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Level One: Prototyping
First, let’s break the whole process of prototyping down into a small number of simple steps, employing a slightly modified version of the design philosophy Donald R. Lebeau once posted on the AtariAge forums. According to Lebeau, you can break down everything you do into four simple steps:
Lebeau’s original fourth step is “Make it work reliably and fast.” But for our purposes, that needs to be more flexible, so you can adapt it to your game treatment. The basic compass for that, in turn, is your work from the Preparation phase, applied to the four dimensions of the Ludotronics map. Depending on the dimension where your USP resides, the fourth step for your game treatment might look similar to this:
These are just serving suggestions—you have to find your own “X” that seamlessly integrates with your game treatment. But whatever it is, following these four steps will make your life easier and your work more focused.
Beat 1. Assemble
Will you need a proof of concept–prototype to go with your pitch? It depends. But having invested time and effort into putting your game treatment to the test goes a long way toward building trust. However, you’re in the concept phase, not in pre-production, and you most certainly lack the resources to deliver a pre-production prototype that could, and some say should, absorb up to 20% or even 25% of the entire development cycle. Nor does anyone expect you to. So if you want to create a prototype to test your game treatment and later present the prototype and the test results together with your proposition, it’s all about scale. And for prototypes, scale translates into focus.
Before we get into this in more detail, let’s review a general aspect that is very important. A prototype is supposed to be disposable. Disposable means that you shouldn’t fall in love with it. If you sink too much time into it, and care, by creating temporary assets that are too polished and code that is too optimized, you will be tempted to transfer prototype material into your actual game. Now, by design, prototypes are full of brutal shortcuts and snap decisions and trade-offs and stand-ins, each of which will return to haunt your team with exquisite nightmares during production.
There are two decisions you have to make before you can start building your prototype. One decision concerns creating a vertical prototype or a horizontal prototype, also known as vertical slice and horizontal slice (or layer). The other decision concerns creating an analog prototype or a digital prototype. The former warrants a brief explanation. A vertical prototype contains representative bits and pieces from almost everything that your game will contain. A horizontal prototype showcases one major aspect of your game more in-depth. Translated into Ludotronics parlance, a vertical prototype showcases bits and pieces from all four dimensions, while a horizontal prototype focuses on one particular dimension.
For each decision, there is a criteria set that you can use. For vertical vs. horizontal, the set consists of your game loop, your USP, and your core idea, the three most important elements from the Procedure phase. For digital vs. analog, the set consists of the four dimensions of the Ludotronics map.
Let’s begin with the three elements from the Procedure phase for your vertical vs. horizontal decision.
Next, let’s go through the Ludotronics map’s four dimensions for your digital vs. analog decision.
To sum it up, if your USP falls into the game-mechanical or the narratological dimension of the Ludotronics map, the decision to create a digital or an analog prototype is up to you. If your USP falls into the ludological or the cinematological dimension of the Ludotronics map, it is strongly recommended that your prototype be digital, barring very distinguished circumstances.
After you made your decision, either toward an analog prototype or a digital prototype, you have to decide what to work with. For an analog prototype, all the materials and actions mentioned so far could be suited, plus anything your imagination comes up with, depending on your game treatment. For a digital prototype, you have three basic options.
If you don’t have any coding experience, you can use authoring tools that yield good results but do not force you to invest large amounts of time to wrap your head around scripting or programming. For interactive fiction, e.g., you can use a number of narrative authoring tools. These can be powerful design tools, with the cyberpunk game A(s)century as a case in point. For everything else, you can use any tool with a visual editor and drag-&-drop functionality. If you have scripting experience, you can use a scripting language to build your prototype. If you’re a seasoned programmer, you can use whatever development kit you like. All three solutions are fine. Just remember, especially for the third solution, that the prototype code is supposed to be disposable and should not find its way into the production cycle.
Then there’s the small matter of how to prepare your prototype.
The first thing your preparations have to take into account is that your prototype serves two different purposes, and it must serve both purposes equally well:
Then you have to decide what to include on a more granular level. Figuring this out is not altogether different from deciding what artwork to include in a portfolio or which sample to send out from an 80,000-words manuscript. The following three principles should always be your guide:
The beginning and the ending of your game, as you imagine it at this point, are not well suited. They’re almost by definition not representative to what the player will experience over the course of the game. Also, they’re not that exciting either. Endings have accumulated too much context and invested practice and emotion to serve as an involving stand-alone example. Beginnings are rarely exciting because you need exposition to get things going. On the other hand, everything that’s not in the close vicinity of the beginning of your game might not be accessible enough in terms of game mechanics and your game’s control scheme. If any of that is the case, your prototype will neither help you test and assess, nor help you present and show off your treatment.
The solution to this conundrum, in most cases, is to compose a prototype that uses everything you’ve collected in your Ludotronics inventory at the end of the Process phase in Level Six: Integral Perspectives II, but ignores concurrences. To do that, take your maps, graphs, tables, or charts for your rough sketches toward the distribution of learning curves, style dynamics, dramatic intensity, story arc and character arc, and the tasks, objectives, and subgoals that lead to the game-driven goal. Then, pick from each distribution something that fits your purpose. For example, you can take something from the very beginning of the learning curve and some very early tasks, combine them with something a bit more advanced in terms of story and style dynamics, and top everything off with a peak from your intensity curve. What you have to do, basically, is mixing a great cocktail that is representative, engaging, and accessible.
Don’t take these decisions lightly. As in scientific research, you will learn nothing from an ill-chosen sample. And as with portfolios or excerpts, a well-chosen or ill-chosen sample can make the difference between acceptance and failure.
Finally, before you start, don’t forget to nail down all the rules and values that you need for your digital prototype, from avatar speed to jump parameters to terrain effects, and so on. The same rules that apply to building a level, as touched upon in the Process phase’s rules section, apply to building a digital prototype. For an introduction to prototyping that is far more in-depth than what fits into this treatise, Jeremy Gibson Bond’s Introduction to Game Design, Prototyping, and Development is highly recommended, both for paper prototyping and for digital prototypes.
Now, build your prototype!
In the following two beats, you will learn how to test your prototype and how to prepare both your prototype and your test results for your pitch presentation.