1. An original type, form, or instance that serves as a model on which later stages are based or judged.
2. An early, typical example.
3. Biology. A primitive or ancestral form or species.
Project Prototypes was the subject at a series of round tables I was fortunate enough to moderate at the
Game Developers Conference 2000. These round tables were run in a very open fashion, as a discussion
on common practices among the attendees. What emerged was an involved discussion about many of the
aspects of a project prototype and what the purpose of a prototype was.
Early in all the discussions, we tried to define what a project prototype was. Unfortunately we did
not have access to Dictionary.com or the answer would have been as handy as it was when writing this
paper. Instead, we talked it out and came to two basic definitions. A project prototype can be an
embodiment of the game vision or merely a functional testing framework. The two options are not
exclusive and in fact a good prototype may fill both definitions. Once we had the definitions down the
goals of a prototype came next.
Prototypes can be created for a number of reasons and we were able to define four major goals for
prototypes. The goals we defined were:
1. Communicating the game vision
2. Answering technical questions
3. Debugging design ideas
4. Establishing the production pipeline of the project
Communicating the vision was the goal most people defined and the number of uses in this
manner was quite large. Communicating the vision covers everything from showing someone visual
examples of what the final product will look like to demonstrating a new interface idea in an interactive
manner. We discussed using the prototype in a number of communicative roles, such as:
1. To focus the development team on a common set of goals
2. To sell the game concept to a publisher and secure funding
3. To show the marketing department to enhance their understanding of the game
4. To focus test the game concept
5. To display to the public for promotional purposes
Focusing the development team was rarely mentioned, but I feel it deserves consideration. Many
projects start with a group of highly creative people, each with his/her own amazing ideas on why this will
be the best game ever. The prototype serves to bring all this creative energy into a workable idea. It forces
the team to face many forms of limitations early, before work is already invested in content. The end result
should be something everyone can point at and agree on as the vision of the game.
Selling the concept was a fairly obvious use of the prototype as was the promotional use, as was
communicating the concept of the game to the marketing people with the prototype. The idea of using the
prototype as a focus testing tool emerged as a new role the prototype could fill, allowing the developer to
test the concept before committing full resources to development. This usage was perhaps the most
exciting, allowing not only the testing of minor features, but a sample of the public reaction to the game.
The fourth suggestion was discussed in a heated manner for quite a while, with dissenting opinions on both
sides, some felt the public should not be exposed to the game until it was almost completed, while others
felt it was a valuable tool to capture early interest. Both arguments are valid so we moved on.
Answering technical questions was another obvious use of a prototype and it was with this end in
mind we discussed the various tools used for prototyping. Some of the obvious tools were game engines,
3D art packages and professional prototyping toolkits. Two less obvious tools used for prototyping were
HTML and Pen and Paper gaming, the use of HTML was primarily for testing Gui design and flow while
the pen and paper gaming covered a variety of issues, from role playing games to AI system card games.
Debugging design ideas was often treated in the same manner as technical problems, using the
same variety of tools mentioned above. Design ideas are wonderful things and many great ideas that seem
completely bulletproof seem to fall apart when you try to implement them. Even implementing the ideas in
a very simple manner often shows limitations in the design you never imagined.
The idea of using a prototype to develop the production pipeline for the project was a new notion
to many novice developers and brought a grin to the faces of veteran developers. The idea of a production
pipeline is keyed towards larger projects, but is still applicable to smaller projects. The production pipeline
is really just a workflow layout allowing people to interact with varied tools and still have the content
appearing in the engine. Prototyping in this area is about testing and debugging the tools and the workflow
for getting content into the game. This could be art, sound or any other content required. The discussion
mainly centered on the art pipeline and we discussed most of our points in that context. At BioWare we
have the various tasks required to get a 3D model into the game broken up among multiple people. This
means there will be a number of persons with varied tools touching the content before it enters the game.
Our pipeline not only involves the tool workflow, but also the personnel workflow through the project. As
part of the discussion, I made the statement that: “when you license an engine for a game, the render engine
is its least valuable element.” I firmly believe that much of the value from licensing an engine is that
someone else has suffered through the content integration procedure and has at least partially debugged the
process already. As well, the tools are usually larger in scope than just getting “something on the screen”
they address other important in-game issues such as collision detection and scene management.
In conclusion prototyping is an important part of game development and can save you a great
amount of time in production. If you skip the prototyping phase, you may still have to answer the same
questions only it will be later in development and some content may have already been created in an invalid
format. I would like to take this time to thank all the people who attended my roundtable and to say it was
a great experience to get together with other developers and discuss game development.