January 22nd, 2013 NY Gaming's Meetup - Deep Dive: How to Master Prototyping Your Game Idea on Paper


On Tuesday, January 22, 2013, OLC attended NYGaming's Deep Dive: "How To Master Prototyping Your Game Idea on Paper" hostedd by AOL. The event's keynote speaker, Joshua DeBonis, is the CEO of Sortasoft Games and he is an award-winning game developer. Sortasoft Games is an indie game studio in Brooklyn. DeBonis is currently developing a historical RPG game, Meriwether, which is in full-force production.


Josh DeBonis began by asking, "What's a paper prototype?" To him, it is the most rough, simple version of a game that is playable. "Sometimes it evolves into a full game," he said. The point of the first iteration of a paper prototype is that it is purely about gameplay. "A paper prototype is concerned with game mechanics and it's non-digital. It's a time and money saver. When you are Paper prototyping, rapid iteration is really important," DeBonis said. "Faster prototyping means faster iterations. And, paper prototypes don't need any programming."

His process of prototyping was first starting with a theme. "I usually find game mechanics that invoke a theme," he said. "Then, I make a paper prototype as fast as I can. And because I'm making it as fast as I can, I'm also not focusing on how good the prototype looks. It's important to purposely make it ugly. That way, you don't get attached to any features of the game because you didn't invest a whole lot of time into it. You have to be comfortable with throwing away features that end up becoming non-essential to the game." DeBonis also said to play the prototypes at least twice. "Plat every iteration twice for a quick smoke test to understand the user's experience," he said. "Only polish to improve gameplay." He also added, "It's okay to focus on a single aspect of a game, but not always at the start of development."

To create a paper prototype for a platformer—a 2D action-based game—a series of paper screens are used for the environment and the users play the character held with a tab. A moderator enforces rules on the gameplay as necessary, acting much like limitations set by a developer to the computer. DeBonis focuses on two things when taking the prototype to users: 1) What's fun about the game and 2) How clear it is for users.

After, he said to consider things to be enumerated. In regards to "what's playful," he said to make a list of what's playful about a topic. "Think of the target demographic, the game topic, your aesthetics and apply it to something interesting, funny, whimsical, clever, and so on." He focused on his previously developed game that involved farming. "What's playful about farming?" he asked. "Just farming in general." He turned to "what's systemic" about the game—the "gears in the game," next. "Think of interaction, numeric values, stats, what's classifiable, what's combinable, complexity, patterns, behavior and rules," he said. "And what's systemic about farming? There are resources that you have to use, like seeds and food to feed your animals, resources to harvest, market prices and animal behaviors..." Finally, he said to think about action possibilities, which are verbs: "What can you do to it? What can you do with it?" DeBonis quoted Donald Norman: "Affordances are readily acceptable action possibilities." DeBonis said to "think about actions that aren't conceivable [to perform], but make it conceivable to players—this would be the challenge on your end." The action possibilities of farming are taking care of flowers and plants, harvesting, driving a tractor, tilling, and so on.

It was at this point that DeBonis asked the audience to make their own paper prototype. A theme was picked: circus, and went through the steps that would be the foundations for a gaming prototype. The playfulness of the game was determined by: pyrotechnics, animals in funny costumes, acrobats, clowns, ringmaster, daring feats, music and sideshows. The systemic ends of the game were: ticket prices, concessions, audience approval, balance, location, sequence, staff, tent size and color. The action possibilities were: being the ringmaster, performing a sideshow, performing (in general), growing circus, quality of acts (judging), layout, backstage prep, feeding animals, settling lawsuits, hiring staff and ticket tacking. From there, he asked the audience to form groups and create their own game. He handed out five cards and two dice for each group, one for each category and added two elements to the game: chance and strategy. The limitations posed on creating a game, at least to DeBonis, would help give more grounding and focus to the developers.

"Finding your core fun is important," DeBonis said. "It's more important than finding other mechanics. Also, the more constraints set for your means more focus and a better prototype." DeBonis revealed that his way of prototyping included looking at old board games to understand their mechanics.

The presentation concluded with DeBonis listing a few locations to playtest games: NYC Playtest (nycplaytest.tk), Come Out and Play (eyebeam.org) and NYU Game Center.

Josh DeBonis's Twitter is @joshdebonis

Last month's recap: http://www.officeleasecenter.com/articles/december-19th-2012-new-york-gaming-meetups-demo-night-at-microsoft.html