Roundup: Reading Game Design in 2015
In November 2014 – just a little over a year ago – I started a project to read and review books on game design and related disciplines. In May I started up a Game Design Book Club for others who wanted to read along with me. It’s worked out pretty well so far so here’s my summary.
In 2015 I read 16 books covering: game design, architecture, psychology, games criticism, history, pop culture, and comics. (This is quite a bit shy of my goal of 25 books – maybe next year).
By far the best book I read this year was Homo Ludens. It justified the whole project just by itself. I wasn’t expecting to like it so much but nothing has had such a big impact on the way I view games – and the role of games in society – as this book. It was like a delicious, unexpected game design buffet for my mind. If I had to pick a book that every game developer should read it would be this one. Please read Homo Ludens.
Follow up books are, unsurprising, all written by game designers. Game Feel, the first half of A Game Design Vocabulary, and Playing to Win continue to stick with me and I reference these far more than I initially expected. I carried back new terminology to help describe familiar concepts in my daily work. All these books have made me more thoughtful and literate about game design. I will probably return and reread them again in a few years to help keep my thoughts fresh.
THE MIDDLE GROUND
These are all good books that I recommend, they just didn’t quite make the jump into one of the best books I’ve read.
101 Things I Learned in Architecture School is good but I would classify it kind of middling. I didn’t ultimately take much away beyond a few small tips, but I prefer much meatier books. Still, it deserves its accolades, and makes for a nice casual coffee table book.
Understanding Comics is good but a bit overrated in its popularity among game designers. That seems to be a rare controversial opinion, so take my review with a grain of salt. I think it’s better to approach it as a guide on visual design than anything specific to game design.
Surprisingly (to me), I enjoyed both history books I picked up – Videogames: In the Beginning, an autobiographical take on the early design and development of the Magnavox Odyssey, and Generation Xbox: How Videogames Invaded Hollywood. I liked them both as an opportunity to help understand the current industry by seeing how it evolved. I can’t say they are ‘practical’ books, just that they cover their subjects very well and fill in gaps in my knowledge.
I carved out some time to read games criticism toward the end of the year. The best was definitely Shooter, an anthology of essays from a variety of critics that I think is good thoughtful content for game developers. I will admit that I tried reading a couple other books in a similar vein and put them down in disappointment before getting too far, so Shooter definitely stands out for me.
GENERAL GAME DESIGN BOOKS
I read several fundamentals books – as in, books about game design in a general sense, often written for a university course. Each has their pros and cons, and they are all good in their own right.
Characteristics of Games stands out as being an excellent book for experienced designers. I am cheating by including it here: I still haven’t finished it and written a proper review, but already know it will be extremely positive. It’s academic and theoretical but yet extremely relevant to industry folk, but it may be difficult for someone new to game design to pick up.
The rest didn’t really work that well for me as a designer in the industry, as they tend to favor breadth over depth and simple introductions over challenging content. Art of Game Design is best for students looking to eventually enter the industry in a traditional way, while A Game Design Vocabulary is my recommendation for self-taught indie designers and has a very system-oriented approach to design. Challenges for Game Designers was maybe the weakest for content, but the exercises more than make up for it.
A Theory of Fun for Game Design stands out as still the perfect pick for someone brand new to game design, regardless of age. I wouldn’t base a curriculum around it, though. It was also worth rereading it now that I have several years of game development experience under my belt.
Now this isn’t to say these books are bad just that they really did not fit my tastes and I’ll be avoiding others like them in the future.
I did not like Reality is Broken, though it does have some nuggets of wisdom I appreciated. Ultimately I felt like reading someone all-too-enthusiastic pitch for how games will contribute to world peace, while glossing over any possible contradictions to that utopic vision.
I thought Flow was a complete snore – it is worth reading chapters 3 & 4 and skipping the rest. This was a disappointment considering how important the concept of flow is in game design, and while I don’t recommend it I will say that I have a better understanding of flow then I did before reading the book so it might be worth the effort. Finite and Infinite Games was likewise uninteresting to me as a game designer – though perhaps redeems itself as a philosophy book (…if you like philosophy. I discovered I do not).
Ghosts in the Machine was a fiction anthology that I reviewed. I was on the fence about reviewing it, first because it’s fiction and second because I was really disappointed in it. I might just avoid reviewing fiction from now on. (I also hated Ready Player One and refuse to review it, so my taste is definitely not mass market).
I’ve used some of the techniques and examples in these books to help me with my work. I find myself recalling pattern recognition (Koster) when looking at systems, consistency, and tutorials in games. I tend to use the terms “scene” and “resistance” more often than “level” and “difficulty” (Anthropy & Clark) to compare vastly different types of games. I see patterns of play in many of our social constructs (Huizinga) and often my thoughts go to comparing game behaviors with rituals. I’ve been inspired to actually tackle competitive multiplayer games (Sirlin) through chess, then Counterstrike, and now Hearthstone. I am more articulate about design, and able to express design concepts faster instead of meandering around them until I hit on the right set of words.
I probably irritate people a lot more these by responding to questions by suggesting a book they should read. Eventually I’ll get in the habit of just answering the damn question already.
All told, the reading I’ve done has made me a better designer. but it takes a long time and the signal to noise ratio can be intimidating. Writing about each book has helped me internalize many of their lessons and really aids in recall.
It can be kind of hard to justify the effort that goes into this, especially when most of my peers scoff at game design books as useless, vague, all theory and nothing practical. But everyone has also always followed up to ask if I’ve found anything good. From the beginning, one of my goals has been to help filter through the literature on games for others. Hopefully you all are not disappointed in my reviews.
I still have 110 unread books. At my current rate that’s another 6.5 years of reading, not including the books I’ll pick up Katamari-style between now and then. It would be a slog except that when I look over my collection I get really excited for all the books I haven’t read yet. Despite narrative being my hobby horse, I haven’t read and reviewed a single book on that topic, and level design and RPGs are woefully absent.
I’ve actually read pieces from a couple Ph.D dissertations this year. I think this will be a category of books that I will only review if I like them. There’s no use reviewing someone’s dissertation if I don’t like it – no one was going to read it unless they sought it out anyway. On the flip side, the two dissertations I’ve read from were absolutely fantastic and I’d like to use my blog to bring attention to them. Expect to hear about them soon.
Speaking of academia, I actually like reading papers printed to traditional academic journals. This kind of work is hiding far away from the eyes of the industry so I’ve been thinking of ways to bring attention to it or review collections of academic papers that cover a specific subject. Not promising anything yet, but I suspect a post every few months might sneak out that rounds up a bunch of academic reading on some niche topic.
And that brings me to my next point: there’s lots of other forms of game design writing that doesn’t take place in a book sold at your local bookstore or favored online retailer. It seems short-sighted to ignore all the articles, design blogs, games criticism, videos, and other smart work being done out there in different media. I don’t really have the time to do it myself but maybe someone, somewhere, who may be reading this blog post right now, has the time to do it. (I’d read it).