How to Prototype a Game in Under 7 Days: Tips and Tricks from 4 Grad Students Who Made Over 50 Games in 1 Semester

Gabler, K., Gray, K., Kucic, M., and S. Shodhan. “How to Prototype a Game in Under 7 Days: Tips and Tricks from 4 Grad Students Who Made Over 50 Games in 1 Semester”. Gamasutra. October 26, 2005.

Rapid is a state of mind

Rapid prototyping is more than just a useful tool in pre-production – it can be a way of life!

Embrace the possibility of failure – it encourages creative risk taking

A good rapid prototyper would realize that failure is ok! If you fail, there will be dozens more, and chances are, you’ll learn something anyway.

Enforce short development cycles (more time != more quality)

We found that generally any gameplay idea can be prototyped effectively in less than one week.

We found that there was no correlation between time spent in development and how successful the game ultimately turned out.

Constrain creativity to make you want it even more

Somehow, it became easier to be creative when there were restrictions in place.

With a team of people all simultaneously generating prototypes around a particular theme, there was some guarantee we would avoid attacking the same obvious gameplay mechanics.

Without solid thematic constraints, the games took longer to create, had less direction, and group unity deteriorated.

Gather a kickass team and an objective advisor – mindset is as important as talent

Each member of the team had to be comfortable with all aspects of game development.

It was important for everyone to approach this style of development with the understanding that design is paramount – everything else from art to engineering exists only to serve the final design.

Develop in parallel for maximum splatter

The benefits of not collaborating:

  • Risk Mitigation – By developing four prototypes simultaneously, we could make risky design decisions with the comfort that at least one or two were likely to be successful
  • Friendly Competition – Everyone benefited from being kept on their toes. Like capitalism!
  • Wider thematic exploration – Four minds all focused on the same theme forced us to plumb the depths of each topic. How embarrassing it would be if we all made the same game! This forced us into some rewarding creative realms and allowed us to avoid obvious points of attack.
  • Sharing and Caring – Though we didn’t share code (by choice, not requirement), we found it helpful to share concepts and understanding into a cumulative pool of knowledge. If one team member, for instance, discovered an effective way to represent spring systems, everyone would benefit.

We found that having the team work together was most valuable at the beginnings and ends of each cycle.

Design: creativity and the myth of brainstorming

Formal brainstorming has a 0% success rate

Not a single one was the result of sitting down as a group for a brainstorm session.

It appears that you just cannot schedule creativity.

Two reasonable things you can expect from a well-conducted brainstorm session:

  • It gets everybody thinking
  • Useful when there is something concrete to talk about

Gather concept art and music to create an emotional target

In many cases, the soundtrack and initial art created a combined feeling that drove much of the gameplay decisions, story, and final art.

Simulate in your head – pre-prototype the prototype

All you have to do is imagine your game audience saying, “Wow!” And then just work backward and fill in the blanks.

Development: nobody knows how you made it, and nobody cares

Build the toy first

This “toy” should be the core mechanic of the game minus any goals or decisions.

If you can get away with it, fake it

Often the “correct” solution is not the best solution.

Strategically faking it will save you time and money; it will make your game faster.

Cut your losses and “learn when to shoot your baby in the crib”

It’s important to quickly recognize dead-end game ideas, cut your losses and move on.

Heavy theming will not salvage bad design (or “you can’t polish a turd”)

Game players are smarter than you think, and they can tell when you’re pulling a fast one on them.

But overall aesthetic matters! apply a healthy spread of art, sound, and music

Playing with a well-polished game actually feels better in your hands than playing the exact same code but with careless art and poor sound.

Polishing the aesthetic (as in the above section) will still not salvage bad design, but it does have the power to make a good game even more playable.

Nobody cares about your great engineering

“Correct” or “reusable” solutions are often not what we look for in quick throwaway code.

For every problem, you should be able to come up with a large handful of solutions and be prepared to pick the one that gets the job done – fast.

General gameplay: sensual lessons in juicy fun

Complexity is not necessary for fun

If mankind can entertain itself for literally thousands of years with variations on the theme of “ball and a flat surface”, we might be trying too hard with some of this new-fangled video game stuff.

Prove to yourself that your core mechanic is worthwhile with a simple prototype. Once you’re convinced, then you can make it pretty.

Create a sense of ownership to keep ’em crawling back for more

The games with the greatest replay value were the ones that had some sort of creation or customization aspect.

Create a sense of ownership to keep ‘em crawling back for more.

“Experimental” does not mean “complex”

Unless we could minimize the confusion time before the “oh I get it” moment, we knew we risked that players would get frustrated and never play the game again and possibly never come back to our site.

Build toward a well defined goal

Without a gameplay goal, a prototype is just a toy – not a game.

Make it juicy!

A juicy game feels alive and responds to everything you do – tons of cascading action and response for minimal user input. It makes the player feel powerful and in control of the world, and it coaches them through the rules of the game by constantly letting them know on a per-interaction basis how they are doing.

Final thoughts

“Rapid prototyping can be a lot like conceiving a child. No one expects a winner every time, but you always walk away having learned something new, and it’s usually a lot of fun!”

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