Posted On: 2019-12-16
Today, I thought I'd write a bit about paper prototyping. I've mentioned it briefly in an earlier blog post, but, since it is an important practice as a game designer, thought I should write a bit more about it, to explain what it is and how it helps.
Prototyping is the process of creating something temporary with the intent to gain early information about what it would be like as a final product. When done correctly, a prototype will take a short amount of time to create (ideally less than a day) but will be similar enough of an experience that one can verify the fitness of ideas (ie. testing if it is fun.) Using prototypes, ideas can be refined and iterated on quickly, which is key for finding an implementation that works the way you want it to.
Paper prototyping, specifically, is the use of physical objects, such as index cards or dice, to prototype an idea. In general, the goal of paper prototyping is to use the simplest and fastest set of tools a designer has (spare pieces from other games, blank cards, etc.) to represent a close enough approximation of an idea such that useful information can be collected. Thus, complex systems (such as resource management) can be prototyped in mere minutes (ie. a pile of tokens that players can trade with each other) and it can become possible to test an idea that depends upon such systems without coding them first.
While it is generally faster and easier to use paper prototypes over digital ones, certain kinds of gameplay are particularly well-suited to paper prototypes. Randomness can be easily achieved using dice or shuffling cards. Resource ownership is often as simple as giving a player tokens (to represent the resources.) Player-to-player interactions like information sharing and trading are essentially free - though any limitations on those interactions (ie. players can't discuss their face-down cards) require establishing clear rules (and players' ability to remember and follow them.)
The biggest advantage of paper prototypes is the speed of iteration. If one wants to change the balance or design, it may be as simple as adding/removing cards in the deck. One could (potentially) even make such changes between rounds of playtesting (or even during a playtest - if, for example, a bug makes the game "stuck".) While it is theoretically possible to make quick changes to a digital game (using patterns such as feature toggles or unstable branches), there's nothing quite as fast or clear as pulling out a pen and crossing out a rule.
For all its benefits, there are a few kinds of systems that are not well-suited to paper prototyping. Hidden information can be a bit tricky - sometimes all it takes is a face-down card, while other times one might need a designated "game master" to interpret and inform the players of how the hidden information impacts them. Calculation-heavy systems can artificially slow down the pace of play - as players (or game masters) have to manually calculate information that would be instant in a digital game. Similarly, computationally heavy systems (such as long sequences of events without player input) may frustrate or bore players, while the same systems might be completely invisible in a digital prototype. Lastly (and perhaps more controversially) - paper prototypes are generally easier to simulate the strategic elements of play, rather than realtime actions of play (ie. paper prototyping a fighting game could validate the move and counter-move of strategic play, but not the visceral experience of the action.)
Hopefully it's a bit more clear what paper prototyping is, as well as why paper prototypes are great for certain kinds of games, but a less effective for others. Additionally, I hope that you were able to see how paper prototypes can be useful for budding designers to practice their skills: with faster iteration time it's easier to try, fail, and retry. As always, if you have any thoughts or feedback please let me know.