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Make an Abstract Prototype First?

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senorbaub
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Has anyone out there had a game design in mind with theme and mechanics but for the first prototype created a purely abstract version just to see if the mechanics work?

McTeddy
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Joined: 11/19/2012
Not really. If I have a

Not really.

If I have a theme and mechanic already chosen, I don't see any reason to separate the two. A good thematic game should have mechanics that are tailored to the theme. They need to fit together... because even seemingly bad mechanics can support certain themes and improve the game.

That said, I don't go out of my way to "Theme" early prototypes either. I'll put just enough theme that people know what I'm trying to create... but not waste any more effort than that. The meaning behind mechanics change the feel of the game. "Lose a dice" is a FAR different feeling than "A zombie ate one of your survivors. You lose one survivor die"

More importantly... if I find that the mechanics are fitting a different theme better, I'll make the change. Game design is constantly changing and I try to do whats best for every project.

Aerjen
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Almost purely abstract

I actually tend to do that to a certain extent to try out how engaging the "dry" mechanics are. Usually I start building my games with as little fluff or artwork as possible. That being said, one of my current games "Pleasant Dreams" started out on some index cards which had some words and a number on it: relax (-1), small scare (+1), big scare (+2). So you can argue that there's already some theme involved. On the other hand if you compare it to the real cards: http://www.keeponbreathing.com/pleasant-dreams/
you'll see that there's a lot more theme going on right now.

lewpuls
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I'm afraid that, to me, this

I'm afraid that, to me, this is a more or less nonsense question. Either your game is a model of some reality, in which case the theme is inseparable from the mechanics, or it's abstract, in which case there is no theme, only a tacked-on "atmosphere" or "canvas". Or it's a game that's primarily a story, in which case the mechanics quite possibly aren't going to be very interesting no matter what, but that may not matter.

If its abstract, then play it abstractly. If it's a model, play the whole game, not part of it.

senorbaub
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Only the start of the process

lewpuls wrote:
I'm afraid that, to me, this is a more or less nonsense question. Either your game is a model of some reality, in which case the theme is inseparable from the mechanics, or it's abstract, in which case there is no theme, only a tacked-on "atmosphere" or "canvas". Or it's a game that's primarily a story, in which case the mechanics quite possibly aren't going to be very interesting no matter what, but that may not matter.

If its abstract, then play it abstractly. If it's a model, play the whole game, not part of it.

I'm feeling like my original post was misinterpreted slightly. Using the word 'abstract' may have implied that there would be no theme whatsoever but my thought was that building a rough prototype that had minimal thematic elements could be useful for seeing if the mechanics are working as desired or for balancing game elements. Those elements would have the same function as if in a finished game but much of the theme that drives those functions would be absent to some degree. That's not to say there would be no theme at all in the prototype as there would still be a basic premise to drive the gameplay. Once that part of the developement process is far enough along then a bigger focus on infusing the design with theme can take place.

True this may be a nonsense question but I thought it might make for an interesting discussion.

Corsaire
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It seems like it is a viable

It seems like it is a viable starting point to not have every concept detail before doing design type playtesting. Working on a game with my family that has quite bit of card content; our first sit down test we had lots of blank cards and then would fill those in with whatever we wish we had drawn as we worked through it in the test run.

I think that is the sort of way to do slightly abstract, though I suppose it isn't playtest as much as it is active design. I wouldn't take it to the game store and burn "playtest cred" in that shape.

Anything being designed ought to have functional wiggle it as you go developer testing.

SugarPillStudios
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Abstract or the Opposite: Sci-Fi / Fantasy

I've just recently started to appreciate the value of starting with a highly mutable theme like Sci-Fi or Fantasy. In a sense this is the opposite of an abstract theme-less prototype, but it seems to serve the purpose you have described. I suspect that the flexibility of magic and future technology may be partially responsible for the number of commercial games that use them: since it's so difficult to adopt a new theme in the middle of designing a game.

I often contemplate game ideas in terms of magical or science fiction mechanics, but generally try to find another theme before building a second prototype (and usually before building the first prototype; depending on the parts of the mechanic that I am most uncertain about).

Thanks for posting this great topic!

lewpuls
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You can play a tabletop game

You can play a tabletop game without knowing all of its elements, sure, that's one of the great benefits, as opposed to video games, and a reason why video game designers often begin with a paper prototype. My point is that if the game actually has a real theme, then the theme must influence how the game is designed AND how it's played, and should be inseparable from the game as a whole. If there's a real theme, then what the player does corresponds to something that happens in whatever you're modeling, in some way ("analogousness" being such an awkward word, I call it "correspondence"). Many games that are said to have themes have something else, an atmosphere that is used to help sell the game but has nothing to do with how it's played or designed. Hence, tacked on "themes".

McTeddy
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To be fair, just because a

To be fair, just because a theme is tacked on later in the process... doesn't mean it's not a REAL theme.

I know of more than one designer (Myself included) who happened to create an abstract game only to find that the mechanics created a certain feeling and matched a theme perfectly. The theme didn't come into play until I realized how the mechanics were making me feel.

The mechanics still correspond to the game as a whole. The game play perfectly replicates the actions that you're performing... and the theme and mechanics work together to create the intended feel. Just because I hadn't originally planned for a theme... doesn't mean it can't exist.

Heck, often enough I'm creating one theme when I realize the mechanics better fit a different one. There is nothing wrong with switching the theme if it is a more thematic answer.

All that actually matters is the end model. If the final product has mechanics and game play that reinforce one another... that is theme. Player's won't know your original plan... and it doesn't matter HOW you ended up there. The final product is the only thing that determines whether your game has a real theme.

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