In the perspective of becoming a good Game Designer, there are three things to do: Play games, study Game Design, and more importantly create games. The first one is pretty easy, and I do it since almost forever. The third one is difficult, because designing game is not enough to actually create the game, it needs to be developed. I’m currently working on it, but what brings me to this article is the second thing: study Game Design, as in “scholar studies”, i.e. learning from other people who took the time to share their experiences with others. There are of course many sources for it (an amazing one being the GDCVault web site and their numerous videos, some of them being free to watch), but I will talk about three books I’ve read in the recent years.
A Theory of Fun, by Raph Koster
A Theory of Fun, by Raph Koster, is a very theoretical book trying to understand and explain what are the cognitive processes in the player’s mind that create the feeling of fun. The book is short but very dense. The author tried to illustrate his ideas through drawings, which often help a lot. The content is difficult because it looks at the player’s emotional process through psychology and cognitive science. I think the book deserves a second reading to grok it completely.
Describing the book in a few lines is no easy task (and there are many good exhaustive reviews out there): Raph Koster first explains why playing is necessary to human beings’ development, as a learning process. Then he explains why fun is necessary to define a playful experience, and finally what fun is made of.
A great thank you to M. Koster for having delivered this very deep analysis; this book is a must-read.
Level Up!, by Scott Rogers
Level Up! By Scott Rogers is the opposite of Theory of Fun. It’s a very practical book about designing a game from start to finish, describing the different phases from pre-production to production. The overall book is very focused on realizing a 3D action/platformer game (obviously because the author knows a lot about it).
There are some very interesting concept to take in this book, like the “theory of un-fun” or the triangle of weirdness. It also explains in much details what the three C’s are (Character, Camera, Controls), which is very crucial in any game design. There is a part about documents a Game Designer have to produce, which can be inspiring, if you’re creating console action games (I couldn’t find help in it to write documents about an educational game we pitched recently).
To sum up, I find it a lot too focused to learn from it. There are interesting lessons, and I’m glad I read it for them, but all in all, it’s targeting a very specific audience. If you happen to create an action/plateformer game, you will probably find help and inspiration in it, but at the same time, it seems too directive, meaning that if every 3D plateformer game designer follow this book, their games may have too much in common. Just take inspiration from it, keep some distance, and you will find that the book can be hepful.
The Art of Game Design… A Book of Lenses, by Jesse Schell
The Art of Game Design… A Book of Lenses, by Jesse Schell, is just in the middle of the two previous books, and it does it very well. It takes a functionnal approach of Game Design, by looking at it from very different points of view.
These perspective are used to understand what a game is made of, deconstructing it into very small concepts which help seeing what each part of the game design is meant to do and if it actually does achieve this goal. Many chapters aim at understanding how each people that will “interact” with your game design will use it and react to it, so you can ensure that it takes them into account (going from your client to the players, through developers, artists, community managers, etc…)
This book is very, very interesting through and through. Every lesson is a good one, but is not something to blindly apply to your game design. Each chapter aims at making you think about the best way to apply these lessons, depending on your specific context (client, targeted audience, development team, etc…). Each important lens is described through a series of questions you must use to challenge your own game design (there are 100 lenses in the book), which are very valuable in a brainstorming context, or when you try to figure out what is flawed in your game.
A very highly recommended book!