Review: A Game Design Vocabulary by Anna Anthropy and Naomi Clark

Book: A Game Design Vocabulary
Author: Anna Anthropy (indie developer) and Naomi Clark (designer and instructor)
Year: 2014

Summary: A straight up game design text that attempts to break games down into parts using new vocabulary. A very solid, practical, design-specific text recommended to students and aspiring designers.

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I’m surprised the book is as unknown as it is – I wouldn’t have looked at it except that I recognized the authors, and hadn’t heard about it from anyone else. It’s not an especially long book – at only 209 pages with many images interspersed with text – so it doesn’t take very long to get through. I enjoyed A Game Design Vocabulary quite a lot, and there’s several nuggets of wisdom that I found myself immediately using in my work after reading them. I don’t think it’s perfect and I feel it better serves aspiring designers rather than seasoned vets, but if you don’t mind wading through a lot of common knowledge to get to the interesting bits scattered throughout then I do recommend it.

This isn’t a book about getting a job or the industry ecosystem or working with teams or production. It skips all of that and goes directly into the foundation of game design: What is game design? How do you talk about game design? What can you do to practice good design principles? While the book is technically about theory, it’s very practical. Unlike a lot of other books, it doesn’t give the reader new information and then leave them to ask, “But what do I do with this?”

I’ll be honest – I was a bit hesitant about this book initially because it had some broad claims on the cover about giving a unified vocabulary of games. Vocabulary is a bit of a warzone in games, especially when it comes to defining terms like “game”, from academic articles to Kotaku comments to every game design book I’ve reviewed so far. I expected a book about vocabulary, and I interpreted that as prescriptive, i.e. “this is how we should talk about games.”

Instead, A Game Design Vocabulary presents a really simple, meaningful, and incredibly useful way to look at games. Rather than replacing terminology, it adds its own layer as a way of lumping several concepts together under a unifying term. This separate terms like challenge, difficulty, etc. are all part of a larger concept called “resistance”. Levels, missions, arenas, boards, and so on are grouped into “scenes”.

The point behind this thinking, which the authors make clear early on, is that many games now no longer follow traditional mainstream game formulas. We have games that do not have difficulty levels or specific challenges or even goals, without scores or levels or missions or quests, but we haven’t really evolved our vocabulary to deal with them. When we talk about “levels” in a game, that implies a lot about the gameplay. But how do you talk about levels in a Twine game? This is where a new, centralized set of vocabulary really shines. With terminology that can apply equally to Call of Duty, Pacman, Dear Esther, or howling dogs, we can actually compare them to one another and talk about them in meaningful ways without getting bogged down in “levels” or “missions” or “difficulty”.

The other advantage with this vocabulary is that it frees designers from thinking within boxed terms. As I mentioned, I believe words have a lot of power, and when you do not have a word for a thing it can be hard to describe it. We see this effect in the genres were make (platformers, shooters, etc.) being prescriptive – we copy others without creating on our own. This new vocabulary gives more general – yet still specific – terms for the atoms that make up a game, and in a way that is actually practical and useful.

Those vocabulary examples I used – scenes and resistance – are the two terms I find the most effective, but there’s lots of other vocabulary presented. Some of that vocabulary is more useful in my opinion than others. The term “conversation” to refer to the feedback loops between the player and the games system is interesting, and good for new designers to help them think of systems as dialogues, but ultimately not one I’ll probably adapt into my own games lexicon. There’s also some specific design thoughts in the book that I disagreed with, but none worth really highlighting in a review – just because I disagreed didn’t mean that they weren’t well argued.

Each chapter defines a term, gives examples of how to use that term and how it relates to previous terms, and finishes with discussion prompts and activities that help reinforce the lessons. Vocabulary isn’t about dictionary definitions but rather large concepts with a single unifying term behind them. I don’t want to give you the idea that the book is only about vocabulary, rather than about major principles in game design. It really takes you into very specific examples of games and how and why an element is designed in a specific way for the benefit of the player. It details why a designer might place a platform here instead of there and all the ways that affects a system. It covers many concepts by talking about their role in games and how they affect players – like achievements, scores, flow, grinding, cameras, cutscenes, iteration, pacing, branching stories, and so on.

Each piece of vocabulary or concept comes with specific examples, which vary between the author’s own work and popular but niche indie games, though occasionally pointing out a more mainstream game that illustrates a specific concept well. I’m aware of most of these indie games, but many readers won’t be, so that might put off some people. However, each example comes with screenshots and plenty of details walking the reader through the design that I believe that even if you haven’t played the games being referenced you can still follow along.

This kind of specificity is wonderful in a game design book, making the lessons practical and immediately actionable. However, it does mean that if you already grasp the concept then reading through the examples will slow you down and not impart much new information. I do recommend this book to aspiring designers since I think it can help newer designers become much more thoughtful about their work. I am neutral on recommending it to seasoned designers, though. The vocabulary is interesting and I feel the book is worth reading for that alone, but the examples and specific lessons are things good designers should already know and will retread a lot of ground. I personally didn’t find many of the examples all that illuminating – I chalk this up to experience, though. I think these examples and demonstrations of those parts of a game – verbs, rules, scenes, conversations, and so on – would be extremely helpful to those new to design without a lot of experience. (I also recommend Anna Anthropy’s blog, which often has great insights into design from someone who obviously thinks very deeply about it).

I did feel that the book slowed down to a slog about two-thirds through and I had to force myself to finish it, but I can’t tell how much of that was interference from my own life, or if the book really did slow down. I do find Anna Anthropy’s writing absolutely engrossing and she was mainly responsible for the first half, while I’m unfamiliar with Naomi Clark, so it might just be the change in pace and writing style.

I will probably do a fairer “which intro to game design book is the best?” article eventually, but right now I think A Game Design Vocabulary would work well as a complement to Art of Game Design. While the latter goes through many of the practical steps in the ecosystem of game development, making up for depth with its sheer breadth of game design topics, A Game Design Vocabulary just feels like it’s more about how to take specific design principles and put them into your (small, indie, or student) game. It’s hard to take the lessons from this book and, say, apply them to AAA design which has some very specific goals and restrictions, but students and indies looking at smaller projects would find the information very useful.