Game Designer Bookshelf

I’m on a reading kick, so I thought I’d just go ahead and list some of the most useful books for me in my short career so far as a designer:

The Art of Game Design
by Jesse Schell
I’ve read a handful of game design books. The worst are genre analyzers. They say: “this is an RTS. Here are the conventions of an RTS.” Some are way more lofty: “This is what a game is. Here are the boundaries of a game.” I didn’t find either approach very helpful.

This book is a distillation of Prof. Schell’s class on Game Design that he teaches at the ETC at Carnegie Mellon University. I was lucky enough to be both a student of his (I took the class for easy elective credit and it turned me into a game designer) and the following year, his teaching assistant.

The method is unique (to me at least): “Here are my experiences as a game designer and here are the tools I use and have used to look at game design and career decisions.” It is thoroughly more useful to someone actually doing game design and it makes for a more entertaining read. It isn’t one unified theory for games and doesn’t try to be – although the advice is useful especially for those designing non-digital or non-traditional games. As such, something may come along and usurp Prof. Schell’s book in the future as a more holistic Grand Theory of Game Design. Maybe such a thing will never exist. But until it does, I will count this as the prima game design book that everyone who calls him/herself a designer or anyone who wants to should give a read.

Presentation Zen
by Garr Reynolds
We game designers make presentations. Our job in professional game development is to sell ideas – to artists, programmers, producers, the press, but most importantly – to the folks that hold the purse strings and either make the go-no go decisions or directly influence those who do.

And most of the time, these presentations are done with the dreadnought of Powerpoint. Even mentioning the P word triggers a narcoleptic response, not because our ideas are bad but because we’ve sat through so many presentations where some simple techniques of design and delivery could have elevated the same ideas from sleep-inducing the enthralling.

Presentation Zen is a book about getting rid of “slideuments” and delivering a message. If I could give one book to every person in the game industry to study and know, it would be this.

There’s a double-edged sword here. People are so conditioned in the awful techniques of how Powerpoint is currently used that trying to be more engaging can actually frighten and confuse particularly entrenched minds. After reading this, I was to give a presentation to a group of senior staff at EA on a new concept. When I gave it to my boss to review before the presentation, he tore into me. I paraphrase:

“What’s with all the full screen images? Where is the text? Why aren’t there captions to these diagrams?”
“Because I am going to be talking about them. That’s why I’ll be standing up there presenting.”
“No one is going to listen to you, they are just going to read what’s on the screen.”
“That’s precisely why there aren’t words on this slide.”
“No, change it. That’s not what they want.”
“Then why give a presentation? We can send them a document with all the information and save everyone the time of getting together for a meeting.”
“Because we have a meeting scheduled.”

So it may not be the easiest of transitions for some, but I damn well guarantee that your presentations will be better if you take the lessons from this book.

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information
by Edward Tufte
This goes hand-in-hand with Presentation Zen but is a little more broad. The subject matter is fully explained in the title, so there is little to say about the contents. Tufte’s focus on packing the largest amount of information in the smallest amount of ink has its uses in UI design in particular, but I used to keep a copy on my desk solely to gaze at by accident and remind me of simplicity in data presentation. If that is all you get out of this, then it will be worth it, but deeper reading will present all sorts of lessons on presenting to your players. After all, every element of your game will need to be presented to your players and 95% of that will be done in a visual way. I’ll leave the aural and tactile feedback methods for another expert.
The Game Design Reader
by Various
A lot of folks pick Salen and Zimmerman’s Rules of Play as a seminal work. I find it very interesting as an academic pursuit, but found it sorely lacking in practicality. Their companion volume, however, has hundreds of pages of precious gems from a wide variety of authors. Marc LeBlanc, Richard Garfield and Richard Bartle are worth admission alone, but I could site a half-dozen other “great reads” in addition.

The organization of the texts itself feels a bit slapdash and the material contributed by Salen and Zimmerman reaches back into more academic territory, but overall there are too many interesting articles to avoid placing this on the essential bookshelf.

Brain Rules
by John Medina
Yes, it is pop psychology, but the book was practically written for game designers. Games are about decisions and this book is about how the brain makes decisions. For instance, Chapter 4 is all about what we pay attention to and what we ignore. Great for level design! How about teaching mechanics? There are great chapters on the brain’s short term and long term memory processes and the limitations thereof. How about pacing? Medina says the brain can churn for about ten minutes before needing some sort of rest.
Understanding Comics
by Scott McCloud
I’m violating my own list here because I don’t actually have this on my bookshelf. I read it back in college but I remember it being pretty encompassing when it comes to the visual medium – the domain of video games. It is so omnipresent on game designer lists that I have to include it. I’m resolved to picking it up again. Like Tufte’s book above, this is all about using images to convey information. We ask players to make decisions based on the information that we present to them – it is what a game is. We need to present these images in the most elegant and understandable ways. McCloud is consistently cited by game designers when it comes to these issues.

Other game industry people, what else should I add to the list?

6 Comments

  1. Hey Zack…

    Great list, the game design reader sounds especially intersting.
    Check out my list from a week ago:
    http://howtonotsuckatgamedesign.com/?p=133

    Understanding Comics is also on my list, and you sure should get it for your shelf.

  2. I’ve seen “Game Feel” and it was on my wishlist before, but I never pulled the trigger. I’ve paged through the Perry one at some point (GDC maybe?) and thought it was a bit slapdash, but never really sat down and read it.

  3. well, the perry book isn’t really read. It’s a handbook and consists mostly of short tips and tricks and looooong listsof stuff. Like it’s saying on the title, a brainstorming toolbox. Actually reading thru it doesn’t make much sense. 😉

    Game feel, actually is really a great read, that helps to understand what makes video games actually stand out as a medium.

  4. I recommend republishing this blogpost on gamasutra.
    They like those kind of post very much and did out mine on the frontpage.

    just sayin

  5. Your boss is an idiot. If he wants to give the presentation, let him. If you’re giving it, and you’re the one ultimately responsible for delivering it, it should be yours. How’d that turn out, by the way?

  6. It turned out about how you would expect.

    He wasn’t an idiot though, just entrenched in the way things were done there. When you presented to senior staff, often they’d be on their Blackberries poke-poking away at email, not really listening to what you had to say anyway. If you made “slideuments”, then they could browse the slide at a glance and go back to their poke-poking if nothing interested them. It makes sense in a backhanded sort of way, but raises the question of whether they engage in that behavior because presentations are boring and they have better things to do (which can be solved by tighter, more engaging presentations) or whether they would do that anyway and trying to be different is to one’s detriment.

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