Game Design Paper Prototyping Workshop 2016 Panel Discussion
Last Wednesday I was honored to take part on a panel discussing game design paper prototyping that was moderated by International Game Developer Association Los Angeles chapter president Brandii Grace and hosted by the New York Film Academy. My fellow panelists were video game designer, former Imagineer and current NYFA instructor Scott Walker and former Schell Games narrative and content designer, Women in Gaming’s Rising Star Award winner, and IGF Narrative Excellence in 2016 Honorable Mention honoree Heidi McDonald.
Here is an edited transcript of our talk.
Brandii Grace: What are the benefits of prototyping a video game?
David Mullich: There are a number of benefits. Often we will prototype a video game before bringing on expensive programmers and artists. Doing game designs on paper first allows team members who aren’t technical to participate in the game design process by using graph paper, coins, readily available dice and stuff. And because it’s inexpensive to implement designs with these items, it allows you to make changes, to test ideas, to experiment a bit more because you aren’t worried about the expense of a programmer’s time. It allows you to really test out your design and rules before they’re implemented.
Brandii: I’ll back this up by saying that at this point, prototype changes are quick, easing and cheap, but a while later they are hard, slow and expensive.
Scott Rogers: Think about how easy it is to throw away a paper and start over again, versus communicating your idea to another human being and getting them to understand it, having them start work on it, and then coming back later and saying, “No, no, that’s not at all what I wanted.” That’s the worst way to work that I’ve found. Now, just to expand the definition of paper prototyping, from my experience, paper prototyping is done a number of different ways. The way that I think that most people understand it is as simple as making a map, getting some graph paper, and knowing the scale of your character in relation to the world you want to make, and just drawing it out — even if you don’t have any art skills — you can get a ruler and draw a straight line that way. You can make a map to communicate your ideas. Of course, the more creative, the more information you provide to your fellow teammates, the better the ideas will come across. So that’s one way of doing it.
Another way of doing it is to literally build the game in paper or some other medium. One of my favorite examples is Hideo Kojima. For Metal Gear Solid he prototyped his entire first game out of Legos. He built the entire game in Legos first, they figured out where they wanted everything to go, and then they took pictures of it and handed it off to the artists, saying, “This is what we’re going to build.” So, when you say “paper”, it doesn’t have to be paper. I’ve prototyped in Lego, I’ve prototyped in clay, I’ve prototyped in different media — Sketch Up and things like that, so there are many ways of skinning this cat.
Heidi McDonald: I’ve also noticed that when you’ve got these ideas in your head, you’re a game designer and you’re game is going to be this and this and this, and your players are going to have this great opportunity, you notice very quickly when you’re doing a paper prototype the different between what’s in your head and what happens when the player is actually moving through your experience. It’s tough to catch the glitches. You’ve got this experience going on in your head, and what you thought would be really cool, you see that for one reason or another, it doesn’t work the way you thought it would work. Maybe the player didn’t understand it, or maybe you didn’t balance things correctly. And those are really important things to catch before your game launches. It helps to know before going into the production process that your mechanics can stand up.
Scott: It’s also the connection of everything together. You have to all your maps laid out, and you realize your level isn’t fitting together. Now, back in the ancient days when I was making video games, we had to worry about that because everything was loaded in individually. But now you can make an entire structure, building, gameplay environment that lives in one file, and so if you do this on paper first, you understand the relationships. Anything from the physical space to systems.
Now, other ways to paper prototype is what I found is a really good trick was to cartoon out, to storyboard my gameplay. And I did it in almost a comic strip form. You can look in my book for some examples of this. It made it so clear, I was able to get it down to a point where I could show it to my programmer — we were maybe doing a boss fight — and I’d show up with sheets of paper with illustrations showing this is what happens when the boss does this, this is what happens when the player does this. These are the relationships. This is what the world looks like. I’d hand it to him, and I’d literally came back in a couple of weeks, and he’d hit 85% of this right on the nose. But this came after years and years of learning how to communicate this way. I think that if you do things on paper, at least from the designer’s perspective, you can knock out 75 to 80 percent of the problems that you’d normally encounter when you say, “I’m just going to jump in and do it.”