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#12 – The Dangers of Over-Prototyping

Designer’s Den is a game design blog covering a wide spectrum of gaming including mechanics, art and graphic design, world building, and more!

With the reboot of my card game Rise of the Gods, I’m also restarting my game design blog to share my insights and lessons I’ve learned on my journey as an independent designer.

This post’s topic on prototyping is actually something I’d planned on writing last year, but it seems the fog of 2020 took hold longer than I — or any of us — anticipated. At least I was in good company.

Anyway, prototyping is a crucial stage of game design and production. But for all its positive impacts, there is a darker side to prototyping that I want to talk about today, when designers put too much effort and construction into their projects. That’s what I call over-prototyping  and it can be dangerous!

Below I present to you my experience, with photo evidence at the end to back up my claims. My hope is that someone reading this may recognize similar behaviors in themselves and take measures to avoid going as far as I did. It may end up saving you a lot of time, money, and grief in the long run.

Over-Prototyping Wastes Time

In its earliest stages, prototyping should not be a tedious project. Your goal is to produce a playable version of your game as quickly as possible, test it a few times, then start iterating. But if you’re like me and are often caught up in the details, the time it takes to get version after version onto the table may surpass the time you actually spend testing each version.

You see, I love a good presentation. I want my games to look nice, even while in prototype form, whether I’m designing paper or digital versions. And most of the time, this is reflected in the feedback of my playtesters, who praise the look of the game and wonder just how close it is to completion. But this response should be raising red flags for a few reasons.

First, as I said earlier, the point of prototyping isn’t perfection, it’s iteration. Spending too much time focused on the finer details means you’re losing the forest for the trees. Your focus should be much wider at this stage of development. Is the game engaging? Does it meet your goals? Are the mechanisms innovative or interesting? Find the answers to those questions in your play groups, not in your head at your computer.

Second, an over-produced prototype sets false expectations for the testers. If they think the game is closer to completion than it truly is, they may shy away from impactful suggestions and only give more superficial (or worse, cosmetic) advice.

And third, the investment in time may deter you from making cuts when and where it counts. Imagine you build a prototype over weeks and months only to find out your favorite mechanism is subverting the intended play experience. (I’m guilty of that.) And then imagine you ignore the negative feeling and try to shoehorn the mechanism into the game for the next year or so because you’re too stubborn to let go after devoting so much time to it. (Also guilty.)

If your game is still composed of paper and cardboard, it’s so much easier to scrap and try again than if you’ve poured an inordinate amount of time into it because you wanted it to have a nice table presence. Which brings me to…

Over-Prototyping is Expensive

Art, printing, and materials are not cheap. So whether you’re self-publishing or looking to pitch the game to a publisher, consider using stock images and simple components for almost the whole life of your prototype*. And now that the digital space has expanded even further, you may even be able to get by without spending any money to develop a game during its prototyping phases.

*This advice contradicts the advice I gave in an earlier Designer Den post. I’ve since changed my mind.

If you do make physical prototypes and don’t mind spending a little money, go for index cards, which can be bought in many different shapes and colors. If you need to produce more than a hundred and have access to a printer, you can buy thicker copy paper and create a template in a word processor or similar program. I’d also recommend investing in a small paper cutter to save your hands the trouble of manually cutting out all those cards, too.

To my credit, I did start out prototyping like this in the earliest stages of testing Rise of the Gods. But when I expanded my play group outside my close friends, I was under the false assumption that players wouldn’t be interested in a “cheap” looking game, so I ended up paying a professional printer in China to make my prototypes.

Not only did this include the cards, but also the rulebook, play mats (and eventually hard gameboards), deck boxes, tokens, and even the entire game boxes. And because I was going to all this trouble to get things printed in a near-finished quality, I was buying art. Lots of it. Mostly just licensed illustrations from asset stores at first, but eventually I was contacting multiple artists for commissions of brand-new art. And I spent thousands of dollars on art alone. My printing and shipping costs during this time were easily in the many hundreds, probably close to $500.

Fortunately, the commissions will still make it into the game (but more on that later). And I don’t share this information to boast. If anything, I’m embarrassed to admit it! I wasted a tremendous amount of start-up capital on frivolous expenses that were unnecessary for this stage of development. My hope is that you, reader, this will save yourself the money and skip on the fancy printing and art. Let your publisher take care of all that (if you’re selling the game) or wait until you’re close to crowd-funding (if you’re self-publishing).

You’ll Change Your Mind

If the first warning is about time and the second is about money, then this third warning is about grief. And let me tell you, it might just be the worst of the three. Also, like the other points, I speak from personal experience.

Early in a game’s development, it’s common for a popular theme to serve as a placeholder, or sometimes you don’t add a theme and stick to purely the basics. Eventually, as the gameplay ripens, the mechanisms will either coalesce around the placeholder theme or they’ll point you in the direction of a new, more appropriate one. The latter is what happened to me.

For some context, when Rise of the Gods‘ mechanisms were maturing the more I tested the game, I realized my original theme of generic fantasy was no longer suitable, so I started to lean into the gods part even more. I know it sounds funny now, especially with the title of the game being what it is, but originally the gods played out more like an afterthought instead of the centerpieces.

The trouble was, so much of the licensed art I’d purchased fit into the mold of generic fantasy, and not so well into my personal worldbuilding. Luckily, most of the commissioned art was still usable because I was worldbuilding and giving art direction simultaneously then, so the two were entwined. But I still wish I had waited longer when things had solidified even more and individual characters and villains had been fleshed out.

Ultimately, I would have saved myself a lot of grief by letting the game develop more organically. I would have saved a lot of time by not remaking my prototypes so obsessively. And I would have saved a lot of money by not buying art and paying to print the game pieces professionally.

So, now I present to you a gallery of my mistakes. I consider my case to an extreme example of when prototyping goes too far, as I was lost in the pursuit of trying to impress others and had convinced myself I was farther along than I was in reality. But even if you don’t end up wasting as much time and money as I did, hopefully you’ll save yourself something after today. So if you see echoes of your own behavior in the photos below, I urge you to put on the brakes now. It will be worth it to wait.

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