On September 28, I was on a panel with International Game Developers Association Los Angeles Chapter President Brandii Grace and New York Film Academy Los Angeles Campus Instructor Scott Walker that judged game prototypes developed by attendees of our Game Design Paper Prototyping Workshop. Participants were given a supply of materials — paper, marking pens, dice, tokens, meebles, and so on — and about two hours to create a game prototype. The teams then presented their games to us, and we chose a winner.
Here are the prototypes they presented.
Ark by Eric and Friends
This is a single-player resource gathering game. The player is commander on a space station orbiting Earth, and you are directing eight cities to collect resources for building a spaceship. Each city produces a specific resource: green is for minerals, yellow is for fuel, and blue is for research. In each orbit (round), the player would select which resource a city would produce by placing a coin on a card whose color represented the resource to be produced by that city. After each round, the resources produced would be calculated, and the objective would be to collect 20 points of each resource to build the Space Ark. However, a random dice roll will determine after each round which city gets destroyed by being eaten by frogs, and so you have fewer and fewer cities for building resources as the game progresses. You also lose coins for producing resources after each round – first five, then four, three, two and one — and so the player needs to be more and more careful about which resources to collect during each orbit.
The judges thought this game had a good balance between simplicity and depth — and really liked the city-eating frogs — but were concerned that the gameplay wasn’t made sufficiently clear by the game’s layout.
Car Chase by The Insurgents
The objective is to collect as many points as possible. There are two ways to score points. One is to keep them on your persona when you collect them. The other way is to store them in a bank, where the points would be worth only half as much. Players have eight turns to collect coins, deciding which to keep on them and which to deposit when you land in any one of the banks in the four corners of the game board. There are also four monsters moving around the board, and they are assigned according to a dice roll, moving the number indicated on the dice clockwise around the board. If a monster collides with you while you are moving, you lose any coins you are holding but not coins in the bank. During each turn, players first commit to a direction in which to move but then must move the monsters before moving their car.
The judges like the strategy aspect of this game but thought it needed a better system of keeping track of which coins where in the car and which were in the bank.
Rat Race by The Fabulous Flaming Flamingos
In this two-player game, the goal is to collect as many coins as you can and bring them back to your storage. Each player has control of their own car and the opponent’s monster that is chasing them. Players take turns shuffling their respective deck and drawing three cards from it. Players choose two cards, using one to indicate the number of moves for the car and another for the number of moves for the monster. Players first move their car the number of indicated moves on the board along the blue lines, which were divided into stopping points indicating the number of movement points required to go to the next point, and then the same with the monster along the green lines. Your car can only hold up to two coins per run, and if it is intercepted by a monster, it loses a coin. The game is over when a player collects 4 coins, runs into the monster three time, or have the most coins after two full reshuffles.
The judges recognized this as a board game version of Pac-Man and thought it was a cool concept; however, they found the layout of the paths confusing, particularly since the car had one path and the monster had another path. Other problems were that the monsters didn’t move sufficiently to be a real threat to the cars and that the coins placed on the board covered the number indicating the movement points required to get past each stopping point.
Halloween Candy Swipe by Team Fresh
This is a collect-and-chase game in which the neighborhood bully is stealing candy from trick-or-treaters. A six-sided dice determines the players’ moves as they travel to the houses to get candy and then try to bring it back home, where it is safe. However, if the bully rolls the exact number to hit a player, the bully beats up the player and takes their candy away. If the player doesn’t have any candy on them, they still get beat up and have to go back to the start. Players can cooperate together to block the bully, and hedges in the middle of the board act as boundaries to restrict movement. Players are also permitted to share a space to prevent the bully from beating up one of them.
The judges declared this game to be the winner because of its appealing theme and engaging gameplay.
Overall, it was a very successful event and it is always fascinating to see the inventive games designers can create with such limited resources.
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.”