What to do once you’ve designed your dream game or app? What comes next?
Designing a killer app or a creative indie game is great and all, but you will need a prototype in order to show potential investors, get user feedback, tweak parameters and iterate.
Get this — No one makes a perfect app or game on the very first try. Its just impossible.
The reason for this is anything developed in a bubble is destined to fail. An app needs focus group and user experience testing. A game needs QA testers and pre-release demos. I will be walking you through some beginners tips on how to effectively prototype your software, and get it in the hands of potential users as quickly as possible.
I Don’t Have A Killer App or Game Designed Yet?
So what do you do if you are not yet at the prototyping stage? Well — get to work! You will need to start on a Design Document and map out the various user flows.
And once you have a clear idea on what you want to make, find a team or some like-minded developers to start building your prototype! If you are making a game, there is actually a very active and healthy game jam community that you can join. Check out itch.io/jams for some fun stay-at-home contests.
Don’t get caught on details
Now for a prototype, the golden rule is to not get caught up with all the small details. Is your color palette kind of clashing? No problem, take note of it and tweak it later. Are you using placeholder sprites or models in your game? That’s great — don’t get caught up with making a beautiful game just yet.
Don’get get caught up on the details. Think of it this way: if you spend too much time prettying up an app or game that is destined to fail, wont you wish you didn’t waste all that time? Your goal is to prove your idea not create the end product.
MVP — Minimum Viable Product
When prototyping, you need to get to a place where your game or app provides functionality, and fast. Get familiar with the acronym “MVP”, a.k.a. Minimum Viable Product. You should strive for a MVP within the first month of development. Are you making a video conferencing app? Then you need to start on the video call APIs, testing connection, user set up, in that order. Are you making an online board game? Then get your online async turn system working, then basic game mechanics for your game, etc. Always prioritize the core features over the more “nice-to-have” ones.
Be flexible on all things
Ideas are not worth much. You can’t sell ideas alone; the concept of a great piece of software is not nearly as useful as the software itself. That being said, don’t put too much stock in your ideas, they are only useful once validated.
If you are on the fence about an idea, and not sure if it is pivotal to the success of your game or app, what should you do? My advice — build it out immediately, test it, get others to test it, and determine it’s importance. Chances are your ideas was heading to the chopping block.
Let’s say you are dead set on adding a blackjack-style mini game to your role-playing game. Think to yourself, “What value does this actually add to my game? How difficult will this be to program? Is it worth my time?” Chances are, most ideas are not core to the promises your game makes to your players. For a prototype, cut out the slack, and get your MVP on course, even as you pile up dead and abandoned ideas.
Use All Tools Necessary — Even the bad ones
I know that title is quite controversial at first glance. However this is a very common practice. Leaning in on tools or assets or boilerplates that will not cut it in your final build is pretty important when prototyping. For games, this can be a conglomerate of Unity Assets from the Asset Store. For Apps this can be libraries or open-source project repositories that don’t have the right license for your intended use.
You are trying to prove your idea out, and fast, so using any tool at your disposal is paramount. It is called a proof of concept and not a release version for a reason — you are trying to prove out if your app is useful, if your game is fun, etc.
That being said, you must remove any tools that you do not have proper licenses for, and credit the creators of any assets you decide to keep in your final build.
Start by testing your game yourself. As you test, try to place yourself in the shoes of a stranger to the software. Ask yourself, “Is this fun /intuitive?” and iterate against your response. Unless you work in a team, you will have to be your own QA tester.
Most times it is hard to separate yourself from your work. So once you have a MVP, you need to get it in front of people ASAP. That means As Soon As Possible (we’ve had enough acronyms😆)
You will need to test your prototype methodically. Start with the people closest to you: roommates, family, friends, spouses, even kids. Their feedback is important, but also a little biased. Next get your prototype in front of the greater online populous. Try Reddit, Twitter, Twitch (if you are making a game), and other social media outlets. However, make sure you are able to capture the feedback from social media — sometimes it is quite tricky.
Finally, you will want to set up focus groups to test your software. When planning a focus group, be sure to choose a realistic cross-section of testers across your target audience. Also make sure you have an organized way to collect feedback from their experience.
The Vertical Slice is your End-goal
We are reaching the final goal of the prototyping phase — the “vertical slice”. This term is used mostly for game projects, but it is very much applicable for apps and software as well. The vertical slice is a cross section of your game that shows off every feature in scope, fully polished and ready for stakeholders.
Now we have left the topic of a prototype, for something that sits between that and a release build. A vertical slice is important for demonstrating the true-to-life experience you plan to provide. Kickstarter backers, publishers, sponsors, and investors need to see (and sometimes, play with) this in order to get a clear sense of what they are looking forward to.
The easiest way to reduce stress when building the vertical slice is to remember that it is not meant to include all the content of the release build. For games, a vertical slice is usually a single level or area. For an app, this could be a very tightly scripted flow between different Views.
Once your vertical slice is complete, congratulations! You are well on your way to completing your software project. Some would argue that the most difficult part is yet to come. However, by following prototyping best practices you are guaranteed to avoid some fatal mistakes that could stop your project in its tracks.