There is a persistent myth circulating in the videogames development community that you don’t want good art in a prototype. To me this is like saying you don’t want spaces, punctuation and paragraphs in a draft piece of writing. It’s simply not true and removing good art from a prototype hurts a games readability as much as removing punctuation does with good writing. What a prototype actually needs is the minimum amount of art for the game to be visual and aurally readable, and aesthetically pleasing. If your prototype doesn’t have these qualities you are actively making it harder for anyone playing or watching your game to understand and appreciate the design underneath.
Your Art does not have to be Complex!
This persistent myth seems to spring from AAA development where content has become increasingly complex and laborious to create so “no art” is a hyperbolic description of how much simpler things need to be. Prototyping is supposed to be a quick process of getting a minimal version of the core game to a decent quality. In this situation simplicity is king. If we look towards Indie games there are plenty of art styles that are extremely simple yet easy to understand and aesthetically pleasing. Thomas Was Alone is a clear example of a very straightforward art style which is supremely readable but still aesthetically pleasing.
Obviously Thomas Was Alone is a reasonably simple platformer but this is the final production quality art and it’s simpler than most prototypes! There is a lot you can learn from looking at games with minimalist art styles that translates into more complex styles, for example the way in which the characters are highlighted against the background to improve readability. This walk-through of an update to the Summoner’s Rift map in League of Legends demonstrates this really well.
More complex games are going to require more complex art to retain readability. One way to ensure readability is to make sure silhouettes are distinct. Low-poly, flat-shaded models create silhouettes as well as high-poly models with huge detail in their texture maps. Levels can be “grey-boxed” and minimally dressed to keep visual hints in place. In many ways we’re trying to boil down the art to the essentials required to explain and sell the game.
It also might be the case that you need nearer production quality assets (to give a good indication of final visual design) for example if you want to show the prototype off to investors or the general public. In this case it’s often worthwhile keeping simple assets for as long as possible so you can target the time-consuming art work to the parts of the game that will provide the most benefit.
Re-use Existing Assets
Re-use existing assets to get you going. For example Left 4 Dead was initially prototyped with the Counterstrike models and skins. I’m not certain exactly what they did but simple animations for attacks and zombie walk cycles are the sort of thing I would think about adding immediately. When I was prototyping new avatar gameplay for EVE Online we reused all sorts of assets from EVE and even some that had been created specifically for cinematic trailers. Similarly some of the assets used in the EVR prototype came from EVE.
There are also lots of digital asset stores that will sell ready made assets for games. Jump on them.
It’s important when buying or re-using assets to make sure that you’re keeping the visuals as coherent and readable as possible. Otherwise the assets are probably detracting rather than adding to the prototype.
Art isn’t just assets, it’s the whole gamut of feedback and your prototype should feel as good to play as you hope the final version will. Simple programmatic techniques can breathe life into static assets. A bit of scaling and tweening can turn a sprite into a character.
But Keep Focus
Art in games needs to be complementary to the gameplay. The focus of a prototype is experimenting with and proving out the gameplay of what will hopefully become a full game. Art can make a game with mediocre mechanics into a good game but at this stage we want the art to play a support role in enabling the player to be able to understand and appreciate the game.