Paper Prototyping Video Games

How to Paper Prototype for Better, Faster Video Game Development

When designing video games, many things can be imagined and designed well in advance, such as characters, theme, and some of the actual gameplay. However, some things simply need to be experienced before ever getting coded. For example, to decide whether certain rules might be more frustrating than fun, the best method is almost always to experience them.

The challenge comes from the fact that many hours of development are necessary to create a prototype that works well enough to experience the gameplay in question. In real-world scenarios, time is money as well as opportunity.

As a developer, I need to make many design decisions rapidly, sometimes even in hours or minutes. I’ve learned that one of the best ways to do this is through paper prototyping.

What Is Paper Prototyping?

Paper prototyping is using paper cards, dice, poker chips, and tokens to represent gameplay. Imagine making a tabletop of playing cards as a version of a video game.

You’d be amazed at how many games, even games involving physical hand-eye coordination skill, can be simulated in this way. Although the physical skill component can’t be directly simulated with paper and dice, no skill-based game exists without game rules. (If it did, it would simply be an exercise.) Rules allow the player to make a choice with possible rewards and consequences, and rules turn the activity into a game. The rules are essential for fun and competition, and they can almost always be simulated as a tabletop game.

Benefits of Paper Prototyping

The benefits of paper prototyping might start to become obvious at this point:

  • Minimum prep: With only 10 to 20 minutes of preparation, video game designers can experience the rules and flow of the game.
  • Low scope: Preparation requires only one or two game designers instead of an entire production team. Games that involve art can be reduced to stick figures or even just verbal descriptions.
  • High value: The rapid, inexpensive iteration of ideas can reveal flaws in game mechanics, which can then be fixed with more rapid, inexpensive iteration.

Another side benefit is that paper prototyping is also possible for remote teams. The BitLoft game design team has used this technique with distributed designers by putting the paper prototype on a web camera, allowing the design and writing teams to experience the gameplay together.

Step by Step Paper Prototyping

The prototyping flow should happen like this:

  1. Model the game as a paper prototype.
    • Simulate random elements can by drawing shuffled cards or rolling dice.
    • Use tokens or simple numbers on paper to track quantities, such as how many points or available power a player has.
    • If the environment affects gameplay, sketch out a rough map.
  2. Play a round as quickly as possible. Don’t overthink it!
  3. Quickly identify what worked and didn’t work.
  4. Suggest changes.
  5. Play the changes IMMEDIATELY!
  6. Repeat as quickly as possible.

You can paper prototype both the character and the environment.

Image credit to BitLoft Game Studio team member Ben Quigley


WARNING: After designers play a round or two and suggest changes, they have an overwhelming temptation to start imagining the consequences of proposed changes and then talk about them…. and talk, and talk, and talk even more. While discussion is good and much cheaper than building a game, it can also drain the time-saving benefit of paper prototyping. You need to EXPERIENCE suggested changes instead of imagining them.

Practical Example of Paper Prototyping

To illustrate how paper prototyping works, I’m going to give you an example that would seem unlikely for a paper prototype: a fighting game. Although fighting games are about timing and reflexes, game designers must provide players with a complex variety of fighting moves, each with advantages and disadvantages. The player always has careful choices to make. Attacks that deal heavy damage can be risky because they often leave the player open for a short time. Attacks that are quick and very difficult to block usually deal little damage because they aren’t very risky. Game designers must plan these attacks, adjusting the timing and damage, and consider the risk versus reward. Designers also must consider the amount of fun provided by the rules. If a tabletop fighting game is fun with dramatic moments, chances are good that the video game version will be even better.

To simulate the fighting game experience, you can easily make a card game:

  • Give each player a certain number of action points each round. Action points not used in one round can be carried to the next and add up over time. Track these on paper or with tokens.
  • Write each attack on a 3×5 index card. On each card, write the name of an attack or defense along with the number of action points that a player must spend to use it as well as the amount of damage done to the opponent.

Index cards can be very helpful for paper prototyping.

  • At the start of a round, each player takes a turn. A player can choose to spend the action points gained for that round on an attack or wait until the next round to build up action points to spend on a more powerful attack.
  • To make things a little more realistic, you can use dice to simulate player skill. Using a simple 6-sided die, you can determine that rolling a 1 or 2 is a failure and anything else a success. If a player wants to execute an attack, the player must spend action points in addition to rolling a die to determine whether the attack was successful. More difficult attacks or combinations of attacks might require more rolls of the die and thus have more chances for the attack to fail, just like in a real fighting video game.

With this simple gameplay, you can quickly play several rounds to test the action points versus damage for attacks as well as rules for combination attacks. You can then adjust the values almost instantly, play more, and experience whether the design changes helped or harmed the experience.

Stop Imagining — Start Making!

Now go and make a paper prototype of your game idea and experience it for yourself!


Charles Thomas is the Lead Game Designer for BitLoft Game Studios. His enthusiasm for paper prototyping is rivaled only by his love of skateboarding. For consulting and game development services, Contact Us today!

Featured image credit to BitLoft Game Studio team member Ben Quigley.

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