Prototyping is the name I use to describe a set of methods that use various means (paper & pencil, software, etc.) to model game mechanics and balance the play mechanics. As a game design tool, prototyping is best used during the design phase (or the phase where the design needs elaboration). Waiting long periods of time without a means to evaluate the game-play experience and the inability to rapidly make changes makes an iterative design process slow and cumbersome, prototyping offers the designer a way to create aspects of the game or a working model of the game.
The main characteristics of prototyping are:
- A playable version of the game or an aspect of the game
- A way to communicate the game mechanics and play mechanics
- A way to evaluate (e.g. play-testing) the game-play experience
- Allows for quick changes (iterations) to the design
There are several methods a designer can choose from to prototype his/her game design. The software method is prototyping your game's design by building it with software or supporting the prototype with software. The software method can be used to prototype both digital and analog game design. The paper method uses pieces from analog games, along with craft and office supplies to build prototypes. The physical method is a kind prototype created through acting, playing, props or pretending.
(2) Time & Cost
The most significant difference between the methods is time, which for many also translates to money. Generally speaking, the software method takes the most amount of time and has the least amount of flexibility. Physical prototyping offers the greatest amount of flexibility and costs the least amount of time.
(2) Fidelity Issues
Software prototyping for digital games has an advantage of higher fidelity to the eventual game, but when used for analog games has no fidelity. It can however be used as a method to simulate play and scenarios. Paper prototyping offers extremely high fidelity for analog games (e.g. board games, card games, etc.), but offers digital game less fidelity and requires "translation" from analog to digital. Physical prototypes often have low fidelity because the mechanics are not as explicit like in other methods.
Prototyping is used to make current design ideas explicit so that they can be evaluated and easily iterated upon, which can be more effective if you define the scope before hand. The broader the scope of the prototype the longer it will take to create, and depending on the complexity of your game can also make balancing more difficult. Concepts like vertical slice, horizontal slice, core, progression, meta, individual game mechanics and play mechanics, are possible scopes for a prototype. Software prototypes tend to be best when dealing with limited scopes (e.g. core game mechanics). Pitfalls of software prototyping is that the scope is actually concerned with technology issues and not the game's design. Physical and paper prototypes can be tailored to any scope, the paper method tends to be better at formalizing the design.
Prototyping is one of the best ways to communicate a game's design, because your development team can play and experience the game's design.
Having a prototype allows the game designer to use evaluation design tools (e.g. play-testing) earlier in the development process.