Prototype a game: from paper to digital

14.08.20-Proto-BD

The very first paper prototype

In our previous post, we talked about the conceptual origins of Revery – Duel of Dreamers and how what was only an idea thrown on a virtual board became a real game made of cardboard tiles and plastic figurines.

However, until proven otherwise, Cheese Burgames doesn’t make toys but video games. Our first prototype has seen numerous variations during our weeks of tests but it was important that it comes back to the digital world as soon as possible.

Finger on the problem

Considering a turn-based strategy game, it is very efficient to test different sets of rules with physical elements made of paper or cardboard. If you want to change those rules or just a detail, you only need a pencil and a eraser. Your brain and those of your fellow testers are able to adapt immediately to the new conditions, while it can take several hours, or even several days, to programmatically implement them.

Nonetheless, there are two things a paper prototype won’t get you: the rythmn and the feeling produced by a gameplay in its digital version. Indeed, moving a figurine on a board with your bare hands is nothing compared with enjoining a virtual character to go from A to B in two clicks. You can’t validate some aspects of your game without a digital prototype.

Two players or nothing

Premier prototype de Revery - Duel of Dreamers

First “tablet” prototype with gravestones instead of Dreamers!

For our first digital prototype, we decided to reproduce exactly the play mode we were testing for the past weeks, in other words the “local” two players mode. We wanted to playtest the game with public while we were attending the Toulouse Game Show in November 2014. Due to logistic considerations, we also decided that the prototype would run on iPad.
Focusing on the two players mode offers several advantages. First, it allows to work on the different phases of the game, without having to consider story, business model or even artistic direction. No need for an artificial intelligence either. Two fully functional brains do the trick.
Second, it helps us evaluating the importance of information to display during games. We often want to give a lot of details to the player, but it is generally not relevant, nor useful.
Finally, the prototype stage is trully critical to understand what is the best way to play digitally. Basic controls, visual and audio feedbacks, gameplay can all be tuned and fixed at that moment. Big mistakes are also easy to avoid with the prototype.

From concrete to abstract

Now you’re here. You wake up a morning and decide to program a prototype. But how do you do that ? Don’t try to force your cardboard hexagonal tiles through the USB port of your computer. It’s a little more complicated than that. Even if the purpose of this post is not teaching code, we still can consider something of a method, that said a very personal one.
In the real world, we have two types of elements: concrete elements (called “objects”) and intangible elements (called “concepts”). In our case, the “objects” are the hexagonal tiles and the figurines. The “concepts” are everything related to the rules (character life points, movement options, bonuses, maluses, victory conditions, etc.).
Designing the virtual self of an object is fairly simple. We draw or model in 3D the said object and we implement it in the virtual world, at its relevant location. But, this is not enough. Those objects don’t know better how to move or interact than your plastic figurine. This is where concepts come to play. And it gets more complicated. For basic gameplay rules, it remains relatively common. There are already many turn-based games, even more in the strategy subcategory. If you are not able or do not want to program entirely you game engine, you can find advanced examples you can customize to fulfill your needs. But for the rules that are specific to your game, you are alone in front of your keyboard and you’ll have to find the best way to do by yourself. In the case of a prototype, don’t aim for the best code ever. There is a good chance that many things you’ve produced will be changed or removed in the next iteration (and you will probably add many others on the way).

In our case, coding our first prototype took about three weeks. At that time, we had a game with limited graphics, but playable and which we could consider a good base to iterate upon.

Let’s be clear, the current game has little in common with the version of november 2014. But it was important to go through this. In a future post, we will explain how user playtests helped us evolve and improve the game.

(Video of the first prototype with 3D figurines)

Published on the Sunday February 21st, 2016 in Blog, News