Playing is Designing – The Analog Prototype

When a design studio is developing a game, there is a period of time during which they cycle through multiple incarnations of “the prototype”. Nearly every game can be considered to have had a prototype version. Most design companies today use a rough digital version of the game as a prototype, not taking advantage of a very useful and cheap tool available to them: The Analog Prototype.

I think that the biggest reason that large design companies don’t take advantage of analog prototyping is that it’s considered “throw-away” material. When you are designing a digital game you are most often under a steep deadline, and to take time out to put together something that will in no way be included in the final product is inefficient. Through digital prototyping they hope to salvage at least a framework of code, or a few scripts, in order to make the final product easier to produce.

I think this is the wrong way to think about analog prototypes. Instead of thinking about the effort that goes into them being a waste, consider that you are saving time in the long run by sorting through features that you will end up throwing out before the game is finished. Some of the benefits of analog prototyping are its ease of use, relatively cheap setup, and adjustability. It also can serve as a stress reliever. I’ve been in many jobs where the constant pressure of deadlines can get you down. Taking a day to build paper prototypes can be a fun experience for a designer, and can allow them to get back in the game with renewed interest.

Not all games are best suited to analog prototyping, however. Some games contain many outside factors that are best handled by simulators. Other games may have progressed beyond the point of analog prototypes and there are already scripts in place that can make the building of a digital prototype relatively simple. Still others are so simply represented in a digital medium that using paper would be too much effort.

Personally I prefer analog prototyping, because it puts me in the creative frame of mind. It allows me to work while having fun, and gives me an outlet for trying all the ideas that come up without having to redesign the game. It’s much easier for me to think creatively if I can change things on the fly, and analog games are extremely easy to make changes to. Digital prototypes would allow the creative process to stagnate as they are being built.

So when you’re out there in the real workplace, remember the benefit of post-it notes, paperclips, and paper. You just may find that a wealth of ideas comes from actually playing your game before you’ve finalized it in a digital medium. Release the inner kid, and make a game.