Analog Prototyping for Digital Game Design
An analog game prototype is a nondigital preliminary playable object built to test various aspects of a video game. Analog prototypes are especially beneficial in testing the functionality and perception of core game ideas and mechanics in the early phases of preproduction. Analog prototypes may take various shapes such as board games, toys, and street games.
Unlike other software, functioning as intended and being user friendly are not enough for video games; they are expected to be fun. As Ferrara points out, games are “inherently negotiated experiences; the designer normally just defines the parameters of play, within which the players bring the game to life” (Ferrara 2012), meaning the prediction of how a game will be experienced by players is quite difficult without seeing it in action. To reduce the risk of not being fun – meaning failure – video games are in need of being tested from the earliest possible step on. As an answer to this need, Salen and Zimmerman suggest an iterative approach to game design, a “cyclic process that alternates between prototyping, playtesting, evaluation, and refinement” (Salen and Zimmerman 2004). This methodology gives designers the possibility to evaluate and adjust their design at each new iteration. The process may start with low-fidelity analog prototypes right after the initial conceptualization and end with high-fidelity digital prototypes, which may even become the final product after refinement and polish. This article focuses on the analog prototyping phase of this process. Why and how do digital game designers use analog prototypes?
Why Analog Prototyping?
In video game design analog prototypes are usually built to test singled out game aspects which can be implemented without the aid of computation and are not expected to reflect other features of the project. A successful analog prototype is built quickly and provides “enough of an experience for someone to grasp the game [or tested components of it] and give feedback” (Fullerton 2014). Media-independent game mechanics may be tested using paper prototypes resembling card or board games (Rollings and Morris 2004), toy prototypes may focus on the playfulness of core mechanics (Gray et al. 2005; Macklin and Sharp 2016), and physical prototypes which are played like traditional street games may offer unique insides to the intended game experience (Adams and Dormans 2012; Waern and Back 2017). Not every aspect of a video game can be tested through analog prototyping, but certain aspects of every game can be tested by it.
Analog Prototyping Process
Analog prototypes can be created using a wide range on objects. Some more or less standardized components for paper prototyping are meeples, tokens, index cards, tile cards, different types of dice, and of course pen and paper. Digital tools for creating printable graph paper or exporting data from spreadsheets into preexisting card templates can be used to quickly generate prototypes using data from early game documents. The tools for creating toy and physical prototypes are only limited by the goals and imagination of the designers.
Focusing on the iterative design of the overall gameplay experience, Fullerton proposes a four-step analog prototyping process which can be used in video game design (Fullerton 2014): The first step following the initial conceptualization is the “foundation” where the goal is the definition and design of basic game objects and the key procedures, or the core gameplay. The second step is “structure” where the designer starts building the framework of the game. By defining the essential rules and their structural roles in supporting other features, the designer builds an unfinished but functional game system. In the next iteration step, “formal details,” new rules and procedures are added to the system to reach a fully functional game. The last step is “refinement” where the designers start to fill the details of the rough but playable system. After several iterations and answering key questions regarding the playability, designers can begin implementing their solutions in digital format.
Strengths and Limits of Analog Prototyping
Analog prototyping is a fast and inexpensive way of testing game ideas by turning them into tangible playable objects. Building an analog prototype forces designers to define game aspects, helps them understand the workings and perception of the game system, and gives them the opportunity to change any rule easily if they do not function as intended. Schell warns against the trap of falling into the temptation of overbuilding a prototype. In his words, a prototype “should be quick and dirty” (Schell 2014). They are test subjects created to be thrown away. According to Ham and Fullerton, compared to digital prototypes, analog prototypes are much easier for game designers to scrap, mainly because they require much less time and effort to build (Fullerton 2014; Ham 2015).
Some aspects of video games, such as game economy and resource management mechanics (Adams and Dormans 2012; Moore 2011), puzzles (Ferrara 2012; Moore 2011), and macro- and microspatial gameplay (Totten 2014) are considered more suitable to be tested through analog prototypes. They also provide a platform to balance statistics tough experimentation and to identify and close possible player exploits (Trefay 2010). Other aspects such as sensory experiences, mechanics involving continuous space and time, and game physics on the other hand are much harder to test trough them. Ham proposes a series of methods, such as creation of flowcharts or state charts to simulate AI and the use of simple heuristics to test motion, to translate video game mechanics into analog game mechanics (Ham 2015). Yet he also warns designers to question the usefulness of analog prototypes if such translations are required. Digital prototyping may be the most efficient way of exploring aspects requiring such translations.
Analog prototyping is especially beneficial in video game design education and in experimental game design. It is an easy, quick, and cheap way of focusing on and experimenting with game ideas without being distracted with complexities of the medium of choice. Despite its limits, its flexibility makes it applicable for the testing of a wide range of features of various types of games.
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