Imagine that you are an intrepid Pokemon trainer. You’ve just chosen your starter Pokemon and have confidently strode off into the luscious grasslands of the Kanto region. Suddenly an iconic musical jingle plays and your vision cuts to black before revealing your very first Pokemon battle. In front of you stands a Caterpie. And, long story short, your starter Pokemon proceeds to beat the ever-loving snot out of it. Poor Caterpie.
In the Game Designer’s Pokedex of prototyping techniques, Word Prototyping is the Caterpie. Small, approachable, easy to train and grow. Accessible by pretty much everyone. But also not particularly powerful or exciting, and not used by a terribly high number of trainers.
A Word Prototype is one of the simplest prototyping techniques out there, and it involves pretty much exactly what it sounds like. Rather than coding an actual playable version of the game, AKA a Digital Prototype, and rather than getting crafty with a representative mockup of the game, AKA a Paper Prototype, the Designer simply invents some stuff on the fly and speaks it out loud.
Okay that may be a bit of a simplification, but for the most part it’s true. A Word Prototype is simply a game concept that is actually playable, but only via auditory or written input and output. Most of the time this comes in the form of a multi-choice story or narrative that the Designer delivers to testers either out-loud or in written form.
For example, the Designer might have a cool new idea for a narrative arc in one of their games. Let’s call it Obegron Trail. It’s a remake of the classic game Oregon Trail, only in space. Because everything is better in space.
The Designer can quite quickly, often in under an hour, put together a Word Prototype that a tester could actually play. The Designer would generally start with a little world building. “Welcome to Obegron Trail! You are a space pioneer aboard a space covered wagon being pulled by some mystical space oxen. You are on a quest to follow manifest destiny, and reach the golden land of space California where you hope to find mountains of space gold.”
But this is a game, after all, and what is a game without player autonomy and choice? So the Designer moves on and starts to get the tester actually playing the game. “You start by choosing your profession. You can either be a space engineer, a space doctor, or a space janitor. Engineers can fix anything but are awful socially, everyone hates space doctors but they have massive quantities of space bucks, and space janitors are just solid, middle of the road people. Which do you choose?”
Along the way, the Designer takes the auditory input from the tester and actually incorporates it into the game. This helps give the tester some meaningful choices, and allows them to experience something vaguely approximating the fully published game concept. I have seen this used for a number of different types of games, not just narrative focused ones. For instance, I once saw a Designer use it to test a fantasy escape room concept. The tester started in a locked prison cell and had to tell the Designer what they wanted to do to escape. The Designer would then respond with what happened in the attempt.
It wound up playing a lot like an old-school text adventure game, a la Zork or Gnome Ranger, and by the end of the session the tester was giggling with excitement because they somehow managed to seduce a guard to help them escape. This helped to confirm that it was a promising game concept and was worth investing more time into.
You’d be surprised at the kinds of games you can put through this test. Puzzle games can be reduced to just a few meaningful choices that mimic the eventual puzzle gameplay. Strategy games can be reduced to just the barebones decisions that a player would make in a full, live action game. “You have 50 wood and 25 gold, but only enough time to build one building. Which do you build?” And so many other interesting ones. It’s a nifty little tool, and I highly recommend adding it to your tool-chest.
If you’re still unsure of what a Word Prototype looks like, there is an example of a fully playable Word Prototype at the end of this chapter. You may well recognize the concept.
Pros of Word Prototypes
The primary benefit of the Word Prototype is first and foremost time investment. An old mentor of mine, John Nelson Rose, who at the time of writing this is a Senior Technical Manager at EA, used to make up Word Prototypes on the fly. So his time investment per prototype was literally however long he’d spend playing the game with people. Remember that a big part of our job as Game Designers is to validate concepts as fun and therefore lower risk. Risk can be summarized as, “wasted time and money,” and so if you can spend 15 minutes to validate an idea before even investing in a full prototype, you can save a lot of time.
I also find that Word Prototypes tend to really activate the imagination of testers. Because they aren’t presented with any kind of graphical indication of how the game will look or play, the tester’s brain is free to fill in the blanks. This simple fact means you get tons of ideas of how to build the game that often vary dramatically. When you think about it, the console that the game is being played on is the mind of the tester, and therefore the game will look and play very differently in different people’s minds.
The final major benefit of a Word Prototype is that virtually anyone can make one on their own. With bulkier Digital Prototypes at least one engineer usually needs to be present to build a playable test of the game. This often also involves Artists, Sound Designers, Game Designers and more. And even with the smaller Paper Prototype, this often includes some visual design work that not every team member is capable of. But with a Word Prototype, anyone with a vocabulary and a spark of creativity can throw some words on a piece of paper and have a blast testing.
Cons of Word Prototypes
Alas, poor Caterpie, for they never seem to make it in the big leagues, do they? While many of my students at the Indie Game Academy love Word Prototyping for the fun and ease of production, they are truly unlikely to be found in established studios. The simple fact of the matter is: the data you get from Word Prototypes is wildly inaccurate. Think of that second pro I mentioned above: that because there is no visual data, people interpret the concept very differently from what the final product winds up actually being. This means Word Prototypes are riddled with false positives.
You may have thought Obegron Trail was a fun concept, but that is probably because your brain immediately filled the gaps in the prototype with exactly what you would want to see created. Our tendency to imagine our ideal version of Word Prototypes means that they are virtually never used alone. Even if a concept looks promising when testing in this way, it is essential that you then take the time to further test it. This may mean building out a full Digital Prototype anyway. This means those hours you saved could well become hours wasted instead.
Word Prototypes are also pretty awful at mimicking a wide variety of game types. They work well for pretty much anything that is narrative heavy and are decent for anything turn based, but the minute you get more complicated than that it becomes very difficult to translate the concept into a Word Prototype. Not impossible, but imagine trying to make one for Call of Duty.
When to use Word Prototypes
That being said, this doesn’t make them unusable, and I am a firm believer that they should be used more often than they currently are. Give the Caterpie its day, people! For instance, you COULD collect some data on the next Call of Duty. Say you’re trying to decide on the introduction to this new game. You could say, “You’ve just recovered from your drop out of the helicopter, and rounding the corner in front of you is a guard, armed to the teeth. He doesn’t seem to have noticed you yet. What do you do?”
For the most part, I find Word Prototypes most useful when used internally to validate ideas that you’re on the fence about. They are a quick way for Game Designers to bounce ideas off of their team members, and especially other Game Designers. “Hey Bob, I have this cool new idea for the boss fight. Can I walk you through a quick Word Prototype?”
They are probably not a prototype that you will create for every single one of your concepts, but you might use them to help filter the last few stragglers. Let’s say you’ve brainstormed 50 ideas and used filtering techniques to reduce those to just 11. But your target is only 10 concepts, so you’ve got to eliminate one more. This is the perfect use case for Word Prototyping.
Make your own Word Prototype
Now that you have a white belt in Word Prototyping, it’s time to level you up to yellow, senpai. Let’s take you through the process of actually building one.
We have prepared both a Worksheet (You’ll find it at the end of this post) for you to use that will take you through the steps below as well as an example Word Prototype for you to check out.
Step 1: Choose a Concept to Word Prototype
First, you need to brainstorm. If you have never brainstormed before, that’s a deep enough exercise that I could cover it in an entirely different blog post. But for the sake of brevity: start by simply quantifying your constraints, and then give yourself say five minutes to write down as many ideas as you can. In this case, your constraint is simple: you must be able to play the game via a Word Prototype. Once you have some concepts, choose one that you’re excited about (or perhaps on the fence about) and that seems like a good candidate for a Word Prototype. Then write the concept on a piece of paper.
Choose your game concept now.
Step 2: Draw your Core Loop
Next, define the core loop of this concept. Remember that a core loop is a diagram of the actions the player takes over and over again in this game. If you’re familiar with a state machine, it’s similar. It’s a diagram of the states the player can enter into and how they get there.
In Flappy Bird, a simplified core loop would be: jump, avoid pipes, get as far as you can. In Mario a simplified core loop would be: move right, jump over obstacles, ground pound enemies, collect coins, and reach the flag.
Defining your core loop is useful for many reasons, but one of them is to make it easier to prototype. After defining your core loop, you know exactly what is most important to test in order to validate the concept.
Draw your core loop now.
Step 3. Define your Testable Elements
A step often skipped by those who are fresh to prototyping is defining what information you wish to learn. Newbies will often spend days, weeks or months to make a playable version of their game and then just plop it in front of a player (or worse, themselves) and get generalized feedback. While this is still valuable, you can accelerate the evolution of your little Caterpie by simply defining what you hope to learn from your Word Prototype.
Remember that when prototyping a full game concept, you’re generally looking for three very important things: could this concept be fun, what are its magic moments, and what are its risks. Use these three prompts to help you think up what is most important to test. What are you worried might make this idea a bad one? What do you suspect could make it wonderful? Write down your top three testable elements now!
Write your top three three testable elements now.
Step 4. Create your Word Prototype!
Now that you have a game concept, a core loop to build the prototype from, and the top three things you want to prove or disprove about this concept, it’s time to write! Grab yourself some notebook paper or open up the doc we provided and get to work! Remember that the only differentiating factor for what makes a Word Prototype a Word Prototype is that our input and output channels are lingual. We use written and spoken words, with no visuals.
Typically this means Word Prototypes wind up like a choose-your-own-adventure. Start by writing an introductory blurb. Tell the player about the setting, and give them a mental framework of the narrative you are trying to tell.
Pretty quickly, within a paragraph or two, give them some kind of choice. Once they have chosen their path, progress the game forward a bit more. Explain new details, new events, etc. Ask them to make new decisions, and modify the outcomes of the game based upon those decisions. You can write down exactly what will happen given their different choices, or play it a little looser.
In fact, if you have ever prepared or participated in a Dungeons and Dragons campaign (or other roleplaying system) you’ll feel right at home here. Word Prototyping is basically just roleplaying with a more professional fit, and the skills you apply to one definitely apply to the other.
You want to set up enough detail to be able to easily play this game with a tester, but not so much detail that you waste a bunch of time writing things that never get surfaced. You can be very strict about choices, “You have options A, B or C” or you can be loose about it, “What do you do?” When you are more strict, you control the test better and get more specific data, but you also limit the player’s creativity. When you are more free form, you have to improvise responses more often, but get a wider breadth of feedback.
If you’re still not sure how to handle writing your Word Prototype, skip the next section to see an example. You’ll find a fully filled out and playable Word Prototype that uses many interesting mechanics to get your brain juices flowing.
Once you finish your Word Prototype, share it! You can post it in the celebrate_your_work channel in the Indie Game Academy Discord. Our community there is wonderful and you’ll quickly find yourself flooded with positive affirmations and feedback. You can also share it around using the hashtag: #igawordprototype to see other people’s Word Prototypes.
Step 5: Playtest your Word Prototype!
Now that you have a fully playable version of your game, find somebody who is willing to play! Just like Brainstorming, Playtesting is a massive concept to try to teach you in one small paragraph. I’ll have to write you another article soon!
In the meantime, the simple version is to: find someone to play, explain just enough about the game to get them playing, sit down and play together, try not to talk and only listen, finish playing, and finish by asking a few questions to answer your testable elements.
Do that two or three times, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of whether or not this is a promising game concept! Remember, even if the game sucks, that’s a success! Another concept crossed off!
So perhaps Caterpie is not so useless after all. They may not be the strongest, and the only useful skill they learn might be string shot, but they have a certain charm, don’t they? And they are immediately approachable, and easy to train. And hey, at least they aren’t a Metapod.
The Word Prototype is the simplest of the three major types of prototypes we will cover on this blog. They are made up of entirely spoken or written words, and offer a sort of gut check for concepts you are unsure about. They are extremely fast to create, and can even be made on the fly. This makes them a super low risk tool. However, they are also quite inaccurate, and hard to use on many types of games.
In the end, my hope for our little Caterpie is that it gets brought out and used in more places! Perhaps not in all the places, but definitely the right ones. Caterpie won’t win the elite four for you, but it sure will help you get through those first few grassy patches, and maybe even level up your starter Pokemon along the way.
If you have enjoyed this article, this is actually one chapter of a book the author is writing on the Concept Validation Funnel, a process by which professional game designers choose the best possible game to work on.
Should you want to get more chapters of this book free to your inbox, and hear about its progress, sign up for the Author’s Email List here.