Originally published at blog.starvingindie.com on November 1, 2015.
2015 is coming to a close soon and it’s safe to say that this was the year of the prototype for Starving Indie. I went through a large volume of work and it’s because of this that I’ve grown more as a designer this year than in any other year. By creating a ton of prototypes, I feel I’ve created a solid game development methodology that should benefit anyone creating games by themselves or on a team.
As a result, in 2015 I was able to create close to 50 small games and prototypes as well as land my first industry job as a game designer for a top 50 mobile game company.
I’d like to share a couple philosophies I’ve developed over the year around prototypes and their importance for the growth of your skills. None of these ideas are wholly original and were largely inspired by Chris Hecker’s Advanced Prototyping, but they’re worth repeating none-the-less.
Games Evolve from Prototypes
When I began making games, I was under the impression that a game was formed in your head ready to be made. The reality is that game development is a process of iteration and refinement. It’s difficult to transform an idea that lives in your mind into something that is playable and fun. I like to think making games is a bit like connecting lego pieces. Each game mechanic is a lego block – nothing special on it’s own – but in combination with other mechanics you can create unique structures that are fun to interact with as a whole.
Think of prototyping as the creation of a single lego block. It has it’s own properties, shape, color and can work well with some blocks and not so well with others.
I believe the true value of game prototyping stems from the creation and collection of a bunch of mechanics – lego blocks as you will. The more legos you have, the more interesting things you can build.
Prototyping will always trump a Game Design Document or an idea in your head. This is because at the end of every prototype you’ve learned something about how an area of your idea works; not in theory, but in reality. The more prototypes you create, the more you’ll learn about any particular area of the game you want to build. No prototype is too small. Each one can contain a mini-lesson, that when combined with all your other prototypes, gives you a library of tools you can use to piece together something unique.
Good Prototypes Answer Good Questions
Prototypes should not be aimless. In order to get the most from your experiments, you should have a focused direction for what your building. A good way to make sure your on track with what your building is to have a question you want answered at the end of your session. The question could be as simple as “can I make a game using only three colors that is still visually appealing?” to “What’s the optimal way to implement a dialogue system that plays nicely with a prototype I made three months ago?”
For each prototype you make, you want to be able to walk away with something. Setting out to answer a question with your prototype ensures that you’ll at least take away some knowledge for your efforts – knowledge that can be used later down the line.
Prototypes Should Never Take A Long Time To Build
There is much to do and learn in game development. The trick is to learn quickly and keep a steady pace. Prototypes should never take more than a day or two, with the exception of some taking a week. If you can’t reasonably prototype your idea in a couple days, that only means that should be breaking down the idea even further.
Prototyping is not the time for perfection and polish. Sloppy code and ugly art is the name of the game. We’re trying to answer questions and learn new things and this requires getting a little messy and being content with having things duct tape together. Once it’s done, if the prototype really excites you, you can go back and rebuild it “correctly”. It shouldn’t have taken you long to build it in the first place, so little time was lost.
If You Want To Be The Idea Guy, Build A Library of Prototypes
This is something I’ve been working on the second half of this year. I have a folder on my hard drive called “The Trash Yard”. This is where all my crappy prototypes, ideas and failed games go to be archived. This is by far my prized possession because at any time, I can flip through a stack of prototypes and get inspired for my next project. These prototypes can be mixed and matched to create new prototypes or generate ideas for games.
Having a library of your work and small projects is great for a multitude of reasons. You can borrow resources you’ve already created to make your prototyping faster; you can become inspired by something you created months ago and explore it further; it’s a tangible record of all that you’ve learned and accomplished so far. Your prototype library acts as a journal of all your work that you can draw encouragement from when you feel like you’re going nowhere.
I hope these tips have encouraged you to make prototyping a daily routine. It’s been a tremendously valuable practice for me and I hope you find it helps you improve in the areas you’d like to grow in.
Let me know if you agree, disagree or are unsure about my claims – above all: Make Games!