Paper prototypes can be a cheap, effective way to evaluate your game design before investing all the resources needed to develop a digital game.  When designing your paper prototype, you should start by answering the following questions:

At its simplest, a paper prototype is low cost, quickly produced version of your analog or digital game. It allows you to evaluate a select game mechanic or an aggregate set of experiences without the distracting stress of mastering specific technology (e.g. 3D modeling, computer programming etc) or refining the final aesthetic of your game. 

One of the most common mistakes in paper prototype design is failing to construct a design that answers the specific question you are investigating. Never worry about testing mechanics for which you have plenty of examples (i.e. conventional gameplay). If you were thinking of designing a car, it wouldn't make sense to spend time testing the concept of putting a car on 4 wheels, you already have plenty of evidence of that success. If, however, you were planning to design a car with 2 wheels and a hovercraft, it's probably time to build some prototypes. The same is true of games.

The paper prototype will be useful in evaluating play balance issues, strategy (both planned and emergent strategies derived by players), and it may even help you test your game's writing. I have seen fairly effective prototypes that test dialogue, dialogue systems and plot twists (think Clue).

Have fun with the design of your paper prototype, it will help help you design a better game. Remember that paper prototyping is about the following:

1. Play testing an idea - you should be playing at least 50% of the time. Note, that play-testing is half play, have testing.

2. Avoiding the trap of over-investing - if it was cheap to make, you won't mind throwing it away. The more time you spend on your work, the more you will protect the idea - even if it's a bad one. The power of paper prototypes is that you can discover weakness early and address it.

Something to note about paper prototypes for digital games:

It is usually fruitless to test mechanics for which timing or other "twitch response" is essential (e.g. first person shooter as a paper prototype). That does not mean you can't test a first person shooter as a paper prototype, but make sue you that the prototype informs a specific set of design questions you are asking. Such a design might seek to evaluate the layout of an FPS's level map, the logic of flow between rooms, or other such details. In short, don't expect a paper prototype to inform "flow."

Paper prototyping can inform interface design, just as a sketch can help you understand interior design.

The game industry is not the only one to use paper prototypes, but they are particularly helpful for games because the time and effort invested in the development in even the simplest games really begs for quality design decisions early. 

I would also suggest the following reading on paper prototypes:

To facilitate your paper prototype design, I have provided you with a standard set of paper prototyping board tools. Feel free to use these as templates or design your own:


Paper Prototype Tempaltepaper prototpye template gridpaper prototpye template racingpaper prototpye tempalte spinnerpaper prototpye cards

PDF's (here is a game board too)

Paper Prototype Tempaltepaper prototpye template gridpaper prototpye template racingpaper prototpye tempalte spinnerpaper prototpye cards

The following are paper prototypes created by my former students:

Here is some older advice and reading I had provided my former students on paper prototyping too.


Last modified: 2/14/11