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The Siren Song of the Paper Cutter: Tips and Tricks from the Trenches of Paper Prototyping
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The Siren Song of the Paper Cutter: Tips and Tricks from the Trenches of Paper Prototyping

by Tyler Sigman []

September 13, 2005 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next


Oh, Sweet Sound of Paper Going ssschunk!

For 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.

Actually, 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.

However, 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.

“Me HEART Paper Cutter”

A 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 Prototype)

Before jumping into specifics of prototype construction, a quick review is in order to establish why paper prototyping can be beneficial to digital game projects.


    If 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 labor.

    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.
  2. 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 structures.
  3. Test Balance

    Similar 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.

    Your 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.
  4. Test Flow

    Although 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.
  5. 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 make them.
  6. Fill in Rules Holes

    I'm 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.
  7. 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.

    There 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

Although 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.

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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