Prototyping: This Is Why We Have Nice Things

Innovation lives in the prototype.

At Inherent Games, we had a serious problem. We wanted to teach people the meaning of words—MEANING—but we didn’t want to use flashcards. That is, we didn’t want to show you the word apple in Spanish and then show you a picture of an apple. That’s not fun.

We wanted fun.

So, we came up with a pretty basic concept: let’s teach people word meanings through actual, physical networks. After all, words are ‘connected’ in several different ways. For example, some words are superordinate to other words (think fruit to apple). Some words are synonyms (think ball and sphere). Words can even be related in their physical relationship to each other, like whether or not they physically belong together in the real world (think chair and table).

Brilliant! Let’s make a game using semantic (meaning) networks!

We made a prototype and took it to a local high school.

Prototype I

Prototype I was a distaster.

We put together a network of words with different relationships to each other and expected players to memorize the network. We would then quiz them on their knowledge of the network. Because quizzes are fun, right?

Prototype I. Not our finest hour.

It bombed hard. Our users hated the prototype.

At the time, this made us sad. Now, it makes me very happy. We thought that we had invented something amazing, and that belief was immediately blown out of the water. This sparked our creativity.

Prototypes II-IV

For prototypes II-IV, we got more dynamic. We wanted to treat the networks like they were neural connections, so the design even include neurons and firing synapses.

The idea was that the user would be presented with three words. Two were random words, and one was a target word.

Players could press the target word and then ‘travel’ along a neural pathway, and their goal was to consistently choose the word that was connected to the previous word.

Prototypes II-IV. Still lacking.

Before you get all judgy, know this: it was more fun that the first prototype. It was dynamic, and it had promise. Of course, it also had all kinds of problems.

Our play testing sessions revealed that players had no idea where to begin. Three words were thrown at them, the target (or the one we wanted them to press) and two random words. But they didn’t know the words, so how on earth could they separate the target from the random words?

As I write this, it seems incredibly stupid that we didn’t catch this as we were designing the game. But, when you’re designing something, you simply don’t see those huge gaps. YOU understand the game, so everyone else should as well.

Prototyping helps eliminate this blindness.

We went through several iterations of this idea, and then we hit a wall. It wasn’t working.

We needed a big idea.

Nano Nano

Prototyping semantic networks gave rise to innovation: players should BUILD the networks.

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Nano Nano. The player builds semantic networks.

So we re-thought everything, and more innovations came:

Players needed a translation button! It would be a crutch, and they could use it any time they were feeling overwhelmed (but it would only last a small amount of time).

Players needed a clear target word! What if the whole game was embedded in a story, and they needed to fill in words from the conversations?

Players needed to visually see different semantic connections (synonyms, superordinates, physical contact). So let’s color code them!

The result is Nano Nano, now up on the App Store.

While it sill needs a few iterations, it is the result of lots of game prototyping.

Users informed our decisions, and prototyping gave rise to innovations that we NEVER would have come up with on our own.


This is why we have nice things.