Opinion: Why Prototypes Can Be Good for the Player

Game development, for practical and personal reasons, is often shrouded behind the same veil as a magician’s parlor tricks. Whether it’s trying to protect contracts, maintaining secret drop rates to keep subscribers repeatedly running through MMO dungeons, or just plain trying to keep the magic of a game alive, the state of game development in 2016 is often one shrouded in secrecy and NDAs, from small indie development all the way up to AAA. 

Because of this, most of the people who play video games generally have no idea how games are made. And to be fair, there’s a lot that game developers may want never to see the light of day. Keeping players in the dark lets them focus on playing the game, and lowers the risk of a rough development cycle financially impacting a game’s sales. If players never learn how broken and buggy a game is during development, they’re more likely to assume it can be a flawless gem when they pick up their pre-order from Gamestop. 

But maybe it’s time to begin correcting that notion. As Kickstarter, Steam Greenlight, and early access programs become more and more common in creating sustainable games, what players “know” about game development begins to collide with the realities of shipping games. Double Fine’s Kickstarter legacy has been just as much about players deciding if money is being spent “properly” as it has been creating unique and off-beat games, and Uber Entertainment wrote that any alterations from their core Kickstarter video, however important for creating a good game, were frequently met with negative responses from their backers. 

One answer to solving these problems? Letting players see and play more game prototypes.

One of the biggest misconceptions the public currently has about game development is that any given game is “planned” then executed, like the way one might script and shoot a film. This isn’t the case. As designer Liz England has explained in multiple talks, games like 2015’s Sunset Overdrive find the core nugget of fun after experimentation and prototyping, not just by sticking to its original blueprints. Games more frequently are built on the foundation of an idea, usually bolstered by piece of tech or a particular skillset a group of developers possess, before iterating their way to completion and solving challenge after challenge of having the whole dang thing make sense. 

Showcasing more prototypes is therefore a great way to teach core game communities about where games come from. During the last few PAX sessions, Supergiant Games has spent their time at the show not just showcasing Transistor and new ports of Bastion, but also showing a playable prototype of Bastion from before any of the game’s most striking elements---its art style, its voiceover, or its varied combat---were even created. 

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It’s just a 3D mockup with D&D creatures standing in for monsters, and the hero character only has a few key animations But it does show off some of the core technical and design theories behind Supergiant Games’ work, and separates it from the gameplay elements they discovered through the development process. 

If you’re able to dig up any prototype footage of the first Assassin’s Creed, you’re able to get a glimpse of what its developers were grappling with before it became a blockbuster science fiction saga. According to IGN, Patrice Desilets began working on the series after it was conceived as a sequel to the Prince of Persia games, but the most important DNA in its lineage was their experiments with the Anvil engine, which let them generate tall cities and large crowds. 


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Though Desilets and his team would go on to research the Hassassin and decide a more realistic approach to medieval history would be a better fit for the game then the fantasy of Prince of Persia, the game’s origins as an experiment of tech and design help us chart the path for the series’ development, and understand the technical emphasis on fluid, navigable architecture that drives how each subsequent game targets its different thematic goals. Because of this, it’s frequently useful to analyze Assassin’s Creed through the platforming through cities and crowds instead of its narrative pillars because that’s where the tech allegedly originated from.

Most recently, the team behind the Indiegogo-backed RPG Indivisible launched a free prototype for their game on PSN as a marketing tool for their crowdfunding campaign, and showed off what may be one of the most up-front transparent discussions about game development costs.. While their prototype is a little more holistic than what you’ll find from Assassin’s Creed, Bastion, or any other games out there, it’s a stepping stone for the kind of game its creators want to create. It’s a reveal that might prevent Lab Zero from making radical design shifts the way they might through a traditional development cycle, but it’s a strong showing of the notion that at the right time, a showing of your game’s prototype can be a powerful tool for your audience.

Obviously, as with all things in game design, showing off prototypes is not going to be a universal, works-for-every-game scenario. But if the industry wants to participate in game preservation and educate the customers who may decide whether games get funded or die on the vine, it’s a powerful first step. Whether they wind up preserved in a Smithsonian archive, showcased at conventions, or simply displayed at GDC talks, prototypes can be how the game industry lowers some of its walls, and helps build transparent relationships between players and developers. 

5 Games with Amazing Level Editors

If you’re a gamer, it’s likely that you’ve played custom levels. But have you ever tried making one yourself? Making custom content is a challenge, especially for the uninitiated. For puzzle games, levels should be tricky but not too convoluted. For RPGs, you need to spawn enough enemy waves to get the player’s pulse up, but not make them endure endless grinds. It’s all about balance. Most games give players the option to thumbs-up or thumbs-down custom levels, so it’s a little scary to put yourself out there, only to see your ratings plummet. You knew shouldn’t have placed so many spike traps, dangit!

Though you may risk sleepless nights and self-esteem, making your own maps can be very rewarding. And if you’re harboring a secret dream to work as a game designer someday, it’s a good way to expand your portfolio. So we’ve compiled a list of games that have cool editing software for customization. Hopefully this will provide some inspiration for those of you who have wanted to create a new map or level, but haven’t been able to take the plunge. Who knows? Maybe the next Defense of the Ancients is inside you right now, yearning to be free.

Hatoful Boyfriend's Trip Through the Stars

Hatoful Boyfriend is a game with an absurd premise and a big heart. It’s a bird dating simulator, but the story addresses death, guilt, and sacrifice. And while the puns and outrageous situations are fun, Hatoful Boyfriend and its companion story Holiday Star draws on heavy themes from a classic Japanese children’s book.

Top 5 Best Introductions in Gaming

The beginning of a game can make or break a player’s interest. A successful introduction can familiarize the player with the game’s key mechanics, as well as set the tone for the rest to come. Should they manage this, these intros can become ingrained in the collective consciousness of gamers, setting traditions that inform developers for years after release.

With that in mind, here are some of the best game intros:

Unsung Heroine: Why I Love Princess Peach

If I were to ask you to name a female videogame character who you look up to, your first thoughts might be along the lines of Lara Croft, Samus Aran, or Commander Shepard. They are, after all, three of the strongest, most iconic women in gaming. While I agree that each of them have a lot to offer, if you were to pose that same question to me, my first answer would always be Princess Peach. The internet has a lot of opinions on Princess Peach, both good and terrible, but to me she's always been my favorite character in some of my most played games. Growing up, I looked up to her because she personified the things I wanted to be: graceful and feminine, but also strong in the face of hardship.

8 Video Game Grappling Hooks That Kick Ass

Whether they’re a central mechanic or an optional mode of conveyance, grappling hooks in games are almost always a blast to mess around with. Sometimes they’re essential to progress, other times they can do a lot of the heavy lifting, and they almost never get the recognition they deserve. Well not this time!

These eight grappling hooks are all really cool, and really useful, in their own way. Some might be a bit cooler or more useful than others but each one is special and deserves a hearty “thank you” from all the protagonists they’ve ferried around over the years.

Dating Sims for Women Find a Home on the Vita

Since launch, the PlayStation Vita has floundered in the west. Almost as if it were destined to follow in the footsteps of its predecessor, the PSP, Vita sales in North America and Europe have never come close to its Nintendo competition, despite heavy-hitting series such as Assassin’s Creed and Uncharted receiving their own Vita-exclusive installments. When the Vita and PS TV were declared “legacy platforms” in North America and Europe in 2015, it became clear that just three years after release, the Vita had already been relegated to the sidelines.

However, despite never quite finding a foothold in the West, the Vita has slowly but surely established itself as a competent handheld in Japan. From tear-jerker visual novels to toe-tapping rhythm games, Vita owners have an ever-growing library of titles to choose from.

One genre that has made the Vita its home is otome games, or dating sims aimed at women. While it may seem wild to market a whole genre specifically towards women, otome games do exactly that. Popularized in 1994 with the release of Angelique for the SNES, otome, or “maiden” games insert the player into the role of a female protagonist in story-heavy narratives where the goal is to pursue romances with a number of suitors who are almost always male. Gameplay-wise, they can range from stat management simulators to RPGs, but the vast majority are visual novels, where text-based decisions decide how the branching storyline will play out.

In Defense of Automatic Mario

Most mornings, after I’ve cracked three eggs into the skillet, I turn on my Wii U. By the time the eggs are ready, I'll have booted up Super Mario Maker and navigated its menus. The trick is to stay in the "Highlights" section of the "Course World" -- the portion of the game meant for playing its user-generated levels, rather than creating them yourself -- but swapping the filter to view "easy," rather than "normal," creations. From there, it's as easy as finding the right title -- "Don't Move" or "Automatic" or anything including "全自動" -- and pressing Play.

How mods helped Cities: Skylines grow

“We were slightly caught off guard with the massive success of the game,” says Mariina Hallikainen, CEO of Colossal Order. Cities: Skylines was one of the biggest games of the year, an a out-of-nowhere success for simulation fans around the world. City simulation is one of those genres that harbours a sort of fanatic adoration, so when Colossal Order released the game early last year genre fans were quick to flock to it. It soon reached a million sales, and was the sixth best-selling game on Steam in 2015.

Three Fourths Home is a delightful visual novel


Three Fourths Home is a piece of interactive fiction that showcases how developers are capable of telling intimate, emotional stories in unique ways. Game makers have plenty of tools to work with, including player input, sound, and visual style.

Developed by Zach Sanford, Three Fourths Home takes place as a long car ride through Nebraska, set against an emotional conversation between Kelly and her struggling family. It’s a visual novel of sorts with a branching narrative that takes pride in its subtle gameplay and art design. The story, with its excellent writing and nuanced characters, is the focus here, but Sanford uses other tools to tell it. The game sports a simple, but effective, black-and-white aesthetic that complements its somber tone. Its ambient sound -- windmills, rain, sirens, and thunder -- also creates an unsettling atmosphere.

Three Fourths Home explores how difficult it is for people to keep moving onward, forgetting their past, and facing their demons. In order to progress through the game's conversations, you need to continue driving forward. The second you let go, everything decelerates into slow motion. Your dialogue options vanish, the stormy weather is at a standstill, and even the birds hastily flying overhead slow down.

The player can't reach the finish line by simply doing nothing. You have to keep pushing through by keeping your foot on the pedal and overcoming your obstacles, no matter how challenging they might be.

Three Fourths Home’s Genesis

Sanford actually came up with the idea for Three Fourths Home from his own similar experiences and a bit of strange luck.

“I started working on Three Fourths Home shortly after going through an experience not unlike the game’s protagonist, Kelly: I had to move back to Nebraska after having lived elsewhere in the seven years since I’d finished up high school,” Sanford shared with me. “So a fair bit of the groundwork for the story was bits pulled from my own life. The characters and their specific experiences are more of a mishmash of different people in my immediate and extended family.

After moving back to Omaha, Sanford lost his PC containing his progress on an existing game, and rather than rewrite his old project from scratch, he decided to try something new. “I wanted to work on something smaller that I could finish in a few months. Three Fourths Home was the idea that I landed on.”

Despite its short length (players can complete it in about two hours), Sanford still had to overcome a slew of obstacles during Three Fourths Home’s development. In particular, he had to figure out the best way to execute an interactive story. How do you deliver a focused narrative while also making the player feel like an active participant? On the other hand, Sanford didn’t want to constantly bombard players with dialogue choices. Instead, he knew he had to come up with a clever way to complement Three Fourths Home’s writing with its gameplay.

“I think the biggest challenge of interactive storytelling is right there in the name – making the story something that is interactive in a way that feels natural,” says Sanford. “That doesn’t necessarily mean having sprawling dialogue trees with a million different outcomes (though it certainly can). The more interesting challenge, to me, is tying the storytelling into the actual interaction that enhances both aspects. For Three Fourths Home, marrying the forward momentum of driving a car to themes in the story (inevitability, people and life circumstance changing over time, etcetera) was an attempt at finding an interesting way to do that.

Sanford adds, “I’ve never written a movie or TV show, so I’m definitely not the most qualified person to make the comparison, but I imagine that the issue of player input is the biggest (and most obvious) difference between the mediums. Not that writing for one or the other is inherently ‘easier’ each just requires a different approach due to the way that the narrative is presented and consumed.”


Since Three Fourths Home is a visual novel, Sanford had to nail the way the game looks. Visual novels almost always heavily rely on aesthetic, especially since they employ simplistic mechanics. The popular Danganronpa series is a great example. The story is about a group of teenagers forced to kill each other, Battle Royale-style, in order to survive. Its art style is colorful and far from subtle. This works well with the constant murders, violence, and gore you’ll be witnessing in these games.

Three Fourths Home is the total opposite, sporting a soft monochromatic art style with moving backdrops. Sanford decided on this design for two main reasons.

“The art design came about fairly early on in development, with one eye to the tone of the story that I was going to tell,” Sanford says. "The starkness of the visuals was something that I hoped would communicate the relatively dire straits that Kelly and her family find themselves in. That said, the simplicity of the design was also a concession to the fact that I was writing, coding, and designing the game all on my own (while my brother provided the soundtrack).”

Where Can These Games Go Next?

In the past few years, we have seen a growing number of titles like Three Fourths Home. Is it just a sign that the game industry is naturally maturing with the types of stories it wants to tell and how it wants to tell them?

Or is the explanation a bit simpler? Is it just because we have more independent developers and their games than ever before, and they're the ones willing to tell their stories differently? The indie sector does allow for experimentation.

“I think it’s the combination of a lot of things,” says Sanford, giving his own reason for this increase. “The maturation of the medium itself (whatever that actually means), sure, but emotionally mature games are hardly new. We’re also in this time filled with designers who grew up in the 80s and 90s who’ve never been in a world without video games. So why wouldn’t they try to tell stories in different ways?

The wider accessibility of game creation tools like Twine and Game Maker has also played a big part. “Anyone can stay up until 3 am between shifts and make something,” Sanford says. “There’s still some barrier to entry in regards to coding and asset creation and whatnot, but most of what I know I’ve learned from figuring out what I need to know and just Googling it. The knowledge is there for anyone looking for it.”

Sanford is most interested and excited about how developers continue to deal with, and integrate both the gameplay and narrative aspects of a title. “I don’t think there’s really an endgame as far as ‘the perfect marriage of story and mechanics,’ as that’s going to be something different for each narrative. But it’ll be interesting seeing where developers take it.”

Just as last year brought us Dontnod's Life is Strange and Sam Barlow's Her Story, you can expect2016 to also bring in a range of innovative games and stories for players to explore. As for Sanford, he’s currently busy working on his next projectTo Azimuth, an adventure game about two siblings searching for their missing brother, as well as an alien abduction. Like Three Fourths Home, we can expect Azimuth’s story to take center stage.

Alex is a freelance writer who thinks Breaking Bad is the best show ever made, and that The Sopranos is horribly overrated. Yell at him on Twitter: @RParampampam.