Want to be a great game designer? Know yourself. Make games that matter to you. Lots of them. Every game you make develops your instinct for crafting experiences and spaces of play. Here you’ll find books, sites, resources and recommendations from pro designers to help you make better games.
Your first game will be okay, but not great. Your next game is going to be a little better, but still clunky. The one after that will feel significantly better than the first two – but still nothing particularly special. Every theory you test, concept you realise and experience you craft gets you that much closer to making the games we’ll remember you for.
In the same way that I tell artists to forget about paper type, pencil quality and paint brands I’m going to tell you to forget about code, engines and platforms (for now!). Those are all tools that you are going to have an awful lot of fun experimenting with – but they won’t make you a better game designer. No more than a certain kind of paper, paint or pen made me a better artist.
The only consistently successful approach I’ve found to training game design: know yourself, know why you’re making games and make lots of games. That’s it. Nothing more complicated than that. Make a new game. Something that scratches an itch of yours, something you need to see made. Design a game every day, then every week then every month.
I’ve been working with game developers for a long long time, here’s what they (and I) have found inspiring:
Videos You Should Watch
- John Cleese on Creativity: Give your brain the chance to play, free from the pressure of your to-do list. Your best ideas won’t come from working in a “get-things-done” closed state. Also, it’s John Cleese.
- Randy Pausch on Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams: “The key question to keep asking is, Are you spending your time on the right things? Because time is all you have.” – Randy Pausch, 1960 – 2008
- David Christian’s TED talk on Big History: Backed by stunning illustrations, David Christian narrates a complete history of the universe, from the Big Bang to the Internet, in a riveting 18 minutes. This is “Big History”: an enlightening, wide-angle look at complexity, life and humanity, set against our slim share of the cosmic timeline. – As described on TED.com
- Sir Ken Robinson on Changing Education Paradigms: As you watch this animation of a previous TED talk you’ll find yourself making parallels between Sir Ken Robinson’s examples of how an industrialised system of education kills creativity and how an industrialised system of game design kills play. Any game designer who has had the privilege to learn how to teach can tell you about the similarities between crafting an experience that promotes creativity and creating an experience that promotes play.
Books I Recommend Every Game Designer Should Read
You’ll find a full summary of each book and why I recommend them in an earlier post on books for game designers. In the meantime here’s a quick glance at the titles I recommend every new game designer should read (at least!):
- The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge
- How we Decide by Jonah Lehrer
- The Dramatic Imagination by Robert Edmund Jones
- The Design of Everyday Things by Donald A. Norman
- The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler
- The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins
- The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward Tufte
- Switch, How to Change Things when Change is Hard by Dan and Chip Heath
- Understanding Comics, The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud
Mick Mancuso’s Books Every Game Designer Should Read
Mick has been in the industry since I was itty bitty and has influenced my approach to game design and production since I was old enough to read and ask difficult questions. He’s now teaching a new generation of game designers at The Guildhall in Plano Texas. See his comments on this post for a full summary of why these books have been selected as valuable for the developing game designer.
- The Grammar of the Film Language by Daniel Arijon
- The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe
- The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
- Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter
- Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield
- A Landscape Turned Red by Stephen Sears
- A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman
- The Story of Civilization by Will and Ariel Durant
- A Brief History of Everything by Bill Bryson
- Understanding Physics by Isaac Asimov
- The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould
- Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character) by Richard P. Feynman
Recommendations from the Pros:
- Daniel Cook, Triple Town designer and founder of Lostgarden.com, recommends Amit Patel’s site on Game Programming and Game Feel: A Game Designer’s Guide to Virtual Sensation by Steve Swink.
- 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.
The Game Design Workshops:
THE GAME DESIGN WORKSHOPS ARE BEING REWRITTEN! What you see below are the first iterations of those workshops, they have since been playtested and refined a few more times. Check back here in the future for a link to the new Game Design Workshops once they’re ready for live playtesting.
- GDW1: Get to Know Your Designers
- GDW1H: Elements of Game Design
- GDW2: Debating Variable Elements
- GDW2H: Finding the Core Idea
- Design Challenge: The Curse!
Tools to Start Designing Games NOW
- Post-it notes: Fast and visual concepting. Perfect for visualising data structures, plot points, production milestones, core infrastructure, etc. Plus, pretty colours! (See my earlier point about the mind at play).
- Scratchpad: Sticking with with the concept of enabling fast and furious creativity here – I’ll use my scratchpad to mind-map concepts, sketch out how environment mechanics would work and doodle cartoons when my brain needs a break 😛
- Pens: Buy whatever feels good to use. El-cheapo ballpoints are my favourite, only because I’ve been doodling with them since I first started cartooning in the margins of Calculus textbooks.
- Playmaker for Unity: Now we’re getting into some visual scripting stuff. I recommend this to folks who want to get into 3D game development but have yet to develop their programming skills.
- Game Maker: Popular precisely because it makes it so easy for non-programmers to start making games (back to my earlier point about making lots and LOTS of games critical to developing that instinct for great play).
- Adobe Flash: Previously known for ease of use in the 2D game dev space – curious to see what it brings to the 3D dev table. Some brilliant indies got their start making Flash games on Newgrounds.
- Portal2 editor (so cool!): Valve’s Perpetual Testing Initiative is slowly taking over my office. They’ve made it unbelievably easy to start making and sharing levels online. Expect Workshops around this soon 🙂
Game Design Blogs You Should Follow:
There are a lot of great game designers in the world. You may be thinking “Wait! Why isn’t the lead designer from _________ on this list, his games were BOSS yo!” (or the intellectual equivalent). I’ve picked the following four designers precisely because they are the ones I keep coming back to for advice and inspiration. Whether you agree with their personal political stance in the industry, or the types of games they choose to make, you have to admire how much time and effort they’ve invested in sharing what they’ve learned about game development. Visit each of their sites and you will find hours and hours of reading on what’s worked (and what what they’ve learned from mistakes).
- Daniel Cook at Lostgarden.com – Start with the articles in Worth Reading then add his RSS feed to your feed reader of choice. Every post has some new insight or technique you can apply to your game development.
- Jonathan Blow at Number-None.com – Anyone willing to put their reputation on the line for what they believe in and completely dedicate themselves to those values has my respect. Anything you find on his philosophy of completeness in design, respect for the player and clean system design is worth reading. Also his rants are both insightful and great fun to read.
- Raph Koster at RaphKoster.com – I’m a big fan of simplicity in teaching a concept that can change with each new individual interpretation. Game design is one of those concepts. Koster’s work sticks to a foundation of principles that encourage you to come to a very personal understanding of great game design.
- Ernest Adams at DesignersNotebook.com – Every year Ernest highlights game design sins and how we can avoid them in his hilarious Bad Game Designer, No Twinky articles. You can read them all at the No Twinky Database!
Game Designers doing REALLY COOL stuff:
Other skills you should practice:
- Communication: Verbal, Written and Visual.
- Learning: Be a polymath. You will find yourself improving in surprising ways with every new thing you learn. Physics made me a better lighter, an understanding of embryonic development made me a faster 3D modeler, illustration helps me communicate game design concepts, etc.
- Theatresports: I recommend improv games to new game designers for two reasons; 1) experience games in an entirely different medium than the one you’re probably most used to and 2) Develop the habit of reflexively responding to new or alternative ideas with “yes, AND…” instead of “no, because…”
- Teaching: Any good teacher will tell you that the most effective way to help someone understand something is not to show them or tell them but to create the opportunity for them to experience it themselves. Over the three years I’ve been teaching (first 3D art pipelines, then game development now production) I have found myself using presentations and lectures less and less in favor of tasks and challenges. Precisely because the understandings they have come to on their own, framed by the own experience, have had a greater impact on their improvement than any lecture I ever gave them. As in game design, teaching is a lesson in how to walk someone through an experience – from understanding nothing about what you want to share with them through to being able to articulate THEIR OWN understanding of the experience.
Sites to Follow and Subscribe to:
- Game Producer Blog
- Cliffski’s Blog
- Game Tycoon
- Giant Bomb’s Site
- Penny Arcade
- Rock, Paper, Shotgun
- VentureBeat > Games
- TIGSource Forums
- indieGamer Forums
[This post is part of the Game Design Workshops series. Find it valuable? Subscribe for regular updates!]