Part 0 of 10: Tutorial (or Why Bother At All)
We use prototypes, even if we don’t know it.
A prototype is, essentially, the first instance of something. Before you make millions of it, you make one, so you can see if it’s worth taking the risks. On the most basic level, to prototype something means to try it out before employing it.
We do it all the time. We write code, which we test for bugs before letting anyone use it. We draw concept art, which we then throw away and draw a better one. Before cutscene, there is storyboard. Before we arrive at the final arrangement of features in our game, we keep tweaking them, shuffling them around, sometimes even reimagining them. The ultimate question that accompanies our effort is: “does it work”? “Is this fun”? When it's not, we need to redesign.
But prototyping is more than just trial and error. We pose a question; we perform an experiment; we draw conclusions. It often needs to be a guided process. We usually don’t build an entire feature from scratch, and then try it out. Major features, such as new multiplayer mode or AI-driven NPCs, are usually too complex for that. It’s difficult to grasp all their aspects at a glance, so we break them down into components and prototype those first. We don’t add anti-tank weapons to the game before we know we're going to put tanks in it.
Prototyping may sound technical, but it applies to the less tangible side of game development as well. Playtesting is not technical at all; it’s basically someone telling you if they’re having fun. An old, proven way to prototype gameplay is to turn you computer off and play a non-digital mockup. In one company I worked for, we used wooden blocks to compose rough models of level layouts. The slogan of the day is: “you get the idea”. Taking a step back and letting go of minutiae is often a good thing.
Prototypes like these are, by nature, imperfect. They don't have all parts in place, and the more they differ from the real thing, the more tempting it is to take shortcuts. Ideas are assumed, rather than tested. Abstract aspects of a given design are neglected, as it's way too easy to disregard something you can't hold in your hand. People are often confused as to whether the missing parts, such as “fun”, are missing from the prototype, or from the feature being prototyped. On top of that, most prototypes are useful in that they let us learn something about the concept we’re testing. But most people don’t want to learn; they just want to see final results, here and now.
These and other perils often cause the entire process to fail. The final result is that the game is not fun at all, and the team who made it are the last to get the news.
Lesson Learned: Prototyping exists, even if you don’t believe in it. Also, there will be a cheesy moral at the end of each part. Hope you'll enjoy the read anyway.