Prototyping New Game Ideas

As we’ve hosted weekly game jams and helped organize the Global Game Jam in Madison, we’re often asked how people can start prototyping games. And we tell them:

Just do it.

Easy, right? Anyone can prototype a game. Don’t know how to program? Great! Make the prototype using physical materials or work with someone who can program. To be clear, we’re talking about prototyping gameplay––the rules that make up the game and some way to represent that state. Adding art, music, and sound effects frame the game and suggest an interpretation of the rules, but the point of a gameplay prototype is to test out the rule system.

Physical prototypes are a fast, inexpensive, and easy way to try game ideas. You really only need two things other than the idea: Something to write on and something to write with.

That’s it. Paper and pencil. 3×5 cards and a pen. Sticky notes and crayons.

These tools let you record the rules to the game and sketch the current state ranging from tick marks to a game board to content cards. If you’re planning on prototyping lots of games, then you might want to obtain more tools for convenience. In our physical game jams, most of the games use some of the following:

  • Dice. Six-sided dice are common and work great; polyhedral dice offer more control over the results.
  • Playing cards. Standard 52-card decks are most popular, with Uno cards coming in second.
  • Figurines. Buckets of plastic animals and insects are fun and complement the tokens found in other games lying around such as chess.
  • Tokens. Poker chips, aquarium stones, or Go stones all work perfectly.

The above combined with standard office supplies have supported most games made in our jams, but if you’re looking for even more suggestions check out Raph Koster’s suggested equipment.

Digital prototypes are also an option if you or a partner are comfortable programming. Simple shapes like cubes or squares are a fast way to try interactions; textures and audio can further enhance the framing and emotional impact of the game if they can be added quickly.

Luckily, there are some high-quality tools that can help. Dan Cook’s Planet Cute and Small World tiles are two collections of graphics that can work with many game styles. For audio, sfxr and its variants for OS X and ActionScript are the fastest, most flexible tool to generate sound effects that we’ve used. And the Netlabels collection has genre-ranging music, many with a permissive license.

Actually making the prototype is the fun, and hard, part. The goal for an initial prototype should be to showcase the gameplay; this can be done by describing the rules in sufficient detail so that someone else could play the game. But what if another player doesn’t understand something? Easy––just make something up and change the rules.

One other tip is to have a fixed time limit for developing the prototype. In both short 1-hour prototypes and longer 1-week prototypes, most of the work seems to happen in the last part of the alloted time; without a deadline, it’s easy to get caught up in abstract generalities instead of bringing the gameplay down into something concrete and playable.

Happy prototyping!

Other great sources of prototyping tips: