Inspired by the Global Game Jam 2012 we decided to put together a small article about paper prototyping, or, to be more specific, about User Experience Prototyping focusing on interactive experiences such as games and applications.

What is a prototype?

“[A prototype is a] simplified and incomplete models of a design to explore ideas, elaborate requirements, refine specifications, and test functionality.”
William Lidwell, Universal Design Principles

In general, the functions of a prototype can be broken down to the following aspects:

  • to explore ideas
  • to elaborate requirements
  • to refine specifications
  • to test functionality

In most cases, a prototype will be focused on a smaller set of those aspects. Essentially its’ central function is being an efficient communication medium. In order to become an efficient communication medium, a transoformation process must take place: Transforming vague or abstract concepts into something concrete. Prototypes can be helpful in almost every step of a design process, from the exploration of ideas to fine tuning or testing and finalizing the product.

Let us focus on the first two aspects mentioned in the previous list: Exploring ideas and elaborating ideas. If you’re interested in a more holistic view on the topic we suggest reading this article series written by Arnold. Another excellent article dealing specifically with paper prototyping for games can be found on Gamasutra.

Paper prototypes

Paper prototypes are especially effective when developing interactions as a team. Paper prototypes are easy to produce, accessible and should be used before going digital in order to clarify an approach. As a rule of thumb, the more complex the interactions to develop are, the more work should be put into the paper prototype. At the same time one should be aware that interactions which rely heavily on real-time action are not suitable for paper-prototypes.

It doesn’t make sense to prototype live action, however, it makes a lot of sense to plan and balance its components

Another critical aspect when dealing with game prototypes is the gap which exists between initial prototypes and advanced prototypes which serve to playtest or balance specific mechanics. For initial prototypes it is sufficient to move things around without getting too much into the rules or mechanical (specific) behaviors. However, as soon as one really wants to test the idea by getting into details, rules become fundamental. At this point things can start become complicated, since additional elements need to be introduced to simulate mechanics adequately. One may end up introducing playing cards and dice to simulate random events, a timer and a divided up playfield for simulating speed, and so on. By this, the prototype becomes more a type of boardgame.

The question of course is, how far one wants to go with analog tools, which sometimes may be hard to answer and is highly individual from team to team, depending in it’s constellation and of course the game project itself.

We gathered some paper prototype presentations we’d like to share. All of them focus on the the inital steps or presentation of the idea and are not getting deep into simulation of mechanics.

If you already gathered some experience with paper prototypes feel free to comment. We’d like to hear about your paper-based approach to interaction prototyping!

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