The Power of Prototyping
Sep 05, 2013 - Elliott Draper
Recently I’ve been spending some time prototyping different game ideas. Partly this was so that I could get to grip with a wide variety of features of Unity - different types of game prototypes have lent themselves to me learning and polishing my knowledge on different areas of the engine. But also, it’s a great way to quickly identify the ideas that work, and the ideas that don’t.
What’s so great about prototyping then? You’re still building games, perhaps smaller versions to test out, but it takes time, and you still need to decide which idea to work on first. That means working out which one you think might be most enjoyable to play. The difference is though that when you’re prototyping you are quite often using temporary or transient placeholders for the majority of the structure of the game. The aim is to do the minimum amount possible in order to be able to play your idea, to test to see if it works, and to see if it is fun. That means that in terms of art and design assets, you can look to use stock assets, or temporary art. In terms of code, you can treat it very much as a hackday - use a game jam mentality, where you want to get the mechanics for the game up and running as quickly as possible, and you can look to extract the logic and tidy things up later if you pursue the idea.
Constraints are good
Speaking of game jams and hackdays, quite often constraints like that fuel creativity. Ordinarily, most of us are probably used to writing code in the nicest, cleanest way possible, and building assets in a way that makes them easy-to-use, re-usable, and flexible. But the constraints of a time limited game jam or hackday means that we’re free to forget some of those things, and instead just let our creativity flow. We know that the end result is simply a playable validation (hopefully!) of our idea, rather than a shippable product (even if you do actually put it online so people can play it), so we can cut a few corners to test our theories, and then simply revisit and improve those things if we decide to pursue it.
From prototype to finished product
In fact, if we do decide to turn a prototype in to a real game we want to ship, we might well end up rewriting or rebuilding most of it. A prototype by definition is an experimental, primitive model on which something else is based, most often made out of placeholder parts. It is designed to test the theory behind a product in practice, and to help build specifications for then making the real product. Our prototype therefore serves a purpose not just in establishing if our idea is any good, but also, if it is, in setting out how we want to build the real deal - but this doesn’t mean getting things right on the first go. It might be that during the prototype construction, we stumbled upon some pretty neat solutions that we’ll want to keep - or it might be that we know we have the right idea, but it can be built better, and the prototype shows us the things we should be doing differently and improving. In terms of code, that might equate to making it more performant and smarter, and in terms of art that might be making something more detailed and more intricate, or even throwing it out entirely and changing the style while keeping the mechanics. Either way, a prototype paves the way for success - and the ones that don’t make it, we can be safe in the knowledge that we didn’t spend ages figuring out that they won’t work!
One other thing about prototypes is that you can get the idea that’s in your head out there and into a playable form much quicker, as we’re all probably guilty of thinking up ideas but then not implementing them in any form to test them out. After the prototype is finished, then you can even forget about it for a bit - you could work on another project, and just let the ideas that you’ve put into practice stew for a while, to see if time makes it better or worse. It’s fairly natural for us to think that something new is better, because it’s fresh, and it’s our most recent work. Time helps to level that playing field, and then you can revisit your prototype with a more even handed and impartial view on things, determined to root out what works, and replace what doesn’t. It might even be that you decide not to pursue it - but perhaps there is something in the prototype that you can keep and carry over to another project. If not, then you’ve almost certainly grown and taught yourself something in the process at least, so usually there is always something to be gained from knocking together a prototype!
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