The Siren Song of the Paper Cutter: Tips and Tricks from the Trenches of Paper Prototyping
Oh, Sweet Sound of Paper Going ssschunk!
some, it's the chirping of the birds and the wind rustling through the
trees. For others it's the sun cresting over the horizon while holding
a cup of freshly-brewed coffee. And for Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now,
it was a less-traditional “I love the smell of napalm in the morning!”
Whatever it is, each of us has a “happy place” - something so core to
our person that it fills a hole nothing else can. For me, it's the
undeniably seductive lure of the paper cutter.
bollocks to all that. I hate the paper cutter! With a vengeance, even!
When I think about paper cutters, my back seizes up like an engine with
no oil, my hands cramp with memory pains, and my brain desperately
tries to think of more enjoyable alternate activities like picking up
the dog poop or visiting the dentist for an extra checkup. (Uncovered
by insurance, of course.)
The reason? Simple: I've spent far too many hours hunched over the cutter making paper prototypes.
my loss is, with any luck, your gain. This article is meant to be a
small collection of learned experiences from the paper prototyping
process; it's a mix of tips, advice, and also a modicum of philosophy
regarding the benefits of paper prototyping to assist with digital game
design. The first part is about why paper prototyping is useful; the
middle bit is about how to construct said prototypes; the end is a
crash course overview of playtesting concerns.
Short but Invigorating Exposition on the Fundamentally Beneficial
Qualities of Leveraging Paper Prototyping to Increase Total Quality of
Digital Entertainment Products. (In Other Words: Why You Should Paper
jumping into specifics of prototype construction, a quick review is in
order to establish why paper prototyping can be beneficial to digital
- THE BIGGEST REASON
you read nothing else in this article, understand that paper
prototyping can save your project TIME and MONEY. I hardly need to wax
poetic on the inestimable value of these two little guys, other than to
say that they are the two items that can never be obtained in
satisfactory quantities. (Unless perhaps you are Blizzard?)
The reason paper prototyping can save time and money is because you are
able to start examining the gameplay of your game well in advance of
large-scale coding and art asset production. You can do a creative and
functional “check-up” to see if you are on the right track. If you are,
great. If you aren't, then you can initiate needed design changes
without having to scrap hundreds of man-hours of programmer and artist
You can also find dreaded “problems.” Any problems in design cascade to
the rest of the team. For sake of analogy, let's say programmers and
artists are the large and small intestines. If so, then design problems
are chicken with salmonella sauce. You get the TechnicolorTM picture.
Saving time and money is alone reason enough to prototype. My job done,
I'm tempted to stop writing this section and go get some refreshments.
But really, the fruity goodness doesn't stop with point number 1, as
points 2 through 6 below will illustrate.
- Test Mechanics of Overall Game or a Game Subsystem
One of the most straightforward reasons to make a prototype is to test
out the overall game mechanics. You put the wheels on your game and
give it a spin, so to speak.
It's worth noting that you can make a prototype of an individual
subsystem rather than the whole shebang at once. For example, some
colleagues recently devised a prototype just to test out their game's
combat system; the prototype was never meant to capture the “whole
game”, but rather just a specific self-contained system. Other
self-contained systems might be things like economies or reward
- Test Balance
to #2. In addition to “kicking the tires” of your game, you can also
start putting the wax on--balancing. Any work you can do to balance
early will pay off in later dividends.
project is “nimble” early on. Changes aren't that hard, which is in
stark contrast to the terrible inertia that comes late in a project,
where every change costs time, money, stress, and runs the risk of
introducing cascading problems.
Take advantage of this temporary state. Iterate and improve.
- Test Flow
you have to be careful about the huge differences in game flow between
the analog and digital mediums (see later in this article), a paper
prototype can help test for good flow—after all, you are still playing
the game even if it is in a different format.
- Test Fun
Sometimes a game can perform functionally, can be perfectly balanced,
and can have a good flow, but it just isn't fun. This can be for a
variety of reasons--maybe theme is dry or the player just isn't being
challenged with interesting decisions. Whatever the reason, it's
possible that you will detect this problem early, during paper
prototyping. Again, changes are possible early, so it is the time to
- Fill in Rules Holes
always surprised at the rules holes that playtesting can discover.
There's nothing like sitting down and having to set up your game and
play it. No matter how hard you try to visualize, plan, and analyze
beforehand, playtesting will seek out holes like water in a bucket you
used for BB-gun practice. These holes may be simple structural holes,
like you forgot an important step in game setup/initialization. Or,
they might be strategy holes (dominant strategies, loopholes, etc.).
Regardless, playtesting helps bring them to light.
- Jar Your Creative Juices
“Jar Your Creative Juices, Baby!”
By “jar your creative juices”, I don't really mean there is a canning and sterilization process involved.
is a very nice side-benefit to the act of constructing and playing a
paper version of your game or game system--it presents things in a new
light. Looking at your project from a different perspective can aid
your creativity. It is similar to other techniques in brainstorming and
creative process. Chipping away at a problem from different sides helps
to break logjams that look insurmountable from head-on. I almost always
come away from my first couple playtest sessions with a ream of new
ideas for the game. Some of them are even occasionally good!
The Limits of Paper Prototyping
there are some terrific reasons to make an analog prototype of digital
game, there are also some inherent limitations to such a process. The
first, and biggest, is that there are some games for which analog
prototyping just doesn't make sense. Case in point, games where a
real-time action component is the sole mechanic.
An example is Spider-Man 2. In the excellent postmortem featured in Game Developer
(September 2004), the developers discussed how the webslinging mechanic
was absolutely central to the enjoyment of the game, and how they
wanted to improve on the control scheme of the predecessor. To that
end, they constructed a digital, playable prototype very early on in
development - much earlier than an operable build would normally be
available. For this game, it's unlikely that an analog prototype
would've been worth constructing (unless there was a subsystem to the
game that deserved modeling).
Another example is Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time.
The enjoyability of the game hinged on the fluidity of the player's
movement; it was important that the swinging, wall running, and linked
acrobatics functioned well. Like the other example, the team responded
by making an early digital prototype that captured the flow and motion
of the game.