Game design mistakes 4: The myth of the gorgeous prototype

by Gil Hova

I won’t pretend to be an old hat at this game design business. For crying out loud, I’m not even published yet.

I also have to be a little careful here, because muses work in different ways. This post will say as much about me as it will about what I think is a very common game design mistake, especially among first-time designers.

I’ve seen it a couple of times now. Someone shows up to a game design group for the first time. He brings out his baby, and I mean his baby. I’m talking a lavishly-produced proto, with slobberingly-beautiful bits.  Custom wood pieces.  Everything handpainted.  That sort of thing.

And then we play the game, and it’s awful.  Miserable.  Completely un-fun.

What went wrong? Well, sometimes it comes out that the game hasn’t really been played all that much.  Just two or three times, and the designer is still in the early stages of collecting feedback.

I’m not against gorgeous prototypes.  I’ve played some very good unpublished games with bits to die for.  But when you put out a nice-looking prototype on the table, you’re telling your group that you have a game that’s close to done.  People will expect it to be fun, and when it comes out that you’re still quite early in the process, it’ll throw them for a loop.

Even more importantly, why spend a week making the perfect board if, after two plays, you decide to use modular tiles instead?  Why get quotes over print-on-demand cards if, after two more plays, you decide to ditch cards and go with dice instead?

Early prototypes are special.  They’re “raw.”  They’re in this weird quantum state of being a game and not being a game at the same time, because while they hold the promise and potential of being fun, they are almost always not fun to play.

You have to be guerilla at this time.  Don’t spend a lot of time on the components.  Use a database, spreadsheet, or even a mail merge to create cards on regular pieces of paper that you can slice with a guillotine and sleeve in ordinary Magic sleeves.  They don’t look good, but hey, you’re going to be changing each card at least 3 times in the next few weeks.  Why spend any more time on it than you have to?

Your board doesn’t have to be anything spectacular.  As a playtester, if I know that this is an early-stage proto, I’m fine with playing with pennies on a pencil sketch on looseleaf paper.  At this stage, it’s all about capturing your inspiration and figuring out what to do with it.

This is where I have to be careful.  Some of you out there work a little differently.  Some designers are inspired by game bits.  They need their prototypes to be at a certain level of quality.  That’s why they’re doing all this; part of the enjoyment, for them, is the aesthetic value of a nice-looking game.

Hey, there’s nothing wrong with that.  A muse is a muse.  But be aware of the limitations of an early game design.  Try to strike a balance between making a proto that will keep your interest and one that will distract your attention from the critical early-stage, high-level questions.

Here are questions you shouldn’t be asking yourself during your first playtest:

  • How much will it cost to mass-produce this game?
  • How should the player pawns be shaped?
  • Should the cards be glossy or matte?

Here are questions you should be asking yourself during your first playtest:

  • Is this game fun?
  • Where is the fun?
  • Is there more fun in Phase X than Phase Y?  If so, is Phase Y absolutely necessary?

You see where I’m going with this?  During the early playtest, don’t worry about low-level issues like component quality.  Concern yourself with high-level issues, like what the game’s actually going to look like.

Let the game flow.  You may find that playtests will point you in a different direction than you originally intended.  Like, the only fun part of your epic Civ game is the Phase 3 auction.  In that case, maybe you should crop the rest of the game out, and work on a light/middleweight auction game instead?

If you ask the wrong questions too early, and bind yourself to your components, you won’t be able to respond rapidly to these sorts of developments.  You’re the game designer.  You have full control over where the design goes.  Be as flexible as possible early on, and you’ll find less resistance on your way to a good, fun game.