Sunday, July 29, 2007

Textbook Review: 21st Century Game Design

This is part of the series on book reviews.

"21st Century Game Design" (Chris Bateman and Richard Boon)

This is a dangerous book. I can recommend it for veteran game designers since it provides an approach to game design that they may have never encountered before, and it's one more tool in their already-large toolbox. For anyone else (especially students), this can take you down the path to ruin if you just follow it as gospel.

The idea behind the book is simple: identify your target audience, then use psychological profiles to predict what games and mechanics are most compelling to the intended market. This basic concept of "designing for the audience" is a useful one, and I can see it being applied successfully in the field if used with care.

Strangely, the authors seem overly fond of MBTI as the preferred player demographic. For those who haven't encountered Myers-Briggs, it defines sixteen personality types and then proceeds to lump all of humankind into one of these compartments. Reading a description of these personality profiles bears a striking resemblance to another method of classifying people, and my understanding is that either one is about as useful as the other in terms of predictive value. (If you're curious, I'm ISTP, and Virgo. Those of you who place great faith in personality types are now saying to yourselves, "ah, of course!" while the rest of you already know me far better from my writing than any category I fit into.)

I find it ironic that Ernest Adams, who writes the foreward to this book, wrote years ago how designers should concentrate on making great games instead of spending all their time talking about marketing and player demographics. He even talks about how Purple Moon -- a company that used a startlingly similar approach advocated to this book in order to make "games for girls" -- died horribly because their designers spent so much time doing market research that they forgot to actually make their games fun.

Students: Avoid this book. (In my experience, most students don't need much convincing to not read something, so that's all I'll say on the matter...)

Instructors: Do not use as the sole text for a book. If you mention this book in your classes, warn the students that it is just one of many approaches... and one that has not yet been used successfully to make a hit game. It may be worthwhile to discuss short excerpts in an advanced class, as one of many methodologies for designing a game; as an exercise, have students rip apart the logic, separating the useful from not-so-useful parts.

Professionals: It's worth reading the first part of the book, before it goes into the actual details of personality types, just to consider the concept of a player-centric approach. The rest of the book is built on the foundation of MBTI, though, so it's not worth considering the remaining content unless you've already drunk the MBTI kool-aid.

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