Making Games: Paper Prototyping

Paper prototyping is an easy and inexpensive method of testing out game ideas and anybody can do it. Basically all you need is a pencil or pen and a piece of paper of any type.

The idea is to simulate the game you are designing to get an idea of the different parts of design before you make a large time and effort investment into creating a digital or more exact physical prototype.

Paper Beats Rock

There is a short but noteworthy list of advantages to prototyping a game with paper.

Paper does not grow on trees. Or does it?

You can literally paper prototype for free if you don’t want to use actual paper but will settle for dirt, sticks, rocks, etc. Single person shops and small studios (even large studios really) can always stand to save a little money. What better way than to start your designs in the cheapest way possible.

However if you do want to be slightly more sophisticated, a few standard office supplies is all you need to get started.

People are not scared of paper

A major benefit of prototyping with paper is when you are working with non-techy people such as artist, sound engineers, and people who play games but don’t make them.

Where a computer and programming might scare somebody off, most people are comfortable working with paper and pencils.

This allows you to get design input from all sorts of people who would have been excluded before. Large teams where only a few members are programmers will especially benefit from this. Added benefit is you can remove all the pesky distracting technologies from the design area such as phones and computers.

Fill the wastebasket

Throw away the bad ideas early, its just on paper after all.

The disposability of paper makes it ideal for iterating thru ideas quickly. This gets you to the better ideas quicker and makes you feel less guilty than if you had invested a lot of time into writing the code and creating the art for a digital prototype.

This does not mean you have to throw out whole ideas every time. Using paper in different sizes, like sticky notes and index cards, allows you to replace small parts to find what works.

More than plain paper

Just using a paper and pencil is fine but using a few more office supplies and a few odds and ends make paper prototyping even more versatile and useful.

The articles and videos I watched doing research on this suggest a long list of articles that could be useful:

  • Colored paper
  • Index cards
  • Sticky notes
  • Tape
  • Glue sticks
  • Scissors
  • Poker chips
  • Dice – for randomness
  • Pieces from board games
  • Any other office equipment you can think of

There are really no limits on the physical objects you use for paper prototyping.

I recommend watching a few videos on youtube of people demonstrating games using paper prototypes. Several have been done and they are very creative in simulating things with paper, some tape and some short sticks to manipulate actors in their game.

Hard to Draw

Some game styles do not lend themselves well to paper prototyping. It is not a one size fits all approach. Real time strategy games, first person shooters, and games with a lot of action do not lend themselves to paper prototyping.

Also, some concepts do not translate well or are hard to simulate on paper such as screen loading time, colors, images, fonts, and scrolling horizontally or vertically.

The colors, images and fonts problem can be partially solved by using a printer to get hard copies of some of these things but this is not always practical.

Lessons from the Field

In my research I found several great suggestions about things to do and try while prototyping with paper.

Put Notes on your Paper

Put design notes directly on the design, front or back, for when you actually go to build the thing. They will have context and be easier to find.

Get User Expectations

Have a tester/user draw what they think would happen when they push a button or perform some sort of action. This will lead to better user interface design and help find unclear design features.

Cut the Paper Down to Size

Try to accurately represent in the size of the paper, the size of the computer screen you are designing the game for. If its for a phone, get some standard phone sizes, a ruler and a pair of scissors and cut your paper down to size (or use index cards). Same for tablets and other digital devices.

Get Creative

One video I watched, the guy was talking about designing the game Paperboy. In it he described how they had one person sliding poker chips across paper while others tossed poker chips at them that they had to avoid.

Don’t just limit yourself to drawing things.

Wrapping Up

Paper prototyping is an inexpensive method to rapidly prototype games used by both industry professionals and beginners. It is beneficial in being able to get the design input of non technical people, and being disposable so that you can iterate faster to get to the fun.

Further Reading

A List Apart: Paper Prototyping
Game Career Guide: 5 Facts for Paper Prototyping
Video: Play without Pixels
Video: Dr Ben Lewis-Evans on Paper Prototyping

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