Oct 182023

Is there a thing you know you should do, but don’t? With me, for years, it was paper prototyping. Paper prototyping is the process of sketching out a game design, literally, with pencil and paper, and then playtesting the design ideas you have before you ever sit down in front of a computer. Instead of a computer modeled character you can use an action figure. Instead of generating a random number you have dice throws. Most games have many mechanics that can also work in a board game context, though there’s obviously lots of gamefeel related aspects that need to be digitally tested.

It’s the same as the filmmaking principle that “paper is cheaper than film”, that ideas in a paper script can be added and removed and problems solved far more easily than after a scene has been shot. I would never dream of shooting a short without a script, but it took a familiar motivator to get me creating my first paper prototype:

When it’s hard for me to do something for myself, I can often do it to help someone else.

At a previous job, I took on the task of running a series of ideation sessions for new games, and as part of it I had the team members make paper prototypes from ideas they’d brainstormed. In order to demonstrate it I made my first paper prototype, a Lemmings-inspired game set in an travelling amusement park called Bilk the Rubes. My team members decided where to put their drunk carnies and then find out how much money they made at the end of the day. Putting them on the games of chance rather than the rides might result in fatalities and having to pull up stakes. It was fun to see how it played out and I made some changes for the next iteration.

A few months later, I was thinking about the upcoming Toronto Game Jam. (Jams are time restricted game creation events than can be on or offline.) TOJam has run since 2006 and I’ve done it several times before to make fun little games with friends or relative strangers who are up for it.

Often I start with just bouncing ideas I have off people. One year I was really obsessed with the idea of orphan gloves, those sad single gloves you see abandoned in the street during the winter. All alone! Useless! Doomed! But I would rarely have a game design and rely on the strength of a weird concept, the idea that it was only 3 days, and the modest social capital I have as a community organizer and creator. I relied on my collaborators to take it on faith that I had an achievable vision, because they often couldn’t see how it was a game, exactly.

So before I reached out to the people I wanted to work with, I created a paper prototype for a game idea I had. Punk House is a tiny resource management game set in 1999 where you distribute dumpster dive finds every morning to feed your roommates and inspire them to make rad music and zines.

It looked terrible, of course, because I’m a terrible artist, but when I got on a video call with Matt Hammill and Jay Bond I was able to play it with them — they enjoyed it and, just as importantly, instantly saw how it could be a digital game. When I asked if they were up to do it during TOJam they were happy to jump aboard.

I realized then that I’d overlooked that a paper prototype wasn’t just good for design refinement, but it was an incredible communication tool for other members of the team — the way a storyboard sketch can be between a director and cinematographer.

I worked on revising and getting feedback on the design document so that when we started the jam we were able to just execute on that for two days straight. It was an enjoyable time that I spent mostly sourcing fonts and sound effects, and this is where we got to.

We didn’t complete a game loop, which allows you to test the basic mechanic, but I found myself quite relaxed about it.

Which was strange for me — because I am a compulsive finisher. I never wanted to be that guy who talked about stuff abut never did anything. And it’s served me well in much of my life, but like any extreme, has some sharp edges. Normally I would shift into a fundraising mode to hire my collaborators (or other folks, if they were unavailable) to continue working on the game.

But I assessed the situation, strategically: there was no commercial potential in a quirky mobile game, which would have made industry funding unlikely. And there was very little experimental artistic value in it, which made it a long shot for any arts grants. 

It was just a fun little thing I did with my friends on a weekend! What a wild concept. Really, the best thing I took from it was how valuable paper prototyping is as a communication tool. (I imagine snapping it into a utility belt that would put Batman to shame.)

As I walk out of the Punk House and on to other adventures it occurs to me that maybe it’s my compulsive finisher tendencies that kept me away from paper prototyping in the beginning — a younger me would view that first step of a project as an implicit commitment, before I plotted out any way to progress beyond the paper.

Hopefully now that I have a willingness to doodle and leave the napkins on the table, I’ll be freer to start a thousand whimsical maybe-projects and let them land where they may.

Let the seeds fly!

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