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MKW: Pushing a Prototype

June 27, 2009

Tonight, I played a prototype of MKW (working title) the fourth game in my Mechanic is the Message series. This is only the second time I’ve played it, and I’m using a specific prototyping method I refer to as “pushing.”

When I push a prototype, I start with an idea of what I want the game to do, and I have a loose idea of the player dynamic that I’m going for. More often than not, I’m simulating some system that exists in the real world, so it’s a matter of modeling it rather than pulling it from thin air. If you’re an aspiring game designer, look for these pre-existing systems. They are your bread and butter.

In the case of MKW, on the first test, I pushed it from concept through to first prototype. When the other player and I sat down at the table, I had no idea of how it would play, but I did know the system I wanted to emulate and had a rough idea of the dynamic I wanted. So, I literally made up the rules, the resources and the costs for things as we went along. Therein lies the “push.” By necessity, it requires several restarts. Also, sometimes I am not even playing the full game, but pushing a particular system.

This evening was my second push on the prototype. I posted this to twitter:


MKW prototype lives for two rounds before I kill it. Sig rule change affected resource deployment. Need to fix before playing again.

I received the following reply:


@bbrathwaite # of games per round of testing? Rule tweaks between games? Curious how long before “pros” give up on initial design/mechanics.

Obviously, this post is your answer, @ngibson42.

So, when I prototype a game, it feels like I’m starting a soup or something. I expect everything to change. Rarely do I get hooked on specific mechanics or dynamics, unless they have some larger meaning to the overall piece. If I write a full rule set out, I expect that it will change radically from inception to end. If I am pushing the prototype, it’s all in a constant state of flux. I say this to answer that last line – I never really give up on them. I don’t trust them to begin with. They’re like the soup that’s only cooked for 5 minutes which needs something added to it. During play, I am looking for ways to optimize and ways to make players interact more with one another. I will often make rule changes turn to turn and round to round. Tonight, in the space of a single round, I changed:

  • Turn order 2x
  • The way players obtained key resource #1
  • The way players obtained key resource #2
  • Clarified (also made up) rules due to player questions

It was one of the resource changes that necessitated a restart of the game. Basically, I made a limited resource which was obtained through random roll instead a deliberate decision and predicated on something else. This change forced a restart after one round. I will not restart for smaller rule changes, even if they make the play “unfair”.  Typically, in push sessions like this, the game never actually gets to an end anyway.

When I am playing, I make rule changes constantly. Tonight, I probably made one or two per turn. If you try to push a prototype, it’s important that your players understand that the game isn’t really a game as such, but a concept that will hopefully push a game out the other side. I also ask them to hold back on suggestions during play since they may not understand the full dynamic I am going for, particularly if there are other systems not yet in place. Suggestions and comments come at the end.

I “gave up” on tonight’s prototype session after my first significant resource change affected the way another resource was distributed. It broke the math. Suddenly, there wasn’t nearly enough of it. Player 1 had a very clear advantage. Player 4 was screwed. I kicked it around for a bit, but an obvious solution didn’t show. It’s times like that, and out of respect to my testers, that I kill it. As a designer, you know when you need some time to solve a problem. So, away went MKW and out came a published game.

In my entire career, I have only once had a rule set remain unchanged from concept to completion, and I am surprised that I even got one of those (it was Siochan Leat, the Irish game).

So, I’m working on the MKW problem now. I had an interesting idea tonight which may or may not work. I need to think about it some more. I am tempted to prototype the whole thing in Excel to force the math out, but I think I’ll try a couple alternatives on Monday night instead.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. June 28, 2009 9:49 am

    When I went through this process with a card game I was putting together, the players took to calling the game “Calvinball”. Calvinball being the game that Calvin and Hobbes play that involves Calvin changing the rules constantly. Next time I am putting together a hobby game I think I’ll just use the name through the entire prototype stage to make it clear that the game is likely horribly broken and that I will be changing the rules while we play.

    • June 28, 2009 12:11 pm

      Calvinball is such a apt metaphor, Joe! Yes, it does sometimes feel like that.

  2. Nathaniel Gibson (ngibson42) permalink
    June 28, 2009 11:55 am

    It didn’t occur to me until after clicking the “Send” button for my tweet that a response would probably require more than 140 characters. Lacking an e-mail address, a post response makes perfect sense. That doesn’t diminish my surprise, however! Thank you for taking the time to provide such a thorough response. I hope that others can learn from it as well!

    A follow-up question: How does this method stack up to a more traditional playtest cycle of “Initial Design-Playtest-Critique-Tweak-Playtest…”? It seems as though this method could either stand alone as a playtest cycle on steroids, or as the initial stages until the game jells and is more stable, then switching to a more traditional cycle.

    • June 28, 2009 12:17 pm

      Hi Nathaniel,

      Feel free to ask design questions on twitter. I am always looking for stuff to write about here while I avoid writing about RPG system design (which I am actually not avoiding… it’s just a BIG topic).

      How does this method stack up to a more traditional playtest cycle of “Initial Design-Playtest-Critique-Tweak-Playtest…”?

      I think it’s pretty similar to the traditional approach. I’m just using rapid iteration / test to get to first playable vs. drafting what I think might be a first playable before play even begins. Non-digital prototyping allows me to jettison and add stuff quickly without any $ lost and a very low time commitment. So, only the initial design is different, and that initial design phase implements the testing immediately. Instead of waiting until you’re 20% through your schedule. I literally start from the get go. Many programmers do that, too.

  3. June 28, 2009 6:46 pm

    This makes me think of Bernie Dekoven and writing about kids changing games in the process, all with the ultimate goal of making it more fun. Thanks for making your process explicit, Brenda.

    • June 28, 2009 6:48 pm

      I’ve actually been working to make that process more explicit after having discussions with some students and Ian Schreiber. I tend to be very black box in my designs. There’s no reason for being that way about process. So, I am fighting my natural urge.

  4. June 29, 2009 7:38 am

    This reminds me of a D&D referee who prepares almost nothing before an adventure and makes it up as he goes along. Some can manage to do this occasionally and get good results, some make a hash of it.

    But what it really reminds me of is a painter staring at a canvas, about to paint something, he has a vague idea of what. I’d call it the “artist” method of creating a game, as opposed to the more “scientific” method that many use. My guess is that people who are making commercial games rather than art games would rarely proceed this way. There are some interesting questions here for a survey.

    • June 29, 2009 9:24 am

      I actually used this method a fair bit when working on commercial RPGs, too. It gave me a means to explore ideas immediately outside my own view of the game’s possibility space. I know some designers who would struggle to make it up as it went – they are, as you suggest, of the more scientific variety and want it all laid out beforehand. I really enjoy the flexibility that comes with this process.

      In the end, I find that it happens to even heavily determined systems. Something always comes up which necessitates a change.

  5. June 30, 2009 7:42 am

    By “scientific” I don’t mean heavily determined. Anyone who isn’t willing to change, change, change their design once they start playing it, is likely to end up with an inferior product. The dire record of video games overall, with so many turds resulting from too much planning and then insufficient time playing and modifying the original plan, illustrates that well enough.

    (The essence of science, from one definition, is a willingness to experiment intelligently and rely on the actual results, not on preconceptions of what ought to happen.)

    Yet a designer can spend a lot more time planning and “playing the game in his mind’s eye” before actually playing, and can spend a lot of time playing solitaire before involving other people, than appears to happen with your push method.

    • June 30, 2009 9:23 pm

      I agree that a designer can spend that time playing the game in his head, but it’s just as valid to play it in person. Mind you, the times in between this, my brain is not “off.” I am thinking of different ways to approach the problem. There is validity to both methods, certainly.

      Also, I don’t know if I’d call the video game industry’s record dire. There are many, many bad board games out there. However, I view them as different ends of a single industry – games.


  1. MKW: Pushing a Prototype 2 « Applied Game Design

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