Video game prototyping is the foundation of high-quality game production. Essentially without Video Game Prototyping, there is no functional way to know whether a game’s core mechanics are going to function correctly or importantly, function in a way that is actually enjoyable. Prototyping is the process of creating a method of testing to try out core concepts before leaning into the more cemented stages of the game development process.
During the video game development prototyping, teams will essentially assess not only if core mechanics function correctly, but assess whether they can be modified/added to in order to make the game content more fun. What is considerably interesting about this process, is it’s not defined by working within a digital environment, some of the video game development prototyping involves working on a paper to refine core concepts.
Video game development after prototyping is typically more refined, the core design and mechanics are cemented very early on, essentially after the prototyping phase. It isn’t unusual for core mechanics to pivot later on in production however it is worth noting that these pivots in core concepts are still subject to prototyping and testing, just as they would be early in the development stages.
When we try and define what is the prototyping phase in game design, we can narrow it down to testing and establishing core concepts. Some ideas are fantastic on paper, but when committed to the digital process, can be less rewarding or even less functional, this is why the prototyping stage is essential. The earlier developers you commit to prototyping the earlier you can establish whether the main idea for the game is achievable and importantly, fun!
As part of an introduction to game design, prototyping, and development it's important to understand that game prototyping is a fluid method and by that, we mean that it often serves as an idea generator. A core concept may not work when tested, but it may deliver you a different idea that may be more fun in the long run. Its important during the prototyping process to remain fluid and not rigid with the core concepts, as this is an opportunity to organically create a strong foundation for the game title.
An UE4 title prototype build for a 3rd Person Shooter.
Typically, game prototypes are incredibly primitive, often assets are mostly blocks or sourced assets, as it isn’t about the visual aspect of production at this point, it is purely a process of testing mechanics and functions, whilst refining the core concepts. The best way to approach prototyping video games is to come up with a list of questions you’re trying to answer about your concept and tick them off as you go, that is the best way to establish when to stop prototyping a game, once you’ve got answers to all of those questions.
Video Game Prototyping can assist with the following:
- Is your game worth spending the time and money developing?
The difference between successful titles and unsuccessful titles can often be traced back to the prototyping stage. You wouldn’t build a house on poor foundations, so why would you build a game on poor foundations?
- Assess logical errors
Ultimately, some ideas are great on paper but in reality, fall apart. Prototyping lets you run a multitude of tests to look at your core concepts from all angles. If you’re finding flaws in your mechanics you can be sure, the player will find them too.
- Prototyping Saves Time!
As developers, it can be exciting to begin the ball rolling on your game concept idea, but taking the time to prototype your game concept can ultimately save time in the long run, providing you with a strong base to work with and stopping you from having to backtrack later to problem-solve issues.
Prototyping isn’t as time-consuming as you may think, more core mechanic prototypes can take anywhere from a few days to a week to produce and will demonstrate the game’s full set of functionalities, it is worth noting again, that the visual concepts of the game at this point aren’t important, they come later in the production pipeline once the functionality is established.
Different development teams take different approaches to the video game prototyping process, but the general framework can be broken up into steps.
Game Prototyping Steps
Step 1. Work with your team to establish the aim of the product – defining goals is key.
Step 2. Narrow down core mechanics to a small set – typically 2 – 3 at a time.
Step 3. Draw the plan on paper, this allows your team to all understand the perspective collectively.
Step 4. Once you’ve established your goals and functions, present them to investors and managers, and collect feedback for refinement.
Step 5. Take the feedback you received and address the issues raised, modifying your design and mechanics to suit.
Step 6. Take the modified concepts and create a digital prototype.
Step 7. Take the digital prototype back for the second round of feedback and take note of important references made.
Step 8. If your core tested mechanics are functioning the way you want them to, add more mechanics to test and repeat the previous steps – eventually you’ll build your entire game mechanics cleanly this way.
Important Note: Always prepare documentation throughout this process, if you do so you can easily and promptly look into the framework should you decide to change content.
If you don’t have the experience or importantly the time, to be able to go through the prototyping and testing process, you can actually outsource this part of the production cycle. It isn’t uncommon for even larger devs' time to do this, as it allows them to begin working on visual development which can often be lengthy.
Outsourcing prototyping has its benefits, as some studios who take on outsourcing prototype roles have extensive experience in that part of the production cycle, often offering you not just a more precise testing phase but generally a faster and more affordable one too. Its ability to free up your resources as a production team is something not to be overlooked.
We touched on earlier the concept of Paper Prototyping, which is a raw format of showing on paper how your functions work – it’s a tool to communicate your idea to everybody on the team, it usually defines the actions, properties, and functionalities of the core concepts.
However there are other processes including Wireframe Prototyping, which is often used by UX Designers, but essentially this part defines UI and HUD displays and set-piece mechanics that can include dialogues and non-playable assets.
An example of Wireframe Prototyping for a phone application
Lastly, there is Greybox Prototyping, which as developers or entry developers you’ll be most familiar with, as this is often referred to as primitive testing. It is used to test game mechanics and physics without assets in place, thus the Greybox reference, is typically very basic, often just made up of 3D shapes that have game functions attached.
A Greybox Prototype for hit game Horizon Zero Dawn
Whilst we outlined the framework of Video Game Prototyping, it is important we touch on Rapid Prototyping. This method of prototyping involves creating increasingly more complex prototypes in quick succession, one after another. Rather than the traditional prototype process where you test core mechanics, seek feedback, and build again, this process involves a lot of small increments of functions that quickly raise in quality with each change and improvement.
To sum up, the video game prototyping process is one of the most important parts of the development pipeline. Your entire game balances on the functionality and importantly, the fun of your core concepts and mechanics. Without proper testing and refinement, your game can topple over before it gets out into the hands of gamers.
When you consider all the critically acclaimed titles, they do more than look stunning, they have core functions that have been refined over a lengthy process. Games like Horizon Zero Dawn, have a fairly famous prototyping cycle that actually ran the course of 12 months+ and they documented this process to allow them to reference the path of their changes. This allowed them to not just refine their concepts, but stay on the course of their original mechanics.
Successful game titles all share one thing in common, they went through structured prototyping! This is a core part of the game development process that you should invest your time and efforts into to make sure your game gets the development and result that it deserves.