What you should know about game prototypes

You got it. You have THE game idea of the year, maybe the one of the century. It is so awesome that you know the game industry will never be the same after that. You start writing everything down, sometimes shaped as a small note on a post-it, some other times as a 552 pages document with charts, drawings and strong references. After seconds or days of labour you are now sure that what you have in your hands is unique and perfect. Great. Good news is, you might actually have something good in hands. Bad news is, ideas are worth nothing, only execution makes the difference.

Idea is king. Execution is King Kong! Ville Simola

To help you create the best piece of game possible out of your initial idea, a very powerful tool exists. It’s called a prototype.

Size matters.

A lot of people still mix up prototype and alpha. Don’t be one of these fools. A prototype is something small, so dirty you can’t show it without being ashamed, but it’s something that helps you to be sure your “awesome” game idea is worth investing months or years of development on it.

You don’t need tons of documents or fancy pictures. You don’t need hundred of detailed references. You don’t need a team of 200 people. What you need is just to know what you are doing. And what you are doing can be extracted and called the core mechanics.

Finding the right perimeter is the hardest part of the development. What you are looking for is the very core of your game. Your goal is to keep only the gameplay mechanics that actually define your game. With that in mind you can trash the beautiful art, the incredible game flow, the subtle animation, and all the special effects and shaders. Focus on your core gameplay. Focus on the game heart. And give yourself a month or two.

Timing is essential

Timing is important. If you spend too much time on it you may risk to exhaust your resources for nothing. If you spend not enough time on it you may risk to miss potential tricky parts on the way, ending up not being prepared enough when the actual production starts. Usually every prototype can be done in a month or two. Every prototype! Not more.

Don’t be perfect, be efficient.

In order to keep the right pace and test what you have even with a short schedule it’s important you don’t look for perfection. You have to be efficient. Don’t try to have a subtle, optimized and beautiful code. You don’t have time for that and there is no point in spending this time on these subjects. Make something that works instead of something perfect that will probably work in two years.

After a month of work you might be worried because you end up with something monstruous? An ugly baby with 6 arms and no nose? Great, that’s exactly what you were aiming for. As long as what you have done shows the potential of your initial idea and help you understand what the final code architecture should be, you have done a great job.

Making something ugly very fast can be a lot of fun! It’s so different than the perfectly crafted code you do every day that you might enjoy it a lot. However you should take care to not lose yourself in it. Don’t forget that the prototype is just the first phase of the development. The pre-production will follow right after that. Don’t ever work that way once the prototype period is over.

Don’t lose yourself with awesome new features.

When you work on a new concept it can be very easy to discover new ideas or game mechanics that would perfectly fit your idea while you’re developing the game code base. Don’t worry it’s natural. Natural, but dumb. Don’t add anything that wasn’t planed to your prototype. Adding something means changing the deadline. Not a good idea. Don’t fall into the eternal prototyping pit. Focus on the core system, and only the core. There are very few chances that your awesome new ideas have an impact on the core mechanics of your game, so there is absolutely no need for them to be in the prototype at all.

Once your prototype is over, if it sucks and you can’t find fun in it, no fancy features will help you, whatever the extra-time you spend adding new things. Your concept sucked. Don’t cry. Get over it. Good news is you have spent only one month on it and learnt some new things on the way.

You’ll save time by doing everything twice

You might wonder how something as awesome as your game can be built on so ugly foundations. And you’re right. It would be silly to try to build a palace of code on a pile of garbage. That’s why you will have to trash it all before starting the production.

Oh come on, don’t scream about that non-agile idea of trashing things. You have spent a month working on something to be sure that the game you had in mind is possible and has potential. Your goal was to learn what your game concept implied in term of development and to spot tricky points on the way. Now that you know how things have to work to make your game real, rebuilding everything from scratch will be very easy. With your new knowledge you can now rewrite your one month prototype within a week.

It’s important to not see the time invested as something you lose by trashing the prototype code. You should see this as experience gained and a better vision of what the game architecture should be.

Please, please, don’t base your game on a code base written for a prototype.

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