Books for Game Designers

Some cool news in Playtank-land: I’ve signed on with CRC Press to write a game design book!

It’s a book I feel is currently missing and that will fill a critical gap in the knowledge sharing around game design. But to clearly state where I’m coming from, this post will be dedicated to some fantastic books on game design that already exist and that you should read and keep around for future reference.

These are far from all the great game design books out there, but they’re the ones I most often come back to.

Advanced Game Design A Systems Approach

By Michael Sellers

This is one of my personal favorites. I picked this up after the Frostpunk team recommended it greatly in an article on their procedural systems. Systemic games are growing in importance and relevance. Partly because content-driven games have a limited lifetime and are expensive to make.

My biggest takeaways are the practical ways to look at systems as Economies, Ecologies, or Engines, and what this means for your game.

The Deck of Lenses

By Jesse Schell

Not technically a book at all, but a deck of cards serving as a companion to Schell’s The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses. The book does a great job of holistically describing games, but the deck turns an interesting read into a practically useful tool.

Each card is a “lens,” with a set of questions you can ask yourself in order to more deeply inform your design. Even questions that may not seem immediately relevant will always make you think.

Challenges for Game Designers

By Brenda Brathwaite (now Romero) and Ian Schreiber

Another favorite and one that I often quote. Not about game design as much as how game design is something you must practice and turn into a practical skill. It’s not about winning armchair duels or playing reference tennis.

Or in the words of the text, “A painter gets better by making lots of paintings; sculptors hone their craft by making sculptures; and game designers improve their skills by designing lots of games.”

Game Programming Patterns

By Robert Nystrom

I know. Your instinct is to say, “but I’m a designer, I don’t need to know programming!”

Yes you do. If you want to make digital games, knowing how games get made and some of the tricks that enable them is extremely helpful. At minimum, it lets you talk to programmers in a more constructive way.

Besides, you can take a peek at Nystrom’s book online for free and not just take my word for it.

Uncertainty in Game Design

By Greg Costikyan

This small book opened my mind. Its examples aren’t exhaustive and many I’ve talked to have argued that it doesn’t have much content. But it doesn’t need to.

It talks about uncertainty as a key element in what make games so compelling to play. You may know it as randomness, competition, hidden information, or in one of the many other forms that the book brings up. The book makes a compelling case for why you should make sure to consider which uncertainties you are employing for your own designs.

Game Feel

By Steve Swink

This book is a very hands-on take on how games feel to play and what makes it that way. It brings things up that you simply must know if you are serious about digital game design. Its many informative diagrams and illustrations serve to make it clear what makes things work, what may be the causes of player frustration, and many other interesting tangible things about game feel.

The Pyramid of Game Design

By Nicholas Lovell

Games as a Service (known as GaaS) are here to stay. The Free-to-Play business model is compelling for a variety of reasons, all of which Lovell mentions in this book.

Among gamers, these practices are often lamented. But Lovell comes from a different perspective and talks about how turning a game into more than a game – a hobby – is the path to success. Not just introducing mechanics designed to optimize monetization, but rather to hook the player and make them want to come back for more.

Even if you don’t like GaaS, Free-to-Play, or any other of these models, it helps to understand what makes them work.

The Missing Book

Books that focus on specific topics will usually be my favorites. This is why I don’t list Schell’s The Art of Game Design, even if it’s a great book. Because what it does is done by many many books out there: it explains the theory of game design.

For various reasons, I’ve felt that a practical guide to how you do game design is still missing, formatted as accessible tools that game designers use in their everyday work. This is what I’m trying to write and have been trying to write for the past couple of years, even before I was contacted by CRC Press.

But they’ve given me a reason to finish it!

Wish me luck.

Published by mannander

Professional game developer since 2006. Opinionated rambler since 1982.

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