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Rapid game prototyping

It’s no secret that most game development studios, especially as they climb upwards (in budget, staff numbers, etc) tend to lose their will to risk. As game production costs rise, office space expands and rent goes up and staff expenditure skyrockets, companies stick to what worked before. That’s why you see so many AAA+ studios focusing on sequels.

It’s also no secret that most of us will be generally risk-averse, especially when times are tough and the economy is stingy. This pretty much describes our current situation here in Greece; the state of the economy is really awful. In my opinion, though, it is during times of recess that breakthroughs and new ventures can be made.

Being an indie, either as a solitary developer or part of a small team gives you a greater flexibility to just listen to your gut (and do what it says) for a change. Of course the risks are also there; there will still be mouths to feed, and utility bills to pay. The fact that you don’t pay as much as Ubisoft does, does not mean that your expenses are in any way less significant.

So, what to do? I think the answer lies in rapidly prototyping your ideas. And when I say rapid, I mean one week MAX. As a result, by knowing that your time (and money spent) will be limited, you can risk. Before I begin with the points as to why it may be good let me just say: World of Goo, Flight Control, Angry Birds all were side-off/experimental/rapid design products.

One Week Design Dash

Commit to it

If you’re too busy with other stuff, don’t start the Design Dash. If you really want to do it but don’t have the time, try a 1-day/weekend/3-day dash (see below). In any case, it should not be attempted if you, or others in your team, are under a hectic schedule.

Brainstorming meetings

Ditch them. It’s really difficult to have creativity on tap. Not everyone is creative at the same time every day. You can’t just schedule a meeting and say you’ll have a kick-ass idea/prototype by the end. On the contrary, brainstorming for specific stuff might well work i.e. a feature that you’re thinking to add.

Have everyone participate

It’s just a week so make good use of it. Instead of one prototype, ask for four/five –as big as your team is. Each one should have one. This would be good for friendly competition and since everyone would be working on something they have created, they will be having fun and go that extra mile!

Settle on a theme

I’m a bit on the fence on that, but I think it is good to have a focus ‘theme’ when doing the One Week Design Dash. Theme could be anything from “insects” to “noir”, “spooky”, “flying hero”, etc.

Notebook and pencil

Before you start making nice looking Gannt charts, try the old and trusted method. Jot your ideas on a notebook. It does not matter if you cannot draw well – make simple shapes to highlight the basics of the gameplay and the world feel. Use props (i.e. cuts from magazines) if you feel like it. Sketches on iPod/iPhone/iPad might work well for some, too.

If it’s not fun, be brave and throw it away.

The purpose of this experiment is also to know when to stop. If what you’ve created is not pure simple fun, no amount of snazzy graphics and elite code will save it. It’s better to forfeit and go for your next great idea.

All done, now what?

At the end of the week you should have a fairly good idea whether your fledgling prototype is worth investing any further time into. Whatever happens, I do not believe this week would be ‘a waste of time’ as the experience gained would be very important.

Shorter Dashes 1 day/48 hrs

Sometimes time is limited and we cannot afford the luxury of a week. A day/weekend dash would be just the thing to do. To make it even more fun, try and invite other game developers from your area and ‘jam’ together . You may be surprised at the outcome.

Want something to get started? Take part in the Global Game Jam 2011 supported by IGDA and  taking place between 28-30th of January. Find a location next to you or add your own.

Still not convinced? See the highlights of last year.

Some helpful links

This 2005 post on Gamasutra is a real gem and has been a huge influence on the way I think about rapid design.  It inspired the Experimental Gameplay initiative.  It is no chance that the overseeing /project co-ordinator was Jesse Schell, one of my favourite game designers. I believe it is a seminal piece.

Another great article on rapid prototyping with a good list of links to follow up.


  1. Well written and informative post. Indeed one of the talents required for every creative artist is to know when to drop an idea and when to dedicate the time needed.

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