By Bruce Shelley  

We are often asked how developers actually begin making a game. The method that we have seen work most successfully, beginning many years ago with board and paper games, is to build a prototype, start pushing around the pieces, and then rely on our instincts as gamers to feel what parts are working, not working, what new idea to try, etc. We call this design by playing.

That first prototype is usually very crude and simple, and somewhat based on a mash-up of existing ideas (from successful games we might borrow from) and new ideas (things other games aren’t doing that are our opportunity to innovate and be fresh). The prototype might be digital or paper.

Below is a photograph taken in late August in the main BonusXP meeting room. On the left is Dave Pottinger, our CEO, who also has the rare and valuable ability to design and program together. On the right is Jacob Naasz, one of our senior designers. They were in the process of setting up Dave’s prototype for a new game idea we were considering. Dave built the prototype based on elements pulled from games we are playing, his thinking on ways to improve or change those elements, and more concepts collected in a series of internal design discussions.

playtest825

We played this paper prototype for several days and it was revised multiple times based on the experience and discussion. Up to this point anybody with paper and pen and reasonable game sense could be the designer.

The transition from paper to digital prototype (on the way to competitive commercial product) was the next step and where the impressive magic happens. With a lot of code and artwork already on hand, a digital version was assembled that was playable within two weeks. Very shortly thereafter one of our teammates living in Canada was playing another colleague living in Chile (South America). Within four weeks we were demonstrating the game in the office of a possible partner.

I write this a little short of two months from the date of the photo, yet build #69 was shared yesterday. That is more than one new version a day of the computer prototype. I don’t recall ever seeing a game we’ve worked on prototype and iterate so rapidly. It’s impressive to be part of it.

The value of prototyping in this manner is that you can quickly make and test changes, even to large systems. With skill and a little luck, we hope to reach a point where we believe the game is entertaining, newly innovative, and competitively positioned. Even if we get to that sweet spot in a few months, however, the game would be a long way yet from complete.

Assuming the prototype converts into a successful game concept, then we advance to creating all of the content—maps/boards, units (2D or 3D), animations, special effects, sound, interface, etc. That will be the bulk of the work required to build a commercial game, but we can make that effort because the prototyping process has convinced us we are on the right path.