Category Archives: Game Design Library

Review: Challenges for Game Designers by Brenda Brathwaite and Ian Schreiber

Book: Challenges for Game Designers
Author: Brenda Brathwaite and Ian Schreiber, game designers and academics
Year: 2009

Summary: Excellent introduction to game design fundamentals, focusing on board games, but the real value lies in doing the challenges packed throughout the book.

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Challenges for Game Designers is a very solid fundamentals book that covers key design concepts without relying too much on technology. The authors both have a really solid, practical background in game design as well as experience in academia and as a book on teaching game design I think it holds its own nicely next to similar books like The Art of Game Design. It is, though, an introductory book and as such it touches on many familiar aspects of game design without going into any with too much depth.

The book appears to be written with one goal in mind: teach game design through board game practices (“challenges”) in a way that is practical for students, educators, and existing designers all at once. While the first chapter exists to just get readers feet wet in figuring out what game design is and isn’t, all the following chapters cover discrete subjects like puzzle design, chance, strategic skill, multiplayer, sequels, art games, and so on. Though the content of the book often overlaps other introductory game design books, the topics the authors picked for their chapters differ a lot. For example, there’s an entire chapter called “Converting Digital to Physical” and another called “But Make It Multiplayer”. These chapters are obviously written specifically with the challenges in mind, but the side effect was some different content organization and shifting emphasis onto certain topics compared to other books.

At the end of each chapter are five challenges with a range of difficulty and time commitment. These challenges are not just simple statements but also walk readers through them, starting with research and usually ending in either a board game prototype or an in depth design document. Examples of challenges would be to design a sequel to Monopoly, redesign Monopoly for a different IP, modify a game of solitaire to be multiplayer, as well as more open designs such as create a race-to-the-finish style card game. All of these challenges are non-digital, which makes them both very accessible to readers without requiring technical skills and keeps the focus of the challenges on game design, not the art or code required to get the game working. These are also not just game design documents but working prototypes, which avoids the issue of “good on paper” design that can distract a lot of students from exploring the dynamics that arise from actual play.

Personally, I found about one challenge per chapter interesting enough that I plan to set time aside to do them – and I gained a lot of value from the two I did complete on my own before writing this review. The rest of the challenges either didn’t really pull me, or the scope was too large for me to fit it into a reasonable evening. I think the challenges, though, are diverse enough that most designers will find one worth exploring on each topic. Keep in mind that the challenges are obviously written mainly for the classroom, which means a lot of suggestions for organizing or competing teams or different ‘deliverables’ that are more like school assignments. While other books, like A Game Design Vocabulary, also have design exercises at the end of each chapter, I think Challenges for Game Designers comes across much stronger in this area due to the emphasis on those exercises and the way it leads readers through them step by step.

The book is easy to read, fairly short (as far as textbooks go, I read this one over the course of four days) even though it clocks in at a full 300 pages. It has a personable style – but not quite as anecdote heavy as The Art of Game Design. The content favors breadth rather than depth, introducing many key design elements but not really going into them in enough detail. However, I feel that the challenges make up for this since many (perhaps all) of them include a research phase and that is where I feel readers can fill in the missing parts of their knowledge. I think it’s is starting to show its age a bit with lots of references to Facebook games but little on mobile, and it would benefit from a chapter and challenges on free-to-play/monetization design by now. There’s also a chapter on “art games” that, while well written, also feels a bit outdated compared to recent trends in art games, alt-games, experimental games, and the wider indie scene. (It is surprising how much can change in six years).

As someone who has been looking for examples of “deliberate practice” – activities I can engage in as a game designer to improve my skills – Challenges for Game Designers is very useful and I know I will continue to refer back to it for the occasional board game design activity. All the strength of the book lies in its challenges, and if you read it without doing the practices then you are probably wasting your time. If you don’t have time to commit to board game design exercises, then skip it. I am even tempted to describe it as a “workbook” instead of a “textbook” to drive home that this is not really a book you read so much as a book you work through.

I think Challenges for Game Designers would be an excellent choice by aspiring designers as a self-taught course, or used by educators to help develop a game design curriculum. The content outside of the challenges is too rudimentary for me to recommend much to experienced designers as reading material – you will get much better mileage out of a more dense, more advanced book on game design. Personally, while I love the challenges, I was disappointed in the lack of depth, though part of that is driven by the number of intro-to-game-design books I have read already.

Review: Game Feel by Steve Swink

Book: Game Feel: A Game Designer’s Guide to Virtual Sensation
Author: Steve Swink, independent game designer and academic
Year: 2009

Summary: An excellent deep dive into the topic of “feel”. Required reading if you make fast-paced real-time action games, but a great resource for all designers.

gamefeelGame Feel is one of my favorite game design books, and as far as practical books that improve my games it’s at the very top. “Feel” is a really nebulous, intuition-driven domain of game design and this text attempts to define its boundaries and give designers tools and language to understand and address it in their games. I think it succeeds admirably at this goal.

This is a thick, dense textbook with large pages, lots of text, but broken up with plenty of bullet points, charts, infographics, and annotated screenshots to support the content. I actually want to call out Game Feel as having, hands down, the best charts and infographics I’ve seen in a game design book – both for clarity and usefulness. For better or worse, Game Feel reads like a textbook, so expect to find a lot of introductory content, points repeated throughout, and summaries at the end of every chapter. Unlike a lot of textbooks I didn’t find the writing particularly dry – instead, it’s written in an easy-going and approachable manner while still doing justice to the often technical content. For comparison, I would say the book has a drier tone than Art of Game Design, but much more personable than Rules of Play.

The book can be divided into three main sections: an introduction where Swink defines game feel, several chapters exploring different domains of feel and defining their metrics (input, controls, responsiveness, etc.), and several chapters that act as case studies applying this concept of game feel to well-known games like Super Mario 64.

Game feel, as the author defines it, is a Venn diagram of real-time response, simulated space, and polish. A good portion of the book is devoted to defining these in a very specific manner to give justice to this model of game feel. For example, real-time response doesn’t refer to what we might casually call “real-time”. Instead, it refers specifically to a game that responds within a correction cycle (where a player reads feedback, makes a decision, takes action, and the game reads that action in and delivers new feedback) of under 100 milliseconds (the time required for the computer half of this cycle to occur without any noticeable lag to the player). “Simulated space” specifically refers to a 2D or 3D world with movement and collision, with a sense of speed, gravity, weight, and general physics. (The domain of polish really doesn’t need much elucidation).

There’s really not much in Game Feel that I could call out in criticism. I think it’s really successful as an attempt to put actual metrics behind the vague but familiar phrases like “tight” or “floaty” controls or “unresponsive” movement. Swink goes into a great amount of detail with his examples, such as graphing and explaining the physics behind the feel of a simple jump across different games. As someone whose made a lot of games that fit within his model of game feel, I would say there’s almost equal amounts of retreading familiar ground, expanding upon familiar concepts, and completely new information. Everything in the book also feels practical rather than falling into the familiar trap of theory that has limited real world use.

The author makes sure to point out that whether or not a game fits in the center of this game feel Venn diagram (real-time, simulated space, polish) is not a statement on the quality of the game. While I do recommend the book, keep in mind that it may have limited usefulness if you work doesn’t fall into his model – it’s great for games like platformers, action-adventure, shooters, and racing games, but not so much if your work doesn’t rely on timed reactions or player movement. I think that Game Feel is an excellent book for experienced designers (and other developers) and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to my coworkers. I think for students or aspiring designers, as long as you have a firm base on game design (i.e. read one of the fundamentals textbooks) then you should be able to pick up this book with no problem.

Review: Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud

Book: Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art
Author: Scott McCloud, comics artist/author?
Year: 1993

Summary: An very readable introduction and analysis of the comic book medium, told in the form of a comic book. For designers, it provides a good structure for how to think deeply about any medium, with specific lessons on visual design.

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I’m hard pressed to think of a non-game design book that gets recommended to game designers as often as Understanding Comics, and I’ve seen the book more than one designer’s desk. I thoroughly enjoyed it as a text about comics, but not so much as a text for game designers. Instead I’d say you should approach it as a good book for people who create media, rather than one that has any specific lessons for game developer, but I’ll get into that a bit more at the end of the review.

Understanding Comics is a short book (213 pages) with large pages that packs a lot of information, but it’s presentation of that information – in comic book form – makes this an effortless read. The visuals are wonderful and illustrate the concepts in ways that kept my attention (I read this in a single sitting!) and gave me a better understanding than if it were written in the style of a traditional book. I would love to see more serious nonfiction work explored using the comic book medium.

The purpose of the book is to explain comics by giving it form, structure, a shared vocabulary, and generally enlighten readers about the underlining psychology and history of the medium. McCloud gives readers an illustrated definition of comics, grounds it in history (starting with 3,000 year old Mayan texts), explores the relationship between image and text, and goes over specific elements of comics such as showing motion, the use of lines to create emotion, and differences between western and Japanese comic traditions. There’s more, and each subject has its own chapter dedicated to it – with some leaning on prior chapters while others (such as the chapter on color) able to exist on its own.

A few of these concepts are entirely new to me: the gutter, closure, and the use of the iconic form. The gutter is the term for what happens in the space between panels, and closure refers to how our minds often fill in the blanks based on suggestions. While I was vaguely familiar with both of these before, the terms and way the author breaks down their function was invaluable. Last, there’s an entire chapter on the iconic – it’s role in cartoon style, the relationship between realism, pictorial representations, and text – that I think is worth reading in its own right. All three of these feel more in the realm of art direction more than game design, and I could probably describe the book as a giant master class on visual design that happens to use comics as its medium.

Other chapters might resonate a bit more with game developers or gamers. Comics, like games, suffer from a perception that they’re childish, that “cartoony” means “for kids”, that they’re mindless leisure. Comics, like games, is used to refer to both form (comic) and content (superhero stories) interchangeably, and this has held back the growth of the medium. Comics, like games, have to justify that they are art and often find themselves placed outside of that realm. Comics, like games, struggle in defining itself and determining what makes comics unique from other media. And comics, like games, have a sort of order to the creative process that starts at mastering the surface level and continues in layers into craft, structure, form, and so on as the creator digs deeper into the medium.

I think when Understanding Comics was first published in 1993, these lessons may have been new or understated in the games industry, leading game developers to point at this book as a template for how to look at their own medium. Certainly, as far as templates go I think this is one of the best examples of explaining complex ideas with visual information. But by now I feel most of us (or at least I) already understand that games are art, that the medium of games is a formal structure that does not prescribe any specific style of content (see: art games). We have many books – and an entire academic discipline – devoted to understanding the unique and shared elements of games as a medium. This, I think, is why this book didn’t quite resonate with me the way it seems to for many others. These generalized lessons aren’t new to me and while they are presented in a new way I am not, ultimately, thinking about games differently.

I am, though, thinking about comics, cartoons, and art used to convey information VERY differently. As an exploration of visual design and deconstruction of a medium, this resource is absolutely excellent. I think it’s important for designers to know about other fields which is why my library project focuses on “game design (and related fields)” so I definitely appreciate what Understanding Comics has to offer. If I had to pick a book out to give creative professionals a way to understand comics, it would be this one without a doubt. I don’t think I’ll ever read a comic the same way again.

I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this book to anyone, not because it’s an excellent book for game designers but because it’s an excellent book about media. It’s good for anyone from fan to expert, especially if you are interested in visual design and comic structure. I would probably say it’s required reading for anyone making comic-infographic hybrids I see more and more often on the internet. And lastly, I think it’s great for people who may care for games but not quite grasp how meaningful they are by seeing a similar medium normally treated as idle leisure (comics) deconstructed with such care – in that sense, it’s rather inspirational.

Review: Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Book: Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
Author: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, psychologist
Year: First published in 1990, but I read the 2008 reissue with a different forward.

Summary: An important book explaining flow, a concept related to the balance between skill and challenge. However, I recommend skipping the book and just reading the articles instead.

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“Flow’ is a term I’ve been reading about at around the same time I entered the game industry. It’s often referenced by game designers, with various articles espousing it, direct references in most (all?) game design textbooks, and academic critiques of the concept. It’s important enough that I believed reading the source material would give me greater insight into flow and how I can use it in my work.

Unfortunately, that was not really the case. While there’s a few new details I learned about flow from reading the book, the bulk of relevant knowledge can be found in the following articles: Jenova Chen’s “Flow in Games“, Sean Baron’s “Cognitive Flow: The Psychology of Great Game Design” and countless others written by game designers that are floating around the internet. I recommend skipping the book (unless you want to check it off from your list like I did) and just read the articles. That said, this whole series is about reviewing game design books, so I’ll get into that now.

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience isn’t particularly long at 240 pages, though the text is compact and the content very dry, dense, and – unfortunately – boring. If flow is supposed to be a state of rapt focus and attention, this book definitely failed to induce it in me.

The content of the book revolves around (unsurprisingly) the concept of flow. For those unfamiliar, a flow state is a perfect balance between skill and challenge that allows people to achieve a very fulfilling, engaging, and focused mental state. Too much challenge leads to anxiety, and too little leads to boredom. Everyone, I think, can recognize the flow state in their own lives. Think of a situation where you are so engrossed in what you’re doing – running, painting, working, reading, anything – that you aren’t consciously aware of what’s around you or the passage of time. This obviously has applications to games – challenge, skill, dynamic difficulty adjustments, pacing, immersion, and fun are all influenced by it.

The key elements of flow don’t differ from other articles, so I won’t repeat them (please read the articles instead). One detail of flow that I find interesting is that it requires internal, self-driven goals – not external goals or rewards. This leads me to think that most games run counter to a flow state, since they are very focused on those external goals to keep players moving (objectives, collectibles, achievements, scores, etc.). Players who want a real flow state need to bring their own goals into the game, not let the game lead them along – so think of Minecraft creations, speed-running, and self-imposed pacifist runs in violent action games.

Another element that strikes me is that that one of the ways to distinguish mindless leisure from a flow state is that with the latter your consciousness becomes more complex as a result. This is hard to explain but essentially the idea is that when you enter the flow state you are at a balance where challenges appropriately match your skills and you develop or mature by engaging in it. This helps identify, say, mindless grinding for loot in an MMO with much more focused goals (which may include grinding, just not mindlessly done) that lead to a more complex consciousness as you internalize new skills, knowledge, or extend your goals.

Flow covers this concept in detail in chapters three and four and then the author spends the rest of the book discussing examples of the flow state in the lives of many people he has interviewed and even pulling from historical records. These examples include everything from assembly line workers, to surgeons, to chefs, to rock climbers, to people who live solitary lives in hard, back-breaking work. He categorizes them as physical, mental and social sources of flow and takes pains to explain how different people reach their flow state in different ways.

These chapters don’t really add a lot to a game designer’s repertoire. They mostly consist of anecdotes, survey responses, and sort of a long, dry list of examples to back up the importance of flow and how happiness is not tied to income or material needs but rather being in a state of flow. This emphasis on happiness, on the harm of “psychic entropy” (the opposite of flow), and so on makes the book read similar to a self-help book yet the author provides no practical way of putting the content into practice. As a game designer, I wanted a book that could help me structure experiences to create that flow state in others. Instead, I learned that if I want to be happy, I should pursue flow, and a long list of examples of people who’ve done that.

So far of the books I’ve read for this Game Design Library, I liked Flow the least. It was not practical, it didn’t provide me with all that much insight, and I found the author’s writing style very dry and boring. I hesitate to recommend it, and I am honestly not sure who would find the book helpful. Csikszentmihalyi has written other books, including one about flow in creativity that may be more relevant to creative professionals, but I am skeptical after this experience.

Review: Videogames: In the Beginning by Ralph Baer

Book: Videogames: In the Beginning
Author: Ralph Baer, the father of video games from the Magnavox Odyssey era
Year: 2005

Summary: A autobiographical recounting of Ralph Baer’s career, focusing on the Magnavox Odyssey and supported with a wealth of primary sources. Focused on engineering and business development rather than design.

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Ralph Baer passed away in December at the age of 92 and I bought his book almost immediately afterwards. I feel like I’ve always known his name, but never what he was known for – turns out, his greatest work was done before I was born. The forward to the book makes it clear that this is a common problem, that many people aren’t aware of Baer’s immense contribution to our field.

Videogames: In the Beginning opens up in a somewhat defensive posture that gives you an idea of why Baer wrote it in the first place. He wants to set the record straight, clear up the myths, and tell the facts as he knows them. Baer is also intent on explaining why he – not Bushnell, nor anyone else – was the inventor and father of videogames, a role and title largely unrecognized for most of his life. (He makes this argument that he invented videogames from an engineering and business standpoint: (1) he created the first games to use television technology to display them, and (2) he invented and launched the first home console, which created an industry.)

The book covers Baer’s time in the game industry, heavily focusing on his role inventing videogames (with working prototypes as early as 1966!) and ending with his own consulting work on electronic toys such as the ubiquitous four-colored “Simon”. He covers his long career at Sanders, a technology company that largely worked on defense contracts who saw his original tv game prototypes as leading, correctly, to military training simulations. He talks in great detail what it was like to invent new technology and pitch it to TV and cable companies in the hopes they would put it into production – starting with his “Brown Box” that became the Magnavox Odyssey but definitely not ending there.

Baer provides a huge collection of primary sources displayed in their original state right in the pages of this book, and that alone is worth checking it out. Many of these design documents, schematics, contracts, focus testing feedback, photos, and original electronics exist thanks to meticulous record keeping and years of enforcing video game technology patents that Baer owned. He even includes all his video game patents in an appendix in the book if you would like to read them yourself. I was born after all these patents expired, so I wasn’t aware that Baer essentially owned the patent on “moving dots on a screen with player input” and similar mechanics that we just take for granted these days. This also explains a bit why Baer was a controversial figure in games, since patents aren’t looked too kindly upon by most game developers. In contrast, Baer encouraged and helped enforce his patents, since this is part of the ecosystem that gave him funding for his video games technology R&D department at Sander’s. (I think his habit of going to arcade conventions and writing down games that infringed on his patents to pass on to Magnavox lawyers would not endear him to many people today).

Videogames: In the Beginning is hard to review because it’s both an amazing, excellent source of early video game history while also being steeped in engineering terminology and a personality that might turn some people off. This book has a casual tone at times, as though Baer sat down with you, started “telling it like it is”, and not didn’t care if he talked poorly but candidly of other people in the industry. I felt this kind of direct, uncensored line to the author was rather refreshing.

On the other hand, Baer was first and foremost a technologist and engineer. His writing is steeped in details about inventing not just concepts but also building the schematics and hardware. If the phrases “integrated circuit” or “vacuum tube” bother you then you might consider passing on this book, or just skim large parts of it. The first half of the book interested me enough to wade through all that engineering terminology since it covered the lead up and launch of Magnavox Odyssey. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite hold my fascination through the second half which involved a lot of miscellaneous video game inventions pitched – often unsuccessfully – to companies like Coleco, Atari, Mattel, and so on.

As an introduction to early video game history, this book is narrowly focused on Baer’s own life and experiences and does not purport to give an overview of the subject. I would recommend reading more general history book like The Ultimate History of Video Games first before you do a deep dive into a single thread in that story in this text. I enjoyed Videogames: In the Beginning and I learned a lot from it, but only pick it up if the narrow subject matter is one you are particularly interested in.