RECAP: GameDev Talks 2 - Prototyping a Game
Part 2 of the Project PIGI Series is a talk on the topic of game prototyping. Once game developers have dipped into the waters of getting serious about their game ideas, the next step is their proof of concept. But how does one go about the prototyping stage? The speakers Paul Gadi, Fahmi Hasni, Javi Almirante, Roan Contreras and Robert Edward Cruz lent their experience of building prototypes for aspiring game developers. Now that you have a game idea that you’re eager to prove and build, how do you produce such an asset, and how will you know if it’s a worthwhile investment of your time and effort? Read on to find out. Why is it important for game developers to make a prototype for their game? It’s important to have a prototype, because at the start of your project you have a pitch, usually in paper format. Sometimes this doesn’t convince your intended audience about the viability of your game. The prototype will be able to speak for itself. It gets you started on the overall game that you want to sell. Prototyping also has a lot to do with learning. Since not all games are made for profit reasons, prototypes are also helpful for testing out mechanics, trying out new things, and just figuring out if your game idea is fun, feasible, and scalable. You want to find that out before wasting your time and resources, and help you make a scope and schedule. It will also help you convince yourself and your team that your game is worth pursuing! What is the prototyping phase process like? Roan: It depends on how you want to interpret the game. You can use a visualization program that you are comfortable with. Sometimes I like to prototype on paper, and I also use Powerpoint and Visual Studio console apps. Once it’s in application form I can do things and “hack” it. Some of the files I use are recycled from past games. Fahmi: I’m the kind of developer who’s unreliable because I cannot code, I cannot draw, and I cannot make music. But I have one skill that I’m pretty confident at: I’m good at bullshit or selling ideas. I’m a writer and I used to be a marketer, so the way I prototype is by making a pitch deck - explaining how the game will play and how much it will need to make. Robert: Prototyping is part of what we call the pre-production phase. We give ourselves the time to prepare the art and core game mechanics and write the GDD (game design document) as much as we can. We follow the concept of “ugly, quick, and dirty” - the idea is that it doesn't have to be a good-looking prototype, but once you have the feedback, you can deliberate on the status of the prototype. Sometimes, we don’t make a build and do it straight into the editor to avoid hassle. Javi: I write out all my concepts on a whiteboard. When you’re making a prototype, you have to have a strong idea of what core experience you want your game to be. You don’t think about making everything work. It doesn’t have to be a real, functional thing - it just has to feel like the game that you want to make. If you feel like it works, then you can incrementally build on that. Prototyping is a process where you keep changing things, but never lose sight of your core. What are the signs that you look for to know if an idea is good enough for production? You can say that the prototyping is done when we tick all of the boxes you listed for the reasons you are making a prototype for your game. You don’t stop prototyping until you stumble upon what is a fun game - which is the game developer’s goal. From the prototype, you can already assess if your current team can actually execute the full game - both on the technical front and the motivational front. If everything is ok, then you can move forward. To know if a game is good, it needs to communicate what your goals are. You can only find that out when you let people try it out. You need to communicate with your testers to see if the game worked for them. Today there’s a trend of uploading on Newgrounds and Itch.io, Steam Early Access games and Discord focus groups. There’s a danger of releasing games too early to the public and exposing your ideas to harsh criticism. But it’s good to have this focus group and feedback from people who understand that you are working on a game that is still being made. On the other hand, you can use another metric - if you make a prototype, pitch it everywhere, and it turns out, no one wants it, you can take that as a sign to move on to the next idea! The way you can validate an idea is when someone wants to spend money to make the game real. What are your tips for a fast and efficient prototyping phase?
Even in the prototyping phase, you need to set deadlines, tasks and assigned resources. We still have a schedule that we follow when it comes to prototyping to ensure that we are as efficient as possible. It would also help if your prototype has a reset button that can take your prototype to certain states and checkpoints for the benefit of your team and testers - but only if you have the time to add this feature. Plan ahead and know what you want to make. Limit yourself and don’t bloat the prototype just to make it feel like a full game. Just stick to what’s in the scope of your prototype. Also, you will find you finish your prototype once you run out of money. Use the tools you are comfortable with. If you pick up a new tool, you might find yourself fighting with it. Save time and use something that you are comfortable with. Go to game jams often to keep yourself making games. Make personal games so that you have a portfolio where you can evaluate yourself. Don’t throw even your crappiest games away! It’s helpful to look back where you’ve come from. Don’t go into every prototype expecting it to work. You have to accept failure. Keep on doing what you’re doing in the game dev industry because you can be adaptive and get better at your craft. Sleep! Your brain will work better when you’ve had sleep. Do it yourself - the more prototypes you work on, you’ll be able to figure out your own workflow and how you think. Listen to how you work. If you’re happy with this process in general, you’ll get faster and more efficient at it. The audience also had the opportunity to ask the panel some questions about prototyping.
What do publishers usually look for in a prototype? Paul: For hypercasual games, sometimes what happens is that they take a video of the prototype, upload it to ad networks, and study the click-through rates. When they see that people are clicking these ads, that is when they will continue the production of this game. For artsy publishers, you need to have something that is very different, like emotional games. On our end (OP Games), we are exploring new technology. Fahmi: I’m a scout for an indie publisher, and we look for the hook in your game. Your game can be any genre, which usually have different qualities. Your game needs to have good hooks and a good premise. Does a prototype have to be what the full game will look like, or just part of it? Robert: A prototype is not a full game, just focusing on your core game mechanics. Every feature that you add must feed into that core loop. When we make prototypes, we make sure that this core game loop must be enjoyable, engaging, sustainable, and scalable. Roan: The major part should be the core mechanic. If you accomplish your prototype showing off great graphics or other mechanics that don’t contribute to the main point of the game, it should be necessary to follow the core mechanic. You can use shapes, grab graphics that make sense. The point is to create something playable. Javi: By the end of the prototype, your game probably won’t look like your intended full game. It might not even feel the same way. That’s the point of the prototype - you will find out what works and what doesn’t work. You might even surprise yourself and find unexpected mechanics that are actually fun! Let your own project surprise you and see where it goes from there. Fahmi: It depends on what game you are working on. For example, Coffee Talk’s prototypes didn’t focus on core gameplay mechanics, but to make players feel the vibe of a coffee shop. Focus on what you want to sell most in the game, the core point of your prototype. How do you know if people will like your game based on the prototype? Javi: You will know if people liked your prototype if you let them play it, and they like it. Robert: You need to have the target market play the game. Sometimes as game devs, we have fun with our games and believe they’re fun - but that’s because we’re devs. We know how the game works. Once we get it in front of the target audience, it might not be up to their expectations, and you just need to do it all over again. There’s no recipe for success. Fahmi: The internet won’t shut up, so if your audience doesn’t like the game, they won’t hold back and they will tell you how much they hate your game. Let it go to the public and brace yourself. Roan: The internet is the best place to know (if people like your game). What are the biggest setbacks for prototyping a game, and what is your advice for aspiring developers to avoid that? Robert: It’s better to fail fast and fail often. When it comes to prototypes, don’t be afraid of churning it out and just letting it fail. The biggest pitfall would be being too attached to your ideas. Learn how to kill your darlings and learn how to let go and move on. Javi: After all while when you have something that works, you can hit this wall of, “Now what? What do I do with this?” I think if you are at this point and you have hesitation about it, that’s the point where you have to let people try it. Brace yourself, find out what they think, gather as much as you can, cry a little when you read it, and then adjust - and do it all over again. Roan: I’ve been doing this for over a decade, so I’m lazier than ever - but if you don’t fight your laziness, it’s going to be a nightmare. I have to prepare for the inevitable, which is getting stuck on a feature. If you don’t prepare for these setbacks, it will really give you a bad day. Just do it. Paul: When you don’t know what the next step is, just step back, take a walk outside, and just take a look at your prototype from a different view, a different lens. Fahmi: First setback is always money. Second, you need balance finishing something and not getting too attached to it. Sometimes, we have too many ideas and in the middle of prototyping, you might get the idea to do something else instead. And then you end up never finishing any prototype because the ideas keep coming. Don’t get distracted! As we continue through our series of game development talks, we would like to invite aspiring game developers to register for Project PIGI and jumpstart their career and passion. You can view the full session of game prototypes here.
Kenzie Du Games reviewer and journalist at VirtualSEA. Currently works as a mobile game project manager at IGG Philippines. Twitter | Muck Rack