Saturday, August 18, 2007

Textbook Review: Game Design Workshop

This is part of the series on book reviews.

"Game Design Workshop: Designing, Prototyping & Playtesting Games" (Tracy Fullerton, Chris Swain, Steven Hoffman)

This book covers the core concepts and best practices of game design. It is organized into three parts. The first part gives a formal description of all of the different aspects of games, to build a framework for discussing how to design them. The second part talks about the iterative process as it applies to game design (in particular, how to prototype, focus test and playtest, and respond to feedback); in fact, this is the only game design book I've seen so far that does so. The last part gives an overview of the game industry and the job roles and responsibilities of the game designer.

The first part of the book gives a reasonable breakdown of games into their component parts. The second part gives great practical advice on the process of game development from a designer's point of view. The third part is easily the weakest link; it starts out worthless (everyone reading a book like this already knows what a game designer is, why else would they read it?) and proceeds into the realm of actively damaging (giving the waterfall model of production, and a design document template as examples of best practices). It is best for everyone with this book to just pretend the third section doesn't exist; thankfully, the rest of the book is worth the price of admission.

Sprinkled throughout the book are numerous interviews with famous designers, offering many (often conflicting) perspectives on the field; these make great discussion fodder for classes, and also provide some insight into what aspects of game design are universal (where many designers agree) versus those that are a matter of personal style (where designers give opposing answers to the same questions). They don't seem to have much relation to the section of the book they appear in, they're just diversionary sidebars... but they make interesting reading nonetheless.

Students: You can read this book on your own, but you'll probably get the most out of it if you take a class that uses it as a textbook. If no such class exists, reading the first two parts is still a worthwhile use of your time -- certainly better than nothing.

Instructors: The book contains many exercises, some highly conceptual and some quite practical, making it very easy to use as the basis for an intro course in game design. This is, in fact, the book I used myself for just such a class, and I was quite happy with it. I found that, while it does involve a lot of reading, the reading goes quickly; the students taking a game design class are already motivated, and this book contains the material that they want to know. I encouraged students to read those parts of the book that we didn't get to during the course, on their own time... except for the third part of the book, which I advised them to rip out of the book on the first day of class.

Professionals: The first part is worth a read if you're a practicing game designer; many of the concepts will probably not be news to you, but it might give you a few new conceptual ways to think about the design of games in the abstract. The second part is worth reading for both game designers and producers, especially if you're not working at Maxis or Firaxis or some other place that already embraces iterative design; it gives great practical advice for doing so. The third part is even more worthless than it would be for a student; you're already a practicing game designer, so the last thing you need to be taught is "what it's like in the game industry".

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