“Pushing Prototypes.” Music intro/outro, Béla Fleck

Rough transcript to this audio file available below.

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Pushing your prototype beyond the written word

Let’s start with this wholly objective observation: Based on what I’m seeing so far, both on the blog and through our emails, texts, and conversations, I’m convinced that many of you are building prototypes that (again, just between us) in many cases far exceed the quality of those that I’d seen from my masters’-level students back East. I think that much of what I’m seeing — and we have a month to go still — is remarkable, and I’m genuinely excited to play through what you’re building.

We still have a month to go, though, and there are always opportunities for improvement, so let’s get to that: In this series of posts, I want to touch on a few of the trends I’m noticing in your design and the themes that seem to be emerging in our conversations.

The topic of this first post won’t surprise you, I’ll wager, because I’ve pointed to it repeatedly, and gone so far as to suggest that it is the most challenging hurdle to great game design for all of us: Our abiding hyper-literacy. Our endless fealty to the alphabet. Our misplaced (but sweet, really) faith in our brains’ capacity to think-things-through internally.

It is still the case for most of us that our hyper-literate brains continue to want to manage the game design process, convincing us that long descriptive paragraphs, earnest conversations, and even “picturing the process in our heads” will contribute usefully to the work of calling our games into being.

But not so much, no.

Again: You are brilliant, beautiful people with razor-sharp minds. Your presence at a world-class university at the beginning of the 21st Century means that you — literally, YOU — know and understand more about the world than 1/1000 of 1% of all the human beings who came before you! Mazel tov!

But here’s the thing: A game designer is not, as a rule, an especially smart woman. She is, instead, a clever woman, and maybe (best case scenario) a lazy one, who knows that game mechanics are best seen as complimentary — not consistent — with the way we think.

And so she keeps those mechanics outside her head, because she knows that the human race will need to spend centuries getting the hang of thinking-through complex algorithms and procedures in disciplined, careful, step-by-step fashion. As it is, our brains skip all the ugly maths and jump right to solving the problem that the mechanics seem to present, using intuition and millions of years of evolutionary genius. But game mechanics aren’t about outcomes! They are about the process itself. And for the next couple centuries, at least, that just isn’t our forte.

The consequence of that is plain: Many of us will write about ideas and document those ideas and talk through those ideas until we’re blue in the face. We love the feel of labials and dipthongs and fricatives; we love the satisfying way that our hands trace out words on a page: The way that horizontal bar atop the letter T seems so easily to loop around and become the vertical stem of the letter h. (As a kid, I was obsessed with the ligatured pairs of the letter “s” that appeared frequently in the 18th Century newspaper pages that my grandmother hung in her antiques shop. LOVED them.)

Look: Both of these technologies — spoken language and the written word — are clearly the reason why we’re at the top of the food chain. We obsess over baby’s first words; we find comfort in a dying hero’s last words. We labor over a single sentence for hours before putting it into print; we all agree that its should be “theater” on this side of the Atlantic, and “theatre” on that side. It is what we do.

And so it makes sense that almost all of us are so suspicious of just putting models into action. Maybe it feels lazy; or maybe it feels like if we can’t do it internally, it somehow shouldn’t count. And so we hesitate to let things play out externally.

Sometimes that anxiety means that we wait as long as possible to get started with playtesting. I see cases where many of us are comfortable with play testing only once they have the whole first draft of a game built.

That series of playtests will be very important, to be sure. But those should not be your first playtests: By that point, you’ve lost so much time designing bits of play that will never make it into the project.

So, as we’ve said before: Iterate. Tiny, quick, slap-dash back of the envelope tests. Don’t make it formal, don’t look for perfection, just get something up and running and watch where things go. Think with your hands and the dice, not with your brain. Offload, off-shore.


So let’s say that I am preparing to play-test a game that I have rattling around in my head: For the moment, I’m calling it “The Chess,” but that may change. I expect it to be very big: Its got a kinda medieval theme and castles and kings and even mounted knights.

So I’ve decided that I’m going to use a conventional checkers board as a playing field… I know the pieces that I probably want to use for play, but I’m not sure how they’ll be moved around on the board. So what’s a designer to do?

One solution is to assign each of the pieces certain kinds of movement, throw them all together, and see how a game plays out. That can work, but if you’ve ever played Valve’s version of AutoChess (“Underlords”), then you know the problem you’ll immediately face: Since every move of each piece effectively adds more datapoints to your decision process, you’ll rapidly lose the ability to sort through that data. Underlords glories in that confusion: It makes it exceptionally difficult to know what works and what doesn’t. But in playtesting, that’s a problem that renders my efforts moot.

SO I need to break things down and work more granularly. Test iteratively, working in artifically tiny, limited batches. Don’t set up sixteen pieces against sixteen pieces. Start with a knight on the board, and just get a feel for how one pattern of movement could play out versus how another pattern. What if Knights always moved two left, or two forward, or two to the right? Not awful. But if we go with the two-forward, one-left or one-right approach, it does feel more dynamic, doesn’t it? If I set some dummy pieces up on the playing field, I can try using those patterns to move around other pieces. See how it feels like I’m actually leaping over hurdles and barriers? I like that.

It does make me think though that 4 Knights per side would be too much, too powerful. I’ll make a note of that, and test out that idea later.

Again, don’t overthink it. Think of your game as a bored, mostly unlikeable 5-year-old for whom you are babysitting. Just keep it busy: Throw one thing after another in its direction and see what sticks. Anything to keep the mechanism moving, to keep coming up with new answers, new possibilities.

There’s a computational sociologist whom I like at the Santa Fe Institute who does work on what is called “Agent-Based Modeling.” He makes the argument that we need to rethink our expectations of the scientific method (which is, loosely, what we’re using here). He says that science shouldn’t be limited to providing answers: Instead, he says, we should make use of the scientific method as a way of asking more interesting questions. You see the difference here: Traditionally, science is understood to arrive at increasingly iron-clad ideas about the world, or human behavior, or time. But this approach argues instead that scientific methods — testing, iterating, re-testing — can be interesting not for what they prove, but for the hunches or insights they might inspire.

I love that idea. Your rapid iterations don’t have to end with a clear answer about how the Knight is best moved around the field. With luck, though, those quick tests will lead to new, even better questions. If the Knight is so good at leaping over obstacles, should I add lots of soldiers to the field so that there are always pieces to jump over?

Set yourself one tiny micro-research question after another. What if Queen can move anywhere? What if she always has to land on the color opposite of where she starts? What if she can return as a Zombie-Queen if she is killed by the opponent? If there are only two queens on the board, is it possible for one to catch the other? What if I defend the king with the queen against a Knight? Etc. Small, tiny, potentially-pointless tests. As many as you can. Until you are seized by Inspiration to do something new.

In Wednesday’s post, an example drawn from a few little designs of my own.

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