Review: Game Feel by Steve Swink

Book: Game Feel: A Game Designer’s Guide to Virtual Sensation
Author: Steve Swink, independent game designer and academic
Year: 2009

Summary: An excellent deep dive into the topic of “feel”. Required reading if you make fast-paced real-time action games, but a great resource for all designers.

gamefeelGame Feel is one of my favorite game design books, and as far as practical books that improve my games it’s at the very top. “Feel” is a really nebulous, intuition-driven domain of game design and this text attempts to define its boundaries and give designers tools and language to understand and address it in their games. I think it succeeds admirably at this goal.

This is a thick, dense textbook with large pages, lots of text, but broken up with plenty of bullet points, charts, infographics, and annotated screenshots to support the content. I actually want to call out Game Feel as having, hands down, the best charts and infographics I’ve seen in a game design book – both for clarity and usefulness. For better or worse, Game Feel reads like a textbook, so expect to find a lot of introductory content, points repeated throughout, and summaries at the end of every chapter. Unlike a lot of textbooks I didn’t find the writing particularly dry – instead, it’s written in an easy-going and approachable manner while still doing justice to the often technical content. For comparison, I would say the book has a drier tone than Art of Game Design, but much more personable than Rules of Play.

The book can be divided into three main sections: an introduction where Swink defines game feel, several chapters exploring different domains of feel and defining their metrics (input, controls, responsiveness, etc.), and several chapters that act as case studies applying this concept of game feel to well-known games like Super Mario 64.

Game feel, as the author defines it, is a Venn diagram of real-time response, simulated space, and polish. A good portion of the book is devoted to defining these in a very specific manner to give justice to this model of game feel. For example, real-time response doesn’t refer to what we might casually call “real-time”. Instead, it refers specifically to a game that responds within a correction cycle (where a player reads feedback, makes a decision, takes action, and the game reads that action in and delivers new feedback) of under 100 milliseconds (the time required for the computer half of this cycle to occur without any noticeable lag to the player). “Simulated space” specifically refers to a 2D or 3D world with movement and collision, with a sense of speed, gravity, weight, and general physics. (The domain of polish really doesn’t need much elucidation).

There’s really not much in Game Feel that I could call out in criticism. I think it’s really successful as an attempt to put actual metrics behind the vague but familiar phrases like “tight” or “floaty” controls or “unresponsive” movement. Swink goes into a great amount of detail with his examples, such as graphing and explaining the physics behind the feel of a simple jump across different games. As someone whose made a lot of games that fit within his model of game feel, I would say there’s almost equal amounts of retreading familiar ground, expanding upon familiar concepts, and completely new information. Everything in the book also feels practical rather than falling into the familiar trap of theory that has limited real world use.

The author makes sure to point out that whether or not a game fits in the center of this game feel Venn diagram (real-time, simulated space, polish) is not a statement on the quality of the game. While I do recommend the book, keep in mind that it may have limited usefulness if you work doesn’t fall into his model – it’s great for games like platformers, action-adventure, shooters, and racing games, but not so much if your work doesn’t rely on timed reactions or player movement. I think that Game Feel is an excellent book for experienced designers (and other developers) and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to my coworkers. I think for students or aspiring designers, as long as you have a firm base on game design (i.e. read one of the fundamentals textbooks) then you should be able to pick up this book with no problem.

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