So this post comes from a topic that is often discussed in the game design industry when it comes to game prototypes. The question is generally "How much time/effort/money should I spend to make my prototypes look good?" Most recently, there were two good blog posts in regards to subjects with opinions and reasons for or against a good-looking prototype.
The Benefits of Crappy Prototypes
This post goes on to explain how you're better off having a prototype that you don't invest time into making it look better because you're less likely to change the game based on the amount of time that you've invested into making it look good.
The Benefits of Pretty Prototypes
This post goes on to explain how you're better off having a prototype that looks amazing because you are more likely to get players to play your game with a better looking prototype, therefore getting more feedback on your game in general.
However, what I'd like to discuss isn't just making the prototype look good, as that can be done by slapping some art by an amazing artist onto your board and pieces and calling it a day. No, what I'd like to discuss is using good graphic design on your prototypes to make your games better, regardless of the art. This goes further than just making something pretty. The purpose in graphic design is to assist in understanding the information placed in front of you.
The excuse of not having enough time to make a game "pretty" when you really mean "functional" is just good enough. We all have limited time, and that includes the people you want to be able to playtest your game to help you in making it better. Spending time making the information easier to digest will improve the feedback that you receive about the mechanisms and interactions of your game.
Adding graphic design to your protype does not mean just adding artwork to your prototype. Remember, we're trying to make the information that you present to players easier to understand. Take the following example:
This is a section of the first iteration for a playerboard of a game that I'm currently designing. A stack of cards would be placed over different 2x3 sections of this square to portray different game states of the stack of cards being available/unavailable for purchase as well as the related ability being locked/unlocked for use.
- The font is all the same size
- Whenever possible, you should use different sizes or types of font, including using bolded words to effectivly direct the eyes towards the different portions of information.
- No visual groupings
- Breaking up information into groupings through shapes, colors, or font types is very effective when it comes to assisting in digesting information visually.
- Too many words
- Using symbols or pictures whenever possible to convey messages will reduce the time it takes to process the information.
This is what the second pass of that same section looks like. It's not perfect, but it is certainly an improvement over the first. You can see where I've changed the sized of the font, grouped the information together and reduced the amount of text for things that were just titles of units. Using this version was easier for the players, but the different card orientation was still more confusing to players than I wanted it to be.
This is the third pass of the design that doesn't change the orientation of the cards, and instead places a token on top of the stack to signify if it is available for purchase or not. The stack starts on the green box and slides to the left when the ability has been unlocked and is available for use.
If this version of the design still proves to be confusing for the players, which ultimately detracts from the game play, I will likely create something a bit more standard in concept. I was trying to do something visually different from what people might expect, but if it turns out that this is still confusing, I will eventually go towards the familiar. Possibly a placemat that has the abilities listed on them along with the costs to unlock them, and use tokens to signify locked/unlocked status. This would separate the text on the cards and the text on the abilities from one another, which may clarify the situation. I could also potentially use 2-sided tiles with one side having the ability and the unlock cost, with the other side just having the ability.
I didn't go to school for graphic design, these are just things that I've picked up along the way while designing games. At first I just wanted to make my games look better, but at this point I use the information to improve the functionality of my designs.
Here are some resources that you may or may not be aware of:
Between these 5 items, if you're not able to create better looking and more functional prototypes, then you're probably doing something wrong.
Thousands of fonts to use in your games, completely free. Different fonts have different licenses, so please review those upon your choice to use them.
This is a completely free vector image program. If you're not sure what a vector image or vector program is, it's simply an image format and the subsequent manipulation software for a style of image that can be shrunk or expanded to any size without losing any of the details of the original. Vectors treat the images like objects, whereas raster images (like jpegs) convert everything into pixels. For more information on different types of images, I would recommend a few Google searches as there are plenty of overviews on the topic that will inform you better than I would.
Over 1000 icons that were created specifically to be easily recognizable as spells/actions/things on a button in a game. Downloadable in either SVG (vector) or JPG (image) formats, this is an invaluable resource for placeholder images on your prototypes. The reason that this and the following site are great are because your prototypes don't need professional artwork to improve their functionality, often just adding simples images is all you need. Images serve as a way to distinguish cards/pieces/locations at a glance, instead of forcing your brain to compute some text on a card.
Another resource for placeholder vector images, but spanning past the game-world into more standard objects, and not necessarily in all the same style as the game icons site. Still another great resource for graphics in your prototypes.
This is a completely free raster image manipulation software equivilent to Adobe Photoshop. Having never used Photoshop, I can't really compare the two, but I'm told they are similar. I rarely use Gimp except to cut out pieces of an image, or to create textures. This software is more to make the game "pretty" instead of functional.