[This article has been first published during GDAM's June rally.]
In today’s game industry, prototyping is usually about aspiration towards a “product” -- a goal which results in an emphasis on control during creative processes. I believe that in the quest for a more fruitful management of potentialities, there are some lessons to be learned from impulse-driven portfolio philosophies. I will claim that the most valuable product of prototyping is not a better game, but a better game designer.
In Search of Full Sail
When I decided to write this article, the first thing I did was to look up the word prototype. To my surprise, I found that it was rooted in a combination of the Old Greek words protos and typus: “first impression”. I thought that most game designers would find this to be a very appropriate definition. Delving deeper into the etymology of the word, I found out that it was connected to the adjective ‘protean’ (someone or something taking on varied shapes), which in return was generated from the name of an oracular ancient deity with the name Proteus. At the very moment in which I decided to have a closer look at this deity, I had already triggered a trap: Before I even realized, I was thrown into an odyssey that would carry me through the vast seas of prototyping. Would I be able to find my way back home? Only the winds knew the answer.Indeed, it is one of Odysseus’ close friends -Menelaus, husband of the beautiful Helen of Troy- who, in Homer’s Odyssea, mentions the name of Proteus. In an account of what happened to the many heroes of the Trojan War on the way back to their homes, Menelaus tells Telemakhos also the story of his own adventurous return to Lakedaimon (Odyssea, Chapter IV: In Lakedaimon, verses 350-570): He and his friends get stuck on the island of Pharos, where for weeks and weeks there is no wind to fill their sails. Eventually they find themselves plagued by scarcity and face starvation. The exhausted Menelaus finally realizes that the reason for this abnormal situation must be a curse of a god that he must have failed to please. But which one, and what wrong had he done? Obviously, only an oracular would be able to tell him these secrets. But where on this abandoned island could he find such a gifted person? It’s Eidothoe (Ido) who suggests him a solution: She says that he must seek the help of Proteus, a prophetic sea god that frequently visits the shores of Pharos with his flock of seals. There is a problem though: Proteus doesn’t like to share his wisdom with others, and should anyone attempt to force him to prophecize, then he pulls off some stunning tricks that help him to escape.
“Proteus possessed the gift of prophecy, a gift he could avoid using by utilizing his ability to metamorphose at will. In an instant he could become fire, flood, or wild beast. However, if a person held him fast, no matter what form he assumed, he would eventually return to his normal form and deliver the truth.” (Dixon-Kennedy; 1998: 263)
Menelaus, determined to escape the island, prepares a trap, and with the help of his friends he captures Proteus, who, after some wild shapeshifting, eventually normalizes and tells Menelaus the reason that got him stuck. With this vital information, Menelaus manages to bring back the winds and re-opens the sea routes that will lead him to his beloved lands of Lakedaimon.
I must admit that I was enchanted by this myth. It was a wonderful metaphor for prototyping and captured its essence perfectly. Let’s look at the elements of this myth:
- Metamorphoses: the ability to assume many forms in rapid succession.
- Prophecy: the revelation of the mistakes you were unaware of at the time you made them; and directives on what course to take in order to repair the damage that they have done.
- Exactitude (As an extension of the Prophecy element): The Oracle of Delphoi carried the inscription “Know thyself!”, an inscription that has been often interpreted as “Know your problem!” or “Have a clearly formulated question!”. Otherwise the answer of the Oracle will sound cryptic and useless.
- Teamwork: You can’t fasten Proteus all by yourself; you need the help of a group of dedicated and determined people.
So, what’s prototyping then? Following the myth of Proteus, it is –together with your comrades– to hold tight onto the prototype –and your question!–, and not to allow yourselves to be fooled by the many shapes it will assume. If you’re determined enough and hold on tight, finally the prototype will be tamed: Your mistakes as well as the steps you need to take for the future will be revealed to you.
Now, as we seem to have some wind filling our sails, let’s move quickly to our next topic.
Working at the Pace of MindThere are many fascinating things about prototypes and prototyping. We can summarize the most important points as follows:
- Sustainability: Prototyping is a (relatively) cheap and repeatable process.
- Flexibility: You can prototype almost anything, with anything (and anyone).
- Safety: You don’t risk to waste expensive code or art during or after experimentation. More than that, you protect yourself from wasting such expensive assets in the future, because the prototype will help you to tell into which assets to invest and into which ones not.
- Modularity (Scalability): Like a magnifying glass, you can zoom into particular game mechanics or zoom out to see the interactions between them.
- Responsiveness: Instantly make changes and receive feedback on them. A prototype is functional, interactive, up-and-running.
- Collaboration: Although it mostly starts alone, prototyping can be easily expanded to include friends, team members, producers and executives or members of the target audience.
- Control (Manageability): You can always take a step back and reconsider things, until you feel that you’ve cleared it all up and are ready to proceed with the next step. You have control over the goal, scope, ‘question(s)’ and what not’s of the process.
- Experimentation: (Almost) anything goes! It is the playground of the imaginative and innovative mind.
However, there is one thing that is the ultimate argument in favor of prototyping, and that is its pace and exactitude. These qualities can make them so persuasive that it made one game designer to speak of prototypes as “powerful ninjas” who can “move mountains” and “cut all debate with one swift movement” (Gingold, in Fullerton, 2008: 184). Is that to say that a prototype works at the pace of the mind? Not always, but probably it is the method closest to cope with the pace of the imaginative mind. And when it’s done well, a prototype becomes the sharpest of arguments, like the sword of a ninja.
…We’ve made quite some way already, but there is still a lot to discover in these waters… See those islands over there? Let’s go and check them out!
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 it 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.
It’s throughout the refinement cycle that the game concept (the onto-paper) is gradually transformed into a functional prototype (the into-paper).
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 heading 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):
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?
[…] 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)
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:
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.
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)
…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.
The Eye that Stuns, the Path that Saves
In a very intriguing passage about the values of lightness in literary creation, Italo Calvino takes a look at how Perseus overcame the terrifying Medusa. The answer, according to Calvino, lies in the indirect approach that Perseus adopted as he fought the monster. Perseus did not carry out his fight against her, but around her (1988: 4-7). I’d like to claim that this principle provides us with a metaphor of the prototyping process. Consider the diagram below:
The safest way -if you don’t want to get stunned- is to avoid the ‘eye’ of the prototyping process (the Everything). Instead you have to walk carefully around the ‘eye’, and stay on the triangular track that leads around it and only take one step at a time when you move between neighboring areas.
…Until here, the focus of our voyage was on control. We explored the ways to foster a meaningful level of exactitude in our prototypes. We discussed methods on how to survive the complexities of prototyping. We realized that it is not only possible, but also necessary to exercise a certain level of control over the prototyping process. Maybe it is now the time to sail into the rather untamed waters of prototyping. I feel a fresh wind coming up and I’d say let’s not miss this chance and sail into more playful waters.
Prototyping with a Portfolio Philosophy
In the preface to Emily Dickinson’s Collected Poems, Thomas Wentworth Higginson quotes the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson as having described Dickinson’s work as the “poetry of the portfolio” (in Dickinson; 1991: 13). Higginson continues by saying that hers was poetry “produced absolutely without the thought of publication and by way of expression of the writer’s own mind” (p.13). Higginson concludes that the writer enjoyed a level of freedom that allowed for her “unconventional uttering of daring thoughts” and indifference towards the expectations of the ‘poetry of the establishment’ (pp.13-15).
It can be said that the “philosophy of the portfolio” is vital in the prototyping process, too. As much as there is a need for control, there is also a need for just forgetting about goals and deadlines and other restrictions for a while and see where the expression of our own minds carries us. As dangerous as this might look to a producer or all other “sane” members on a development team, there opens itself to us a new gate to unimagined potentialities.
Dickinson is known for the various renderings of her poems. Crafting a poem was an open process of writing many a poems that could have been that poem (or not). The process was free from any marketing concerns. In this free-flow process, there came to day a multitude of potentialities which served as a ground for “happy accidents”, as Elizabeth Jennings (in Dickinson; 1991: 385) calls them. This was not so much about reaching an end product as it was about maintaining an energy field in constant flux which in it held together the echoes of all previous prototypes (and those to come). Despite the emphasis on the process over the product, it is especially worth mentioning that with over 2000 poems to her account, Dickinson has been a very productive writer.
We will name here two lines of thought in creativity and innovation -both being in favor of vibration, flux, and multitude- that connect to this fruitful experimental “philosophy of the portfolio”:
One of the lines can be exemplified in Roland Barthes’ idea of a mathesis singularis (in Calvino; 1988: 65), the science of the partial (in contrast to mathesis universalis, the science of universals). Another example within this line of thought can be found in Robert Musil’s novel Der Mann Ohne Eigenschaften (The Man without Qualities). In a passage of the novel, the main character Ulrich mentions “mathematical problems that did not admit of any general solution, though they did admit of particular solutions, the combination of which could bring one closer to the general solution.” (in Calvino; 1988: 11) This line seems to be a foundation for an open-ended inductive approach in experimental game design of which Björk/Holopainen’s Game Design Patterns philosophy (2005) could be seen as a variant of.
The other line connects to the modern literary movement of creating a “machine for multiplying narratives” (Calvino; 1988: 120) as being observed in some of the works of Raymond Queneau (A Hundred Billion Poems) and Georges Perec (Life, A Manual), both being members of the experimental literature movement Oulipo (an abbreviation in French for “Workshop of Potential Literature”). Here, the goal is to create clockworks of/for potentialities; a system/mechanism which inexhaustibly generates permutations and variations of its own by using what it is constituted of. No need to say that these types of concerns are among the most central themes in today’s debates on the narrative potentialities of interactive digital products (such as games).
It is obvious that the “philosophy of the portfolio” might serve as a basis for a “Workshop of Potential Gameplay”. Getting this sort of philosophy incorporated into the formal processes of the profit-seeking industries might be also one of the ways to answer the repeated calls for “art games”.
…The winds were generous, my friends, and they carried us along the vast seas of prototyping. Is it only me, or do you too smell the scent of flowers and trees? Could it be that these green hills at a distance are the hills of our beloved lands? And isn’t that a bay over there, the bay of our city, with all those ships and buildings embracing each other? It seems like we will soon be at home; and now it’s the waves of excitement and joy that seem to carry our ship. So let us be quick and clear up the remaining issues, since wewill have to part soon.
Crystal, Flame... or Both?
From what we have discovered in our odyssey so far, we can say that prototyping might benefit from the unification of two seemingly contradictory approaches, the controlled and the impulsive approach… Or, as Italo Calvino’s calls them, the traditions of the Crystal and the Flame (1988: 71). Let’s compare their characteristics:
Impulse-drive rush into extremes
Chaos (Happy accidents)
The forking paths of Life
Order out of noise
The Crystal can be summarized as the “union of a spontaneous logic of images and a plan carried out on the basis of a rational intention”. The Flame on the other hand sees “imagination as a means to attain a knowledge that is outside the individual, outside the subjective”; it’s an attempt to “identify with the world soul” (Calvino; 1988: 91). What does a possible combination of the both look like? Let us listen again to Italo Calvino:
[The third way is] imagination as a repertory of what is potential, what is hypothetical, of what does not exist and has never existed, and perhaps will never exist but might have existed... [It is the] spiritus phantasticus [...] that is, a world or a gulf, never saturable, of forms and images. So, then, I believe that to draw on this gulf of potential multiplicity is indispensable to any form of knowledge. The poet's mind, and at a few decisive moments the mind of the scientist, works according to a process of association of images that is the quickest way to link and to choose between the infinite forms of the possible and the impossible. The imagination is a kind of an electronic machine that takes account of all possible combinations and chooses the ones that are appropriate to a particular purpose, or are simply the most interesting, pleasing, or amusing. (Calvino; 1988:91)
You are a game designer in the 21st century, an age of goals and expectations; milestones, deadlines, products, profit. It’s true, these are your realities and you have to deal with them. But if you look carefully into the office spaces around you, you will see a repertory of potential or hypothetical game designers that do not exist, that have never existed, and perhaps will never exist, but yet might have existed.Recall their designs.
…There we are, my friends, arrived at home, in safety, reunited with our beloved (and within our selves). We’ve grown during our voyage, and now let me share with you, my loyal comrades, what I’ve learned for myself from this our odyssey.
The Voyager is the Voyage
Calmly watching the sea from a height, and facing the sinking sun, I hear my inner voice saying: “Every finished prototype is an exploration of the potentiality of the game designer. It is the game designer, as a multitude of potentialities, who refines himself with every new prototype he makes.”
The ultimate result of prototyping is not a better product; it is a better game designer.
A seasoned designer knows that the secret of the ninja is not his pace or her exactitude, nor the sharp sword, but the preparedness for the decisive move when the time for it has come. This is a quality that one gains though experience in both control and impulse. Ironically, exactitude is oftentimes a matter of approximation, and pace oftentimes a matter of patience. I believe that for the aspiring game designer (the designer-as-prototype, the designer-as-potentiality), there is one great motto to adopt: festina lente: hurry slowly.
Allow me to bid farewell to you with a short story about a Chinese artist:
Among Chuang-tzu's many skills, he was an expert draftsman. The king asked him to draw a crab. Chuang-tzu replied that he needed five years, a country house, and twelve servants. Five years later the drawing was still not begun. "I need another five years," said Chuang-tzu. The king granted them. At the end of these ten years, Chuang-tzu took up his brush and, in an instant, with a single stroke, he drew a crab, the most perfect crab ever seen. (Calvino: 1988: 54)
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Calvino, Italo (1988). Six Memos for the Next Millennium. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
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