Gamer Hate

Belligerently lacking in remorse.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

A Theory of Dumb
Why Some Game Design Books Teach Nothing

I’ve been designing games for a while now, and I always try to keep up on the latest and greatest books from the “experts” in game design. Sadly this has always been a disappointing endeavor as the field of game design seems to be so much more about “feel” than it is about cold hard facts. If I were an industry n00b reading these books, I’d pretty much come away thinking I was the best thing to ever hit design because the whole field is so fucking nebulous that no one could tell if I was doing a good or bad job at the end of the day.

Sadly, I’d probably be right…

That isn’t to say that there aren’t good designers who can swath a path through nebulous crap to find the core of what is good gameplay… On the contrary, I have personally met many designers who can regularly make good decisions for the game they are working on. It’s just that the people who write the books on design tend not to be those people who know a lot about good game design.

Typically, the author’s of these books are the ones who spout off metaphorical gibberish in the hopes of making you think that they’ve reached some sort of point. Some of them have been miserable failures in the game industry from day one, only succeeding because they have good talking points and are charismatic. Definitely not because they are bastions of good game design or even good game design theory. That isn’t to say I don’t respect their ideas, I just don’t find them very helpful.

So, just to save everyone some time, I’ll write you a one sentence summary for each book that I’ve read so you don’t have to.

A Theory of Fun, by Raph Koster – Games are fun because they challenge you.

Chris Crawford on Game Design, by Chris Crawford – Games should try to be more about human emotions and expression.

Character Development and Storytelling for Games, by Lee Sheldon – Hire a good writer.

There are more, but a lot of them just summarize some of the basic ideas behind game design. Most of them are text books and to be honest, I haven’t read them yet. If someone wants to send me one, I’d be happy to read it, but don’t be surprised if it ends up with a one-line description. Of course, if it blows me away you can expect an in-depth review. I’m bi-polar that way…

What troubles me about the books listed above is how often they wax philosophical. In particular, Koster’s book seems to go back and forth on its own points, never really quite coming to any interesting conclusions. Boiled down to its core, it’s really just a bad comic book with extra prose tacked on that vaguely has something to do with game design. Or games in general I guess. What was his theory? There wasn’t one. He never solidly states anything in the whole damn book, yet people come away feeling like they’ve gained something. It’s no wonder that he’s been able to talk his way into making multiple failures.

Crawford’s book doesn’t propose to explain anything other than his own ideas of game design. In that respect, the book is a success and I found his tales of the early years of game making to be quite interesting. Will you become an instant game design pro after reading it? Definitely not. In fact, attempting to espouse a lot of the ideas he has for the future of gaming may get you frustrated looks from employers. They’re noble goals, but hardly sell able (yet).

Sheldon goes into great depth and detail about the roots of cinematic writing and how it relates to gaming. Ultimately though, you’re just going to have a head full of near useless information and no inkling of how to actually write or develop a story for a game. There are really good solid concrete anecdotes from actual games writing strewn throughout, but that’s all they end up being. They’re so specific to the individual games that only little tidbits can be extracted and looked at as an actual guide for how to write for your own game. The book might actually have benefited from writing exercises…

Which leads me to the most important thing I can ever tell anyone about game design. The best way to learn is by doing. If you want to write for games, start writing for games, even if it’s just for yourself. If you want to make games, start making levels in whatever tools you can find. Get Warcraft 3 and crank out a bunch of minigames, the triggers in that game are amazingly versatile (I’ve seen Tetris in a War 3 map for crying out loud, and War3 is an RTS). Better yet, do your own campaign scenario. Even if the end result is utter garbage, you’ll have a much better understanding of all the processes that go into making a game.

At the end of the day, a true designer is the bard of the modern age. A jack of all trades, master of none. You will dabble in programming (or at least logical thought processes for creating scripts), you will create art (or at least layout pieces given to you by artists), you will create the level flow, you will create the design for the core gameplay (which programmers will implement), and you will write story, characters and plot lines (even if it’s on a limited basis just for your level). You need to have some knowledge in all of these areas to be a truly successful designer, and the best way to gain that knowledge is to just do it.

On that note, it’s time for a little experiment. I’m going to see if I can help you guys become better game designers. More on that soon…

posted by CommanderHate at 3:43 pm  


  1. Actually, I was wondering something (bit off-topic)

    Why do so many companies look for ‘Lead Game Designers’?

    I would assume there are tons of people there EAGER to design a game and I’m sure at least one of them is quite good at it as well..

    Do the companies distrust their own employees? Why would they go great lengths to find a new person just to come out of nowhere to order around people? Not to mention they wouldn’t really know the people until they’ve worked with them for at least a few months. Wouldn’t that create an atmosphere that would actually hinder the moral?

    That’s what I found with art or animation directors from where I used to work. Production’s going downhill, out of nowhere a new person shows up to ‘save’ the show.. Only to not get a grasp of it and confusing and frustrating people more.

    Comment by Kohyunu — April 9, 2008 @ 9:39 pm

  2. Hrmm… Well, there are reasons they do that, but that’s a whole other post…

    Comment by CommanderHate — April 10, 2008 @ 1:36 pm

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