Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Prototyping: An Odyssey (Part II)

In Part I, scholar Altug Isigan looks to etymology and the Odyssey for lessons on prototyping. In Part II, he observes that prototyping is usually about aspiration towards a “product” -- a goal which can be plagued by overrepresentation or underrepresentation.

From Potentiality to Product

In his study The Greeks and Their Gods (1955), Guthrie elaborates on Aristotle’s philosophy. He notes that the notion of aspiration is central to Aristotle and his contemporaries. They see in nature and all its beings a potentiality that moves towards its actualization. It is the movement between an arkhos (the out-of-which) and a telos (the into-which). The process is completed when perfection (full-fledged functionality) is reached (p. 353-370).

We can build upon this Aristotelian vision: A prototype helps us in managing the potentialities of a game concept, and in transforming it into a functional representation of it. Basically, the prototype bridges the initial gap between the game concept and the audience that is intended to interact with. It provides a means and common ground for them to meet and see how they get along with each other. The first meeting will be evaluated and followed by others and the process will typically take the form of a refinement cycle which is carefully planned, guided and closely observed by the game designer.

Diagram 1: The Refinement Cycle.

It’s throughout the refinement cycle that the game concept (the onto-paper) is gradually transformed into a functional prototype (the into-paper).

Diagram 2: From gameplay visualization to functional representation of the game.

Obviously, the prototype’s most important contribution to the game development process is its power in simulating a running version of the game. It is a highly accurate and functional representation of the game, and hence invaluable for those who know what that means.

The Pitfalls of Representation

The level of accuracy to which a prototype represents the gameplay is crucial in successful prototyping. However, striving for accuracy has its pitfalls.

Two major problems that occur in the search for exactitude are caused by escalations in the representation. However, the two types of escalations we speak of are into opposing directions. Ironically, the result of both is (and feels) essentially the same: You’re getting lost.

Let’s have a closer look at how this happens:

The first type of escalation can be called Overrepresentation and has been best exemplified in an old tale recounted by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges (1999):

[…] In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. […] (Suarez Miranda, Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV,Cap. XLV, Lerida, 1658)

The lesson: Keep the scale of your representations on a perceptible level. If the representation grows into the size of what it ought to be a representation of, why are you calling it a representation anyway?

Ironically, trying to scale down the representation and divide it into manageable pieces can soon turn into another unpleasant situation: Fragmentation. This problem has been nicely explained by the Italian writer Italo Calvino in his Six Memos for the Next Millennium

Sometimes I try to concentrate on the story I would like to write, and I realize that what interests me is something else entirely or, rather, not anything precise but everything that does not fit in with what I ought to write—the relationship between a given argument and all its possible variants and alternatives, everything that can happen in time and space. This is a devouring and destructive obsession, which is enough to render writing impossible. In order to combat it, I try to limit the field of what I have to say, divide it into still more limited fields, then subdivide these again, and so on and on. Then another kind of vertigo seizes me, that of the detail of the detail of the detail, and I am drawn into the infinitesimal, the infinitely small, just as I was previously lost in the infinitely vast. (Calvino; 1988: 68)

The lesson: It’s not just their sizes that make things manageable. If you have too many of such ‘manageable pieces’ you’ll find yourself unable to manage them all. Limitation must have its limits or it becomes just another version of Overrepresentation.

…So far, the wind seems to be on our side, so let’s sail a bit more into this direction and see what other solutions we can find for the problems in prototyping.

Altug Isigan is a scholar at the Eastern Mediterranean University, Department of Radio-TV and Film, in sunny Famagusta, Cyprus, where he is writing a dissertation on narrative in games. You can read more of his work at his blog, the Ludosphere.


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