Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Prototypical Influence

There are mostly two things I remember vividly from presenting the first prototype of a certain game that has since fallen into oblivion. The first was how initial reservations of people who sat down to play it would change into all out enthusiasm by the end of the third or fourth turn. The second was the question that was seemingly asked by every other person who sat down to play: “Are you really allowed to use Magic layouts for your own game?”

Three stages of prototyping for Mistfall.
During the last two weeks I talked about making a prototype of your game, starting off with advising on what not to do when preparing a prototype for a potential publisher, and then sharing my own tips (part one and part two) on giving your game idea an actual shape in the real world. Before finishing off the practical advice series, I’d like to take a small detour to discuss one more aspect of prototyping, and that is how the form of your prototype influences the way your testers will react to it - and what you are probable to get for a basic or a "good looking" prototype.

I’ve already talked about why it is not the best idea to put in too much work into the art and graphic design part of your prototype. But aside from using up time that could be better spent on perfecting the actual game, there is also the matter of how your testers will perceive your prototype – and how willing they will be to share their ideas on it with you. 

Simply put, if your prototype looks like an almost finished game, chances are that some of your testers might doubt themselves more than your design. This may lead to them refraining from voicing their complaints or ideas, just because visually the game looks like a ready to go product. Obviously, this will influence only some people, but still, if you want more sincere responses, you should probably go with a more basic looking prototype.
Here's some basic prototyping components, just for good measure.
On the other hand, building a serviceable but simple, very much “work in progress” prototype makes people more eager to actually share all their thoughts, as they receive a visual cue that what you gave them to play with can still be modified. When you're still running basic playability tests, it's generally better to have more to work with (and weigh out) than to falsely believe that your game is perfect. And some people might be easily convinced that something they would perceive as a flaw, is actually a feature, since the game looks "so completed".  

Now, if you’re still somewhat perplexed by the Magic story in the first paragraph, let me also elaborate on that. To make my life easier, I used a free editor with Magic: The Gathering layouts to create all the cards for the game. And although I would start each and every presentation with saying: “None of the components you see here, none of the artworks, no graphic design elements or symbols are final”, people would still ask me if this is really the layout I'm going with for the final game.

With that in mind, it’s probably good to remember that no matter what you say, the actual shape of your prototype will do more talking than your mouth. And for that reason, when you want actual criticism, show people a prototype that is as basic as humanly possible – and when you want some love for the game (maybe because the testing period is done), go with the almost-finished looking one. My experience tells me that it works almost every time.
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