Sunday, April 29, 2012

Rapid Review of Books

I've been a member of a game design book club for almost two years now. We read books at a relatively slow pace, since we're all busy working on game projects.  That said, the book club has been one of the best sources of professional growth not just because of the book material, but the conversations they have inspired. Here is a review of books (some from my book club, some just personal reading) with an emphasis on evaluating strictly from a game design point of view.

The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses

Lots of good solid advice, and Jesse obviously has a lot of experience.  If I were ever going to teach a game design course, I'd probably choose this as the textbook.  Even if I'm not excited about every "lens" in the book, there's enough material to justify the price.

I have on more than one occasion considered buying a deck of cards with all the lenses, so when you're stuck on a problem you can pull out a lens to look at your design problem from a different perspective.


This book holds lots of revelations on human behavior, but aside from all the  interesting insights, the most enlightening lesson I got out of this book is the author's approach to data.  The creativity demonstrated in finding ways to test theories that would be otherwise difficult or impossible to test is impressive and inspiring.  Often as a game designer you have reams of data available but you need to ask the right questions to make sense of that data.  This book cleverly illustrates how data can be used in the right hands.
Predictably Irrational

I absolutely love this book.  If you watch at all, hopefully you have seen some of Dan Ariely's videos.  If you haven't, go watch some right now.

The book expands on the concepts presented in the video.  If the video was enough for you, great - but there's a decent amount of new material and depth compared to the video and it's an incredibly easy read.  If a designer ever wonders why our players ever act so "crazy" sometimes, this helps put things into perspective.
The Design of Everyday Things

This is a classic.  I read it back in one of my second year Engineering courses and  it has significantly influenced the way I see the world.  When somebody asks me "Do you have any book recommendations for becoming a Game Designer" this is pretty much the first book I recommend.  My book club chose to read it, so I took the opportunity to re-read it.  I was a bit discouraged by how dated some of the examples have become.  Although the concepts are timeless, some of the examples aren't relatable to an 18-year-old because they haven't had personal experience with things like watches, phones with cords, or fax machines.
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

The fundamental premise of this book is critical for any game designer to know, but reading the whole book is not required.  The lesson is so foundational, it is repeated in at least 3 other books on this list.  Every game designer should familiarize themselves with the concept of Flow, but not everybody needs the gruesome detail this book offers.
Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

Most of the lessons from this book can be extracted from videos on the internet based on the author either raw or there is also a great annotated versions.  There is also a matching TED talk with similar content but is a lot funnier.  Watch both and you won't need to read the book.

Awesome content?  Yes.  If you're intrigued and want to look further, I'd actually recommend Punished by Rewards instead.  I am completely obsessed with extrinsic vs. intrinsic rewards as a result of these books.  Chris Hecker gave an awesome talk at GDC in 2010 "Achievements Considered Harmful?" that drew some connections between Motivation and Game Design.

How We Decide
This was my favorite book of 2011.  There are mountains of Game Design lessons in here.  If Sid Meier is quoted as saying a game is a "Series of interesting choices", shouldn't we take the time to learn how humans go about making those decisions?  What happens when I have to decide under pressure?  How much does presentation matter?  How about the user's mood?  What happens when players have more choices?  Fewer choices?  No choices?  Irrelevant options?  How does information affect choices, social situations, context?

If you're not sure whether you want to invest the time, watch this video first, if it strikes your fancy - get the book - you won't regret it.

Mistakes Were Made

This book surprised me with it's relevance to game development.  Though it contains no direct game design lessons, it contains the secrets to being a great game designer.  Here are some qualities I look for in a great designer that are touched on in one form or another in this book:

  • Willingness to take risks, a willingness to fail.
  • Takes feedback well from other people
  • Understands that not everybody thinks the same way as you, and being able to see things from another person's perspective
  • Self-awareness of how our own biases affect our decision making.  The worst of which is "confirmation bias", our natural tendency to selectively hold on to evidence that confirms our pre-existing notions and views rather than taking a genuinely objective view on problems.
  • The humility to admit when you were wrong, with the ability to quickly refocus on constructive solutions - as well as the grace to let other people back down from positions they held.

1 comment:

  1. I also loved "Mistakes Were Made...", and frequently suggest it to friends. I honestly believe it has made me a better person.

    Please keep posting -- especially Hero Academy thoughts!