Build your first prototype as early as you can. Your first prototype does not have to be pretty, doesn’t have to be seen by anyone else, it just has to exist. The benefits of producing your first prototype are numerous. A first prototype gives you a new level of focus, gives your idea a new level of realism, allows you to see pieces move around and others.
Makes Your Game Tangible and Real
We all have notebooks and other bits of paper with ideas written down about potential game ideas. Designers are really good at thinking and re-thinking about the games they want to build. We can frame out our games on paper and even write down a first rules set. This is all well and good, but if we don’t take the step of prototyping, our games never gain a level of tangibility. Taking out some index cards and color pencils is a huge step to give your game idea its first legs. What was once an idea in your head and written down in your notebook, is now a real thing that you can play and manipulate to move your game farther down the development process.
New Found Realism Provides New Focus
Designers are really good at coming up with ideas. I currently have 60-70 potential ideas in my notebook. When we take the step of prototyping our better ideas, it makes it easier for us to ignore the fringe ideas and focus on the prototype in front of us. When you have the choice of working out of your notebook or working on the basic prototype, there is a good chance you will be able to focus on the prototype. The basic prototype will become a first playable prototype sooner than you that.
Prototypes can lead to Thematic and Mechanical Discoveries
When you have your first basic prototype made out of index cards and dice, you will be able to move around the pieces and cards and get to see the logistical realities of your idea. Some paper ideas may not work as well in practice and playing around with your prototype might inspire you to take the game down a different path. Maybe you are starting with a theme and the way the pieces move around the board/table don’t really make sense with what you want the players to experience. Maybe you are starting with a mechanic and you find that your idea is close but there is a slight tweak you need to make for the mechanic to really work.
When you build a prototype, it takes a little bit of time. Even if you are using index cards and card sleeves, you will be immersed in your game and there will be all kinds of ideas or directions you will generate while you are building the prototype. The earlier you start the process, the more flexibility in the design development you will have to make changes without having to rip out large chunks of the game. If you wait until late in the development process to build a prototype, then get to the prototype build and find out that the mechanic doesn’t work in tangible form, you may have to make larger changes to your game that you never intended to or want to make. This runs a real danger of hurting your focus for the game because starting over can be difficult when you really want your game to work.
Prototypes Get Played!
If you have a group of friends or know a group of local designers that are willing to give your rough prototypes a play, you will get to play your game! And that is the point of what we love to do. We want to create the sculpture that is building a game and getting to see your idea played, gets some feedback and move the game forward in the design process is invigorating. The best part of early play is there are NO EXPECTATIONS. If you have a good group of play testers, then you have nothing to worry about. If the game bombs, shelve it and move to the next game. If you and your friends can see the game but there are things that need to be added or removed, make the changes, build your next prototype and play again. If the game is good as it is and fun, there is no way you will want to jump back into your notebook of ideas, you will be hooked on the idea of your new prototype and how to get it to a public prototype stage.
This is just a starter list of the benefits of making a prototype early in the process. If you don’t prototype your games, they will never get played and watching your games played by other people is a huge reward. I wish I could give an award to all the designers out there who get their game played by a stranger because that is a real achievement. Prototypes are a lot of fun to make and since they are a MAJOR part of the development process, you may as well start as early as possible.
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If you have made it this far, would you like to go a little farther? We have a regular Google hangout with other designers. We talk about the games we are working on and share helpful tips and ideas on how to make designing our game easier. We meetup every other Saturday. Either comment here or tweet me or email me and I will add you to the list and send you a link to the Google hangout.