Start Ugly

The early drafts of a game you’re designing probably won’t resemble the final game. You’ll be testing rules, ideas, even the essential experience itself, and changing them repeatedly. You’ll test version 0.8, then 0.9, then 1.0, then 1.2 (1.1 didn’t stand up to scrutiny), and you’ll change a little here and a little there each time. The Space Marines will become the Border Rangers. The +6 modifier will become the ALPHA STRIKE trait. You’ll add a texture for the back of the printed playtest materials because players can see the information on the other side that’s supposed to be hidden.

Everything will be in flux, and that’s good. During prototyping, you owe it to your game to critically consider every facet if you want to improve quality and playability. It’s like writing a novel: Your goal for the first draft should be to get the words down on paper, and you’ll rewrite it over time. In game design, get the basics of your game out there and playable, and then focus on improving it.

Visually, that means you’ll want to keep things cheap and ugly. Don’t spend a lot of time or money finding or buying art to use for those Space Marines until you know damn well for the production version of the game that they’re going to be Space Marines and not Border Rangers. Given that so many things will change during prototyping and playtesting, you should minimize the time and money devoted to making it look pretty. In fact, your prototype shouldn’t look pretty. It should look cheap — because you want it to be cheap. You want to minimize the loss each time you commit some element of a given draft to the trash.

Here’s a screenshot of some of the version-one prototype materials for the Prince’s Gambit:


UGLY. So ugly. A throwaway layout with some non-optimized graphics that I reused from other projects. Laid out in an AV presentation program. But:

  • It’ll be inexpensive to print, and for playtesters to print (don’t impose on your playtesters more than you have to; they’re doing you a huge favor),
  • All the materials need to do is convery the important information, and
  • The game will receive a complete art and graphic design treatment when it’s closer to final state

When to Pretty It Up

If your game is final or suitably close to being so, you can start thinking about final production assets like art, logos, and even demo materials. All those Kickstarter videos you see that have nice materials — those are games that are done or almost done and are looking at kickstarting their print run and delivery costs, they’re not games still in full-throttle prototyping or playtesting.

If you’re trying to sell your game to a publisher, you might want to invest in some amount of visual presentation. This is a gamble, though, because a publisher likely has a production team, and if you sell them the game, their visual desires for it might not match yours. Sometimes a publisher buys a game from a designer because it looks good and they run from there. But more often, a publisher buys a game from a designer because of its play value, and they let their own team of professionals handle the trade dress. (In fact, most times, a publisher buys a game from a designer and sends it to a developer for further cultivation into a saleable product, which would potentially change thos visual elements further.)

Eventually, all your ugly prototyping should result in a beautiful game.


One thought on “Start Ugly

  1. Pingback: Destination: Pagan Lands | Justin Achilli

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