Recommended Reading for Game Designers
[This post is part of the Game Design Workshops series.]
The books that I recommend every new game designer should read. As with everything here at Indie Bits I’ve only recommended what I’ve found most helpful to me and the people I work with.
The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge: Anyone as nerdy about the brain as I am will love this book! Norman includes stories of how the brain can be trained to receive information from previously unaffiliated nerves – so cool! For game designers it breaks down how the brain learns new skills and responds to even the most subtle stimulus.
How we Decide by Jonah Lehrer: What’s in a “gut feeling”? How do we the player, and the game designer, make decisions? And how can we make those decisions better? What I love most about Jonah’s book is that he doesn’t recommend one aspect of decision making over the other, emotional decisions can be just as ones made logically – and both fail fabulously just as often. What you’ll learn is how to take advantage of and direct both states of thinking in your decision making.
The Dramatic Imagination by Robert Edmund Jones: What Robert did for stage designers and directors in the 40’s still applies to us as directors of play today. As you read this book imagine your level as the stage, the player as the actor and the game his theater: “The Life we see on the stage is not the everyday life we know. The world of the theatre is a world of sharper, clearer, swifter impressions than the world we live in. That is why we got to the theatre, to dwell for an hour in this unusual world and draw new life from it.”. If Robert can use plywood and paper mache to make you believe you were in Hamlet’s castle, we can use polygons and repeating textures to do the same.
The Design of Everyday Things by Donald A. Norman: Every object your player interacts with in your game, from lever to GUI, needs to be designed for usability. Or your players won’t use them, simple as that. Here’s the description from MIT Press “Even the smartest among us can feel inept as we fail to figure out which light switch or oven burner to turn on, or whether to push, pull, or slide a door. The fault lies in product design that ignore the needs of users”
The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler: You will be surprised by how often you recall the patterns presented in this book. Vogler takes The Hero Myth explored by Joseph Campbell and weaves into into an applicable format for creators to apply to their work. You will start to see the patterns of The Hero Myth in everything that involves human behavior in your work. It helps me structure gameplay flow, design coaching programs and manage productions.
The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins: Complex and wondrous AI behavior can be broken down into individual line of codes, each having a specific effect on the next and the whole – just as each individual cell has a purpose and actioning that purpose affects the cells around it until you get something as beautifully complex and wondrous at the human body. Recognising how the world is constructed helps us see patterns and work out complex concepts in our design.
The Visual Display of Quantitative Information: We are digital magicians of light, sound and illusion. We guide a player through an experience using visual, audible and physical queues – inviting the mind to play in a space we craft and fill it with its own interpretation. Edward Tufte presents a wide variety methods to impart information without resorting to words and images – the tools of other mediums.
Switch, How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Dan and Chip Heath: Most of the work I do is around designing programs to influence positive changes in human behavior. I could go out there and say to people “Make a living doing what you love! Get out there and make a dent in the universe! Don’t let upfront cash buy you!” – but if I actually want more of that to happen I have to appeal to the heart, the mind and provide a path that makes it easy to change. This book illustrates how other change makers have done it and how to apply it in your own design.
Understanding Comics, The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud: The opening chapters of this book do an amazing job of illustrating (heh) how the brain processes visual symbols and patterns. If ever you need to convince your producer that high resolution rendering won’t be nearly as attractive as the clever use of polygons, colour, light and form – this book will give you your arguments. What looks better? The soft line drawing of an eye by a master illustrator or a high resolution photo of an eye at close range? Go ahead and do a Google image search on both – you’ll see exactly what I mean when I say that more detail is NOT the answer!
Wait! Why are there no Game Design books on my list?!?
Google your favourite game designers. Find an interview or article where they talk about what inspired them to create your favourite games (better yet, email them directly!). You’ll see them talking about childhood experiences, movies they loved as a kid, books that changed their lives, fascinating mechanics they couldn’t stop thinking about – what you won’t see them say is “oh well, I played God of War and I really wanted to make a game JUST LIKE IT”.
APPENDIX: Recommendations from the Pros
- Ernest W. Adams, IGDA co-founder and one of the industry’s original game design advocates, recommends both Machiavelli’s The Prince and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings be added to our Recommended Reading list. Visit his website for a comprehensive database of books he recommends to game designers.
- Daniel Cook, Triple Town designer and founder of Lostgarden.com, recommends Game Feel: A Game Designer’s Guide to Virtual Sensation by Steve Swink.