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If there’s one thing the video game industry needs more of, it is time. Every video game gets made in the end, but how it’s made – from a great idea to a playable prototype – takes a lot of iterations. That iteration is what game design is all about. To make a game requires both creativity in deciding atmosphere, story and aesthetics, and technical know-how to decide on mechanics, balancing and more. All of this is done by a game designer. But what is game design exactly, and how do you get from your first idea to a playable prototype? As it turns out, there are a lot of different ways to do this. The most traditional method is a version of waterfall development.
You start by designing the whole game on paper, then implement it (using programming in a video game or creating boards and pieces for a non-digital board or card game), test it to make sure it works, then add graphical polish and finish. A less common approach is iterative design, where you play your game and evaluate it for what it is doing right and wrong, and then change it accordingly. Some people also use an iterative approach where they continuously design, test and improve a game over its lifetime. In any case, a good prototype is essential for determining whether or not your game design is working. That’s because the playability of a game is a crucial part of the overall experience, and the prototype allows you to play your game and see if it actually works the way you intend.
This can be a daunting task, as it’s easy to lose sight of your original vision as you tinker with the mechanics of your game. The best way to keep the original spark alive is by keeping it simple. Ideally, your prototype should fit on the back of a napkin or a small notebook so that it’s quick to write down and test. It’s also helpful to limit your design choices at this stage. That may sound counterintuitive, but creativity sometimes needs structure in the same way a car needs a road. Limiting the choices, you have to work with can help preserve that spark of genius while forcing you to think creatively within those limits. Try out different constraints – like only using dice, all cards, language-independent card icons, no more than 18 cards, etc. You should always document your work.
A rough rules document is useful, especially as you iterate your prototype. You can even create placeholder artwork to bind it all together, but it’s important to avoid getting stuck at the detail level. That’s more development work than design, and it can often be confusing for players if the rules are not clear at this point. There are many other important aspects to game design, such as balancing difficulty and learning curve, defining how the game ends and how it starts, how player actions affect it, how much information to present, and so on. But the bottom line is that game designers are the planning arm of the development process, and without it, no video game would be ever made.