The dangers of paper prototyping

I’ve been an enthusiastic proponent of paper prototyping, but I’m starting to see its limitations.

I’ve been playing The Void by Ice Pick Lodge. Ice Pick Lodge are the closest thing the game industry has to David Lynch. Aesthetically the game is remarkable, but I’m not going to address any of that.

In spite of an exhaustive tutorial, it’s actually even less accessible than their début game, Pathologic. It’s shorter and easier, but the gameplay is more difficult to grasp. I restarted the game four times after screwing the pooch so badly that the game became unwinnable. The game is just so abstract that it takes a while to understand the strategy.

The game establishes a jargon of it’s own from the beginning. Hearts, Colour, Nerva, Lympha are all abstract quantities or containers for abstract quantities. The colours crimson, amber, gold, emerald, azure, violet and silver all have special properties and uses. Before long, you start to feel like you’re playing Settlers of Catan.

If a game design is built wholly on paper, it’ll continue to reflect the limitations of board games even in its final form. The Void has all the hallmarks of being prototyped as a board game, then shoe-horned into a third person adventure game. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it has drawbacks:

  • Board games can get away with game mechanics that are less intuitive than videogames. The fact that the player is carrying out rules manually guarantees that the mechanics will be tactically transparent. A videogame will need lots and lots of cumbersome UI to compensate.
  • When designing a board game, it’s really tempting to leave the theme until later. You’ll tell yourself that if the game mechanics are fun, everything else will fall into place. Usually this results in a game that’s fun, but completely impossible to fit into a theme. A game without a theme is a very dry learning experience.
  • One of the biggest differences between Pathologic and The Void is that Pathologic started with familiar concepts (sickness, medicine, exhaustion, hunger), and then exposed the player to unfamiliar ones. The Void drops the unfamiliar concepts on the player all at once.

  • If you’re designing a real-time game, there will be a distinct seam between the nitty gritty details of your simulated world and the strategy layer. It’s very difficult to integrate the two after designing the pieces in isolation.
  • Board games tend to be a lot shorter than story driven videogames. To progress in The Void, you must plan at least 5 turns ahead. With the minutes-long turns of a board game, this forward planning gives a pleasant level of strategic depth. With the hour-long turns of this action-strategy hybrid, you’ll find yourself taking pages and pages of notes just to make sure you don’t spend something you were intending to save.

The sad thing is that I think the strategy layer would’ve made a fun board game, but it detracts from inhabiting the world and interacting with the characters. There’s no synergy between the two halves of the design.

I don’t know how much the awkward game mechanics are a deliberate part of the game’s message. The resource management aspect seems intended to provide irreversibility, so that the player’s decisions have weight and poignancy. Making these weighty decisions without understanding the consequences is part of the game’s theme. For less ambitious folks like myself, who are only shooting for an enjoyable game, it remains a counter example.

5 Responses to “The dangers of paper prototyping”

  1. 1 Andrés Serrón
    November 10, 2010 at 7:07 am

    I think you miss the whole thing about this game.

    It’s true that is a very tight game, arranged in set of turns where you decisions could make you fall in this set of turns or perhaps in the next one, rarely you could get throught

    Design, action game play, glyph interaction, sparks, tits, all is there just to distract you and amuse you, the game itself is a raw psychological experience with the only purpose of get through this as you always balance between a very polarized behavior of the characters.

    I think the game offer a huge amount of mind and psy challange rather than coin up amuse.

    By the way the game manages to lead us to write a few words here and there, something should be there to make that investment.

    • November 10, 2010 at 7:33 pm

      Perhaps, but this wasn’t a commentary on the game’s symbolism or artistic intentions. Everybody has already given these things well-deserved praise. Nobody needs me to say the same things again.

      As a game creator, I’m at a very early stage. I want to learn more about making ‘coin op amuse’. After I’ve achieved that, I can use it for more artistic purposes later. I learned a lot about fun from The Void, because any other developer would have ripped it apart to make it more fun, and the lesson would be gone before we could ever see it.

      I never said that they should correct it. Like you said, the art is the most important thing in an Ice Pick game, even if it makes it less fun. I’m glad they exist.

  2. November 10, 2010 at 7:43 pm

    One more thing: their new project Cargo and its “FUN” theme, is the most unexpected thing that they could do. I’m a little bit worried, but I trust them. 🙂

  3. September 28, 2011 at 1:49 pm

    Perhaps the decision to use or not use paper prototyping reflects more on the stage the game designer is at in their art. Tadhq has a similar argument about using or not using Game Design Documents in the process of building a game. http://whatgamesare.com/2011/05/return-of-the-gdd-game-design.html His post discusses pitfalls and traps associated with GDD’s being over used.

    My counter argument is that any newcomer to game design should definitely be using paper prototyping and game design documents when the start out. At some point hopefully the developer ‘levels up’ and can move their art to the point where they are not as limited by the constraints which come from using a paper prototype as a foundation.

    Newbies should be prepared to use a Game Design Document and or a Paper Prototype in the beginning… But know that after a while (perhaps years) they need to step away from the training wheels.

    But maybe that’s just my opinion as a newbie. 😉

    • September 28, 2011 at 9:27 pm

      Woah there, paper prototyping isn’t a crutch that makes designing easier. It just makes production easier. Designing board games is tough, in many ways tougher than designing video games.

      It’s particularly tough (and slightly deceptive) when you’re trying to isolate an aspect of a larger design and test it in that isolation.

      That said, newbies totally should paper prototype, because board and card game design is an excellent place to start in game design. It gets you to hard design problems straight away, instead of requiring either a team or technical skills developed over years.

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