If Ideas Are Worthless, Then Prototypes Are More Worthless (If That’s Even a Word)

I’ve expressed my interest to board games, and they have helped me to appreciate the value of ideas. Prototyping and rapid game development is really good step away from plans and concepts. I really like the idea of prototyping ideas.

With that being said, I hardly think that ideas are worthless. On the contrary. Some ideas can be really valuable. For example, the Thee Hundred project (that lists all sort of funky ideas) is filled with all sort of ideas. True, alone the value of those ideas and mechanics might be close to zero but the fact that this guy has openly shared the ideas makes them much more valuable. The ideas can become inspiration to people. Some people might borrow these ideas and use in their own games, thus adding the value. These ideas are not worthless, even though there’s no direct execution.

Similarly, in board games. There’s tons of ideas and mechanics available. The ideas that board game designers get can be very valuable: the next dramatic change can open doors to new forms of playing. Cooperative gaming looks like to be one really interesting mechanism (although nobody notices that it’s been here forever: solitaire, which is always played so that one player controls the cards and the four guys behind his back act as advisors…). When people get new ideas about how the mechanism can work, and share the ideas, the ideas themselves become valuable.

The ideas can help developers to get more done, and explore new things.

Of course totally alone – ideas that sit in some corner without use – are close to worthless. But, similar thing can be said about prototypes. Sure, prototyping is a great aid in almost any project work (whether it be board game or video game projects or anything), but prototyping in computer programming can be expensive. Board games are easy to prototype with just using pretty much anything you have at hand. Video games are harder to prototype: sure, many turn based can be somewhat prototyped with pen & paper for example, but real time video games might often require some sort of programming (or experiments from other games).

So, while ideas might be worthless… prototypes actually can be less valuable (or more expensive to say it differently). Time spent doing a “idea prototype” in your head can be very little (especially when you use the hours when you sleep…) but putting programming hours into rendering some sort of mock-up view means spending time. And spending time is expensive.

If prototype is useless, then you’ve just wasted quite a bit of time (and money). If idea is useless, you can brainstorm to get 9 more for the price of one prototype (just random number).

Bottom line is…

I think that the next guy who (1) wants to make a new fantasy MMO, (2) and haven’t done any games before, but (3) just needs 20 people to join his team could use a wake up call from the world of prototypes: putting together an online pong could give him bit of idea what he is going to face.

On the other hand, developers who think that (1) ideas are worthless and (2) prototypes rocks, could consider the fact that a hybrid model could work better: first get 20 ideas, then prototype 5 without a computer, and then make a mockup proto from 1. Repeat five times and you’ll eventually find a winner.

Petri Purho from Kloonigames mentions that “90% of prototypes are crap” (his 10th prototype was Crayon Physics by the way).

Instead of prototyping in computer, I think it’s first good to think of ways to prototype without programming anything new.

Your thoughts?

Juuso Hietalahti


  1. Here’s Chris Hecker’s and Chaim Gingold’s lecture on prototyping (at GDC 2006): http://chrishecker.com/Advanced_Prototyping

    Highly recommend listening to it. One of the things they point out is the cost of prototyping. And how it’s important to fail as soon as possible. Which seems counter intuitive.

    Prototypes come in different costs. Some ideas take a long time to implement and if the time goes higher than 2 weeks it’s probably not worth the prototyping cost. Or you’re probably trying to prototype too complex / big idea and you should probably dissect it to smaller pieces. On the other hand the best kind of prototype is the kind that you don’t have to implement. When you find out that someone already has used that idea somewhere. Or you can easily test the idea out with pen and paper.

  2. One idea is to use simple tools you know really well, and then do iterative designing with the prototype. While the programming could be a problem of time, using a tool you are really familiar with can limit the damage. I for one intend to use Game Maker as a prototyping tool, when I get around to doing prototypes.

    Another idea is to make generic prototypes such a board games, card games, racing games and what ever else you want. This has two benefits. First is giving you a starting point for specific prototypes. The second is getting experience and possibly more ideas.

    Mostly I think it’s important to be very familiar with your prototyping tool(s). Programming can work well for those who can crank it out in a few hours, just like somebody else could use boardgames and tabletop systems for testing. Play with your tools. Get good with your tools. Then prototyping should be easier.

  3. I barely see people come up with new ideas for games, and that is kinda a failure already from the point where the game design hasn’t even started.

    If I look at myself as consumer, I don’t feel like buying any games, except if they offer a more realistic graphics than Crysis, or if they are are a sequel to a game which was always good, like Delta Force or Command & Conquer, or if they have some revolutionary new game idea. I bought Armadillo Run for that reason, it was a 2D physics game with quite simple graphics, but the gameplay and idea was too fun.

  4. Well, if you’re prototyping ideas you think are bad, of course you’re wasting your time. You should never commit to a prototype until it’s passed your personal filter, and any preproduction mocking up you can do. Until tested, an idea is a concept with a list of unknowns. Unknowns you can predict, and unknowns you can’t. Going from idea to production is a risk. A prototype is about eliminating unknowns, and does it with a minimal amount of work. Prototyping should not be confused with a vertical slice, which many “game in a week” projects and compo’s produce. Developing a good prototyping regime, while a lot of work if you’re not familiar with your bottlenecks, lets you iterate ideas quickly. A good prototyping regime should minimize waste too, allowing you to refactor your design (once proven) and begin production. Prototypes can build off each-other too, just as ideas do.

    If you’re doing it right, prototyping, mockups, and conceptual development are not mutual exclusive. It’s the unified process of preproduction. And it’s just the nature of the beast that some ideas, once explored, don’t work. The sooner you can move on to an idea that does, the better.

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