So you realize that it's important to prototype your ideas before launching into production -- but how do you do it? Arkadium's director of R&D, Tom Rassweiler, lifts the veil on his company's process and explains why it shifted to central R&D for new game prototypes.
As the director of Research and Development at Arkadium, I'm tasked with identifying unique and successful game mechanics for our future games. Based on my experience, I'd like to share some tips on how to implement effective prototyping with the use of an R&D team.
The decision to move to a central R&D model was not made lightly. We have a long track record of successes nurtured via an ad-hoc method of idea-creation based on individual and team initiative. However, a variety of changes in the game industry and in Arkadium's target platforms have dictated our forming a dedicated R&D team.
The use of prototyping and how to predict whether a game will be fun or a flop
Due to new distribution methods, new audiences, and new platforms, the game industry is now rewarding unique, creative game ideas like never before. New, lucrative genres are being discovered and capitalized on, such as endless-runner, mobile asynchronous multiplayer, touch storybook, and unique physics (rope, slingshot, fluid).
In response to the increasing complexity of the industry, the idea of effective prototyping is very hot. Companies such as Double Fine, Firehose Games, and PopCap are extremely vocal about the advantages of the rapid prototyping process. At GDC 2012, there were 14 talks that were focused on prototyping, compared to six in 2011 and five in 2010.
Prototyping is useful because the best way to know whether a game will be fun is to play it. You can discover problems and stop development on unprofitable ideas early. You can focus on the core elements/risks of the game without distraction, and you can collect feedback and analytics from real players about the potential success of the game mechanic before sinking a lot of money into it.
When a company is searching for a new hit game mechanic, quantity equals quality: the more game mechanics you try, the more likely you will find a unique game that has the potential to be a hit. A classic example is Rovio Entertainment. Rovio is frequently cited for having released more than 50 games without a hit before launching its record-breaking Angry Birds. So the more ideas that are tested, and the faster and more efficient the prototyping and prototype evaluation, the more likely you will find that hit game. Had Rovio effectively prototyped these games quickly before releasing them, Angry Birds might have been released much earlier.
Signs that you need more prototyping
The advantages of prototyping are generally well known, and most development teams spend sometime prototyping before each project. However, it is also generally true that teams never feel they have enough time to prototype well, especially when clients or managers are heavily focused on quick revenue.
Often, this tension is good. Teams should have deadlines for prototypes, and short schedules for prototyping ensure that they stay focused and avoid getting drawn into over-polishing. However, be alert for the following warning signs that mean your company may need to invest in more prototyping, and possibly even to create a dedicated team for it.
- You've pitched games to clients, or started projects and then a couple of months into development (or worse yet, at the point of release) you realize that the game mechanic is neither fun nor intuitive. A prototyping team can keep your company from wasting time and investment on games with deep problems in the mechanic.
- If you hear yourself saying, "Our competitor uses this solution all the time, and they must have done user testing, so let's just do it that way" -- then you're just following other teams. You're not innovating. Worse yet, you're not learning anything for yourself. R&D can help you develop your own solutions.
- If you're a company that previously made small games with small teams, but are starting to expand into bigger, more complex projects, you will need to set aside more time upfront for prototyping and evaluation.
- If you are having problems developing successful microtransaction-based games, you're facing a corollary of the above problem with project size: microtransaction-based games require a lot more time to create content, balance the economy and test. This extra time will be wasted if the mechanic isn't perfect.
- Finally, be wary if you're having a hard time building a quality brand with your consumers. Building a quality brand requires that you release successful games consistently. Good prototyping can help you avoid releasing flops and ruining your company's image and your player's trust.