Books by Their Covers

Via kottke, I came upon this interview with book cover designer John Gall (I wonder how many Atlas Shrugged jokes he gets in his line of work?) that was fairly compelling. I love this guy’s covers despite having only ever seen them in this video. If you can’t get the video to work in Firefox, I got it to work in IE – just a warning.

He gives five rules for book cover design:

1. Read the Book
2. Inspiration is Everywhere
3. Be Thrifty With Fonts
4. Practice Sound Time Management
5. Rules are Made to be Broken

I think these are great and with a little massaging, can apply to game design as well. Here’s my version:

1. Understand the Context
2. Inspiration is Everywhere
3. Be Thrifty with Mechanics
4. Practice Iteration
5. Rules are Made to Be Broken

Number one seems like the hardest to shoehorn, but really was the first thing I thought of when how to apply this presentation to game design. Galt’s reasoning is that you have to read the book to understand where to go with the cover. It is about preparation. A designer has to have context. Reading the book is context. Playing games that have come earlier in a series, games that evoke similar aesthetics, understanding the fans of a licensed property – these are all ways to gain context and are absolutely essential.

One of the things that the designers on Superman Returns absolutely nailed was that earlier Superman games never let the player feel like Superman. They were hard to control, you ran into technological limitations that would not be limitations for the hero, etc. So they worked on really nailing the feeling of flying at speeds past the sound barrier. They really nailed the feeling of being able to use just your breath to blow away cars. They understood the context that Superman fans wanted the feeling of being Superman more than they wanted the specifics of any particular Superman story. They failed on numerous other fronts and that is a discussion for another time, but they did nail flight and power.

The second rule is just great advice and I didn’t have to change it at all. You would be surprised at how many designers limit themselves to only playing good games or only playing games of the genre they specialize in or never play indie games or Flash games or never read stories outside their comfort zone. You’ll never know what will stick with you, so expose yourself to as much as you possibly can.

Text is how cover designers deliver specific information (the ultimate purpose of the book’s cover) to readers/browsers. Fonts are the way that text is styled. The natural analogue to this in games is mechanics. Mechanics are the style that designers relay the purpose of the design to the player. Much like a book cover can have fonts that confuse, obfuscate and distract from the cover’s purpose, so can a game have mechanics that simple do not fit the setting or desired aesthetics. It isn’t impossible to be successful without being stingy with mechanics, GTA4 is a good example. World of Warcraft is another. Madden is another, at times. But the mechanics in those games are all working to fulfill a desired aesthetic. If the plan covers this, embrace gluttony of mechanics. Otherwise, be miserly. It is good advice.

By “practice sound time management”, what Gall really means is “don’t be stuck throwing shit on a cover because yous pent too much time pursuing the wrong avenues”. You see this excuse all the time in honest postmortems: “Well we had a great idea for an xyz system, but we just ran out of time.” Iteration, while it is turning into an industry buzzword, is one of the designers best tools in avoiding throwing shit mechanics into a game because you don’t have time for anything else.

Rules are made to broken is a cliché, but clichés usually stick around because they are grounded in truth. Most “rules” aren’t so much rules as they are guidelines or heuristics. Developers eager to ax a feature like to say “We can’t do that. It was terrible in Game ABC”. That may be. But is Game ABC of the same genre? Was it trying to evoke the same play dynamics? Did Game ABC’s team have time to figure out why that feature didn’t work? Sometimes those features are terrible by nature, but sometimes they just need massaged into fitting properly. This is why you see few game design rules. Given the proper setting, almost anything can be made to be fun.

All in all, this was a good list to keep in one’s back pocket.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Human? * Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.