In an interview from last summer at GenCon, Reiner Knizia talks about Prototyping board games. Thanks to Seth BenEzra for the link. I'm just picking on a small part of this, but the whole thing is worth a read. What he said about Prototypes speaks to me about playstorming, playtesting, and publishing ashcans or playtest drafts.
Creating and testing games is the longest part of the process. It's important to brainstorm and generate a lot of ideas, and to actually set aside time for creating, and not just between phone calls. That part is freeform, which then becomes much more structured during testing.
This is the playstorming part. It may look something like what the Imagination Sweatshop folks do. Or it might be you sitting in your living room with a notebook and some dice, sweating it out and feeling inspired. We all have to spend some amount of time in this process. Giving it a name and sharing it with others is just giving it a form, and a major boost of energy, that it wouldn't otherwise have—but it would be there nonetheless.
Testing is the process of continuous revision. The designer needs to watch the playtesters carefully for points where there are question marks.
This is the playtest part. Ben talked about how he approached playtesting in his recent interview on The Independent Insurgency. He describes taking a game text that is 90% or as much as possible what you want it to be, and then playing it as written for a full session to see how it operates in full. Luke, Thor and the Burning crew are notorious for putting games through their paces and being merciless in their testing and tempering of the games. It's a process that is critical, but, I think, can come too soon, when people are still in the brainstorming and crafting stage. There are psychological elements to the process of game design that are important as well. If someone loses their belief in their game, they may abandon the project over a hurdle, when the game itself just needed more time.
The designer needs to be both creative when designing and a businessman to understand company needs. When to go to prototype has a sweet spot: do it too early, you don't know what to analyze in playtest. If you spend too long before playtesting, you've wasted a lot of work if it crashes.
Now here's the part that takes a very different look at a similar process. How often do we think of our playtest drafts as prototypes? But that is what they are. They are our ideas encoded in hard copy to allow us to be able to start communicating them with others, and to let us see how they function in the real world. Both in how they work, and in how people respond to them, or understand what you're getting at in the game. I just finished my first long term (2 months) playtest of Sign in Stranger, and so much of what I learned was about having to be sure that what I use to play the game communicates the assumptions of the game: the alien-ness of the world, the specialization of the characters and the empowerment of the players to flesh out those parts of the world.
Actually, this part of his talk makes me realize that he wasn't talking about the same thing as playstorming up above. He was simply talking about brainstorming ideas—the critical piece of playstorming, putting the ideas into motion, was missing until now.
Also, the business model he's dealing with is very different from that of an indie role playing game designer. Making a prototype is as easy as typing out a word document (or can be). It doesn't involve making custom game pieces or boards, and also doesn't represent an potential investment of thousands of dollars on the part of a large company. Just the pennies we save up to make some copies, and the sweat of our brows. Now, the timing and money lost may be similar, but I doubt most of us think of it that way.
But, here's another gem:
However, sometimes partial prototypes are made to test specific parts of a game. And pieces of games can move between different prototypes.
Partial prototypes. Targeted to help test certain parts of the game. For longer, more complex games that could be extremely useful.
Eppy's War Eternal (a dramatic game for Warhammer-esque mini combat) comes to mind. I can imagine a test module that takes you through a battle. Later editions would expand the scope to campaigns and incorporate the portable play he has in mind, where you can take your army and go beat on anybody else's army and tie the storylines you've created in other games together.
Ben's Adventures in the Land of 1000 Kings might be a good candidate. I know you are working on trying to get the world to feel more real and have a sort of weight to it, Ben, that when the players encounter it gives them a sense of awe and discovery that the game hasn't delivered yet. (Though I adore the game and am not having the problems with it that you are). It might be useful to break out this part of play and set up mini-games, taking different approaches that players can use to see if they get the kind of experience you're looking for. (And, f'r goodness sakes, is there no link for this game?)
And I realize I've been planning on doing just this for Sign in Stranger too. The game is long, long term in it's focus, and I'm taking the design stage by stage to get each part functioning right. I've been working on Quick Start rules that you can use to play in one session, at a con or what have you, and am planning on having this for free at GenCon. Sounds like Reiner would approve.
2008-07-24 12:57:32 Dave T. Game
Just a quick correction: the interview is from Origins this year, not GenCon last year.
2008-07-24 16:28:31 Emily
Ah, thank you!
2008-07-24 17:59:25 Jonathan Walton
I sometimes write entire games (short ones) just to test out ideas for future projects. Definitely prototypes. When people are shocked that I work on 20+ different game projects a year, sometimes they don't realize that most of the games I start working on and then abandon are training for other, more long-term projects.
2008-07-24 19:58:56 Emily
What are some examples, Jonathan?
2008-07-27 02:41:50 Jonathan Walton
Hmm, I wrote about some of them a while back:
A lot of them are games for contests, which I tend to see as fairly disposable, just a chance to try something out. Like the way monsters work in "Mwaantaangaand," where they have no traits or quantified abilities, but simply affect the way things are described. I was pretty proud of how that turned out, even if I haven't figured out how to use it yet.
My work on the unfinished Avatar game, the core of which we played with at that improv map thing last year at GenCon... a lot of that's now going into the new version of Transantiago, where situations develop in unexpected ways and scene framing moves between themes using a map and tokens.