyping. Successful brainstorm means getting through as many ideas as possible, not dwelling on minutia related to just a few ideas. Similarly, it's important not to dwell on details while evaluating prototypes. This means prototyping as quickly as possible.

As my background and daily work is partially in engineering, it pains me to write this, but prototypes should not be coded unless they absolutely must. There's simply too much setup time involved in getting code prototypes up and running. There's a feeling of tangibility and permanence that can come with coded prototypes, which can be detrimental to rapid iteration. Use paper prototypes whenever possible, because no matter how good your programmers are, heavy stock paper, scissors and markers are faster. When prototypes require code, still push for as much expeditiousness as possible. Use Flash, Director, Panda3D or even Unity if you have a team member familiar with such. Steal as much existing work as you can, from other projects, public mods (if appropriate), wherever you can. And, above all else, plan to throw any code you write away before starting the project in earnest.

A fantastic example of this is when EA Blackwood was prototyping Skate. The prototyping team connected the control logic to a simple text output. No animation or rendering at all. But this prototype let the team gain a clear understanding of how the game would feel and that it was enjoyable to play.

Also, always include an artist in your prototyping. Not only can this help visualize what a prototype can grow into, but much of the initial creative process occurs during prototyping. Having an artist supporting the prototyping can keep those creative juices flowing and take things in directions that simply might not happen solely with written and spoken brainstorming. But as with the engineers, artists during prototypes must work as quickly as possible. Several rough sketches with only a small area coloured and filled in with detail are far more useful than a single immaculate, detailed and coloured piece. Be as broad with art prototypes as possible and don't emphasize areas of the prototype that are vague or likely to be changed.

Lastly, include audio in prototypes, especially music. As much as an artist can help evoke certain aesthetics during the prototype, music can help establish thematic tones that will take prototypes in more valuable directions. It gives a prototype more substance and can help you visualize what a more complete experience will feel like. Even if it's just a paper prototype, play some thematically similar music on a stereo in the background. Kyle Gabler, one of the developers of World of Goo, advocates getting music into your game as soon as possible, possibly even before you have a solid idea of what your game actually is. Use temp tracks if you must, but do be careful about inadvertently falling in love with them.

I believe the value of prototyping is directly proportional to the number of iterations that can be achieved. Do whatever you can to make that prototyping faster, more substantive and more evocative. The more ideas that can be brainstormed and evaluated, the more likely it is you're going to hit on something truly fantastic.

Nels Anderson is a programmer at Hothead Games. He's probably the only game developer in Vancouver (and maybe all of Canada) that was born and raised in Wyoming. He writes about games and game design on his blog, Above 49.


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