Effeciency vs. Presentation - how to make early prototypes!

I think it is nothing new to claim that Time is the most valuable of all resources you can muster in, well, everything. Work especially so, hobby as well. Money? Sure, needed for lots of things, but ultimately time trump it without effort. Why I am writing about it? Because of one little issue I saw more than a few times in my local game testing groups and game designer events. Enough, in fact, to inspire me to write this down for your benefit! The question or rather a power struggle of today is Presentation over Affordability – how refined your prototype should be.

This is actually quite a big topic on a true balancing act. How to prepare our game idea to be shown to people, how it should look to convey the very core concepts without effort or overcomplicating it. And how to do it with as minimal effort as possible!

Wait, what? Minimal effort? I’d say yes to that, because spending big amount of time on a first few prototypes of your idea is ultimately the biggest waste of all – a waste of time. See, pulling all-nighters to develop some graphically rich prototype components have it merits, and I will list them soon, but in the end and in nearly 99 out of 100 situations (if not even more!) all your work will be scrapped, for plenty of reasons. The most basic would be scrapping the game idea, but even any major change in the mechanics or components would make you slave over a new version of the game for further testing, and all the time you put into developing a nice looking prototype would just evaporate like gossamer on a heated, summer day.

An example of very simple card design for Mishmash: Galaxy first test prototype.

On the other hand preparing a prototype on a scraps of torn paper, with things dotted down with pencils and unreadable scribbles, with any crumpled bits of cardboard acting as necessary tokens and such is not quite a good idea either. Oh it might be just a thing you need for yourself or your immediate idea bouncer to simply check if it holds any merit, but when you’re ready to bring your game to the audience that will be testing it, you really should put some effort into it… However not to make it flashy, but to make it playable. There are few little things you should take into consideration here:

- Clarity of purpose. This one is, as I found out during testing, the key. When you prepare your cards, your tokens, your boards, they don’t have to be flashy and good looking. They don’t have to make people gasp in astonishment and delight. In fact, that’s not the thing you need to test – you want to know if the game works and flows properly, and to ensure that you can do so without a hitch, you have to make your components as intuitive and easy to read as possible. No one should guess what the icons represents, no one should squint to read the text. Don’t be afraid to spell out even the most obvious things on them, because what is obvious for you, it might not be so for anyone else. After all you have the idea of the game in your head. No one else know it.

- Ease of manufacture. Now it’s time to treat yourself. Think of every single prototype as of utterly and absolutely disposable thing. Treat them, like if you could give them away without a thought, fully knowing that you could cut out a new one in moments. Of course this is not as easy as it sounds, depending on the scale of your game, but that’s basically why you should keep it in mind during the process. Ensure that all files are easy to print and cut out, utilise space well on the paper, figure out what you can cut off from the game and what can be changed into any simpler solution that can still work exactly as you need it. When you manage to make components, that you can manufacture without feeling like battling a tedious chore, you’re in a good spot!

- Have a manual. Okay, this one is disputable and on forums dedicated to game design, you will see a lot of people talking for or against it, both sides having their arguments. I myself believe that manual is one of these few things that should always be there, mostly because it require little effort to produce and provide even with every iteration of the project. Don’t get me wrong, making a good manual is a terribly hard job, but the key here is to ensure two things. First, testing the rulebook from start – I can’t stress how vital it is to forge a manual, that players can use and seamlessly play the game without you needed there to explain it! And second, because it add a proper rigidness to the testing process. When a situation arise during gameplay that require smoothing out, consult the manual and check if it is there or not. See what you missed and be sure to add it next time or fix the game to root the issue out.

A highly polished endline prototype for Publish or Perish, ready to be sent for reviewers and shown to publishers.

Does it mean that prototypes always have to be this simple, geometric things with basic shapes and Times New Roman taken straight from Microsoft Word? Well, of course not, but it should still serve a clear purpose, and the quality of it should depends heavily on what we are going to do with it… If I am preparing a game to present to a publisher, of course I’ll put some extra effort into it to polish it up, make it gleam. But If I just need it to check the idea and play out the mechanics, slaving over cool looking cards is just some sort of tickling my sense of self-satisfaction.

Hope this little article will help you out with narrowing your focus when working on early prototypes. And perhaps you can tell me if I skipped something? Or maybe you disagree with this ideas and would like to dot down why a higher quality prototype is superior? If so, be sure to share!

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