So you’ve decided to become a game designer. Wonderful! But be aware that the journey is a difficult one in which you’ll expose a variety of myths about what being a game designer is like.
One day, many years ago, I too made the decision to become a game designer. I’ve trod that same path and exposed those myths, so, to help you on your own journey, I’ve compiled a list of the most useful books for anyone interested in becoming a game designer.
Let’s start with the basics. What is a game designer?
A game designer is a specialist responsible for designing the genre, setting, and mechanics of the game and then forwarding this information on to other specialists – developers, designers, and copywriters, among others.
The challenge for a game designer is that they have to imagine that they’re playing a game that doesn’t exist yet. They have to create an entire game world in their head and think about how it’s going to work. A game designer has to be an artist, an engineer, and a writer, all at the same time.
The bottom line is that you have to learn how to design games on your own. But how do you gain the knowledge to do this? The old fashioned way – reading books.
Below you’ll find a list of 8 books that can guide you on your road to becoming a game designer.
1. Game Design Workshop by Tracy Fullerton
Tracy Fullerton is a game designer and professor at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. She’s also the director of the EA Game Innovation Lab, a center where renowned projects like “Cloud”, “Flow”, and “Darfur is Dying” were created.
This is an essential book for anyone interested in becoming a game designer. The author thoroughly analyzes the different kinds of game systems and provides plenty of examples from popular games – as well as useful exercises and illustrations of design methods – to back her up.
The book consists of three parts: “Game Design Basics”, “Designing a Game”, and “Working as a Game Designer”.
The first part outlines major concepts and terminology. The second part explains how to put theories into practice and details the process of creating a concept and prototype as well as testing and analyzing feedback. The third part includes a brief overview of the industry as well as practical recommendations on how a game designer can get a job, form a team, cooperate with developers, and defend their ideas.
The author doesn’t include only her own thoughts on game designing, but those of developers like Peter Molyneux, American McGee, Brenda Romero, Rob Pardo, and Jenova Chen. These world famous developers share details of their experiences working on their own projects, talk about their favorite games, and give advice useful to anyone looking to break into the industry.
2. The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses by Jesse Schell
Jesse Schell was a game designer, developer, and manager at Disney and is at present the head of the International Game Developers Association and a professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center.
Schell’s book doesn’t provide a general run down of programming or a history of arts, but it does give a detailed look at various game mechanics like experience accumulation and character upgrade. The “lenses” mentioned in the title refer to a set of pointer questions, included here, with practical tips on how to make a superior game.
“The Art of Game Design” follows the pattern of a video game, starting with the basics and becoming more challenging and interesting as you go along. If you’re new to game design and don’t understand everything yet, don’t worry.
As you go through Schell’s book, the information included will gather to form a logical structure. For example, you’ll discover for yourself how tabletop, card, and sports games are even now defining the way that video games are developed.
3. A Theory of Fun for Game Design by Raph Koster
Raph Koster is well known as a leading Ultima Online designer as well as the creative force behind Star Wars Galaxies. He considers games to be a mixture of entertainment and education since games help both to develop skills that may prove useful in real life and to give pleasure. The author has even coined his own term for this – edutainment.
This book isn’t the final word on game design, but it does an excellent job of explaining why video games are so appealing. It also explains the link between behaviorism and game systems. Best of all, it does this all in a comic book style.
Once you’ve finished reading “A Theory of Fun for Game Design” you’ll be capable of answering your family member’s nagging questions of why you’re engaged in such nonsense.
If you’re new to game design, this book is a great place to start. It’s a useful and relatively short book that can be tackled in half a day.
4. Level Up! The Guide to Great Video Game Design by Scott Rogers
“Everything I know about game design I learned at Disneyland. It consists of several zones. Each zone has its own story. Each story consists of several scenes. Good games are designed in the same way,” writes Scott Rogers.
The designer behind “God of War” and “Pac-Man” says he one day woke up and decided to piece everything he knew about his profession together. This is how “Level Up!” was born.
This is an easy and entertaining read. Unlike regular textbooks, there’s no mind-bending theory in it. It instead offers practical advice on creating a boss, using battle elements, and placing the camera.
“Level Up!” describes game development step-by-step, from the initial idea to the marketing of the finished product. Each chapter relies on information gathered from previous ones and ends with a set of “universal truths”. If you’re an aspiring game designer, Rogers’ book deserves a place on your shelf.
5. Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman
The authors of this book are both renowned teachers and experienced practitioners. Katie Salen is a research and design director at the Institute of Play, while Eric Zimmerman is the co-founder and CEO of Gamelab, as well as a teacher at both Philadelphia’s School of Design and New York University.
In “Rules of Play” these authors tackle tasks, rules, terminology, and other game design basics. This makes this book especially useful to anyone interested in becoming a game designer. But even if you already know the basics, “Rules of Play” will give you what you need to help structure and build on that knowledge. For example, the book covers 18 schemes used for designing both classic tabletop games and MMORPGs.
“Rules of Play” consists of four units. The first unit covers basic concepts while the other three describe what the authors believe to be the pillars of game design – rules, play, and culture.
The “Rules” unit is dedicated to system organization, the “Play” unit to human experience within that system, and the “Culture” unit to the system environment and context.
Salen and Zimmerman’s book doesn’t offer script writing basics or genre classification, so it might be useful to add a book on script writing to your to-read list.
6. Challenges for Game Designers by Brenda Brathwaite and Ian Schreiber
Brenda Louise Romero, previously known as Brenda Brathwaite, is a game and level designer with 34 years of work experience as well as the recipient of a number of awards. She’s worked for Atari,
Electronic Arts, Sir-Tech Software, and is best known for her work on the “Wizardry” series.
Ian Schreiber is a developer and game designer behind such games as “Playboy: The Mansion”. Ian previously worked developing educational games for two companies in the Fortune 500 list. He now teaches game design and programming at Ohio University and the Savannah College of Art and Design.
“Challenges for Game Designers” consists of 21 chapters, each containing exercises of progressive difficulty. The book is easy to read and the chapters are short but informative. Each chapter covers a separate topic, such as puzzles or casual games.
This book is useful not only for game designers but for anyone curious to know more about developing and the creative process.
7. What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy by James Paul Gee
And now we move from renowned game designers to renowned psychologists.
James Gee is a member of the National Academy of Education. He’s a professor who has worked in the fields of pedagogics, psycholinguistics, sociolinguistics, and bilingual education.
The idea for the book came to him while James was playing Pajama Sam with his six-year-old son. This experience left him wondering why people spend so much time and money on games. The answer, as he expounds upon in his book, is people’s desire for new challenges, learning, and competition.
If a game is too easy, as Gee found, a player will soon put it aside. His book describes ways then in which to keep players motivated. Take his advice to heart and your game will truly benefit.
James Gee also further develops the “games as a means of education” concept. He believes games to be a more efficient way of learning than the modern educational system because they place the player into a totally unknown world in which they must absorb new information.
8. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
The last book on this list has nothing to do with game design. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a professor and former head of the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago. He’s especially well-known for his work in the study of happiness, creativity, and well-being.
The book is dedicated to the phenomenon of “flow” which, according to the author, is a euphoric state of complete absorption in what one does. This is what musicians experience when “losing themselves” in the music, or an artist when they’re completely immersed in their work on a painting. People enter the flow at work, while doing sports, or even when playing a really good game.
This book is lengthy and, at times, difficult to process. The author offers no packaged solutions for understanding game design, instead his focus is purely on what makes a person – for our purposes, a player – happy. That’s pretty important, wouldn’t you say?
On the basis of this book, Jenova Chen wrote a dissertation titled “Flow in Games”. In that dissertation Chen, a famous game designer, studied the state of flow experienced by gamers and then proved the method’s efficiency himself by founding “Thatgamecompany” and creating the award-winning games “Cloud”, “Flow”, “Flower”, and “Journey”.
Of course, there are still a number of good books on game design that aren’t included on this list, but it’s my belief that those I’ve listed above are the best.
There’s a popular opinion in the community that I agree with – the more life experience a game designer has, the more captivating their game will be. The better a game designer understands human nature, the more interesting a game will be to play. As a result, books on anthropology, psychology, behaviorism, marketing, copywriting, and scriptwriting will also come in handy.
What books have helped you in your journey to becoming a game designer?