When starting a new project my motto is "Find the Fun First". I've seen too many projects ramp up a full production team based on a loosely written design document (or tome). They grind out new tech subsystems and art resources for a year or two only to discover the game isn't any fun. Why isn't it fun? Is it because the design doc is so incomplete? Are the programmers not delivering tech on time? are the artists falling behind in the production schedule? Having ramped up too early it's quite likely all of these are true, however they're not to blame for why the game isn't fun.
When we prototype our gameplay we use a process called "whiteboxing". This simply means we create the absolute minimal amount of code and art in order to support a particular game mechanic or feature. Often times the minimal visual representation is simply a white box, hence the term. If your game isn't fun with 100% whitebox assets and code then it isn't going to be fun with $10 million in beautiful art and robust game subsystems. The less you've invested in art and code during the prototyping phase, the cheaper it is to change things when they don't work out. What sounds fun on paper doesn't always work in game.
You can spend a year or more in this phase and spend relatively little money. The unfortunate part is that when trying to sign a deal with a publisher you're likely going to have to create something "pretty". This usually means the dreaded "vertical slice" which is one of the worst industry practices in existence. That's not to say there is no place for a vertical slice, but it certainly doesn't belong anywhere near the prototyping phase. This is a topic that deserves it's own post in the future. For now, I'll just leave it saying it's in our best interest to stay as long as possible in the prototyping phase. Lean and mean.
Once upon a time Scathis and I had the pleasure of working on a project together, just the two of us, for a solid year before even bringing on an artist. Our goal was to come up with some innovative gameplay that could be executed on some existing technology with relatively little changes. In that time we tested tons of ideas, threw out most, and eventually honed in on some really great gameplay. When we brought in our art director he brought in a welcome breath of creativity and was vital to bringing our fun, yet ugly game, to life. For this reason, we're very excited to have had our art director come on board last week. We intentionally wanted to bring him on early in the process as his virtuoso ability will enable us to prototype ideas that have advanced technical art requirements such as intricate animations and material compositions. Expect to hear from him soon!