Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Field Widens

I recently found that there are now two other blogs about teaching game design:

Boardgame designer and professor Lou Pulsipher has a new blog at,

and game programmer Mark Doughty apparently created a blog at (although this one is currently inactive).

I'd like to welcome these new players to the field. (I say "new" somewhat tongue-in-cheek, as Lou at least has been teaching far longer than I have.) I originally started this blog because there were no other resources for teaching game design on the Web; it looks like pretty soon there will be!

Monday, September 24, 2007

Textbook Review: Introduction to Game Development

This is part of the series on book reviews.

"Introduction to Game Development" (Steve Rabin)

This ginormous book is a fairly comprehensive look at all aspects of game development: art, design, programming, production, audio, business and even a little bit on academic game studies. (As with the rest of the industry, QA is largely ignored.) It's actually a collection of essays and articles written by a wide variety of experienced game developers; Rabin is the editor, not the author. The list of topics was developed according to the IGDA Curriculum Framework and there are exercises at the end of each section; newer editions include a CD-ROM with pre-fabricated Powerpoint presentations ready to use in the classroom... if you're the kind of teacher who likes to read bullet points off of slides. Anyway, this was very clearly meant to be a textbook, possibly the textbook (as in, One Textbook to rule them all, or perhaps the Ultimate Textbook Of Ultimate Destiny).

As might be expected, Programming and Art get the most attention; those disciplines are more quantifiable, have more direct and better understood application outside of game development, and they are the most common entry-level positions (other than QA). As a result, most academic programs already focus on either Programming or Art, so a grand-unified-theory textbook such as this would want to put its attention on the same areas that schools do.

The book's size and scope is in some ways a disadvantage. No single course can cover the entire text, and its sheer bulk is inherently intimidating. It is expensive, and its generality means that any given course probably has other textbooks with a tighter focus that are more relevant.

On the other hand, if several instructors collaborate and agree to use the book in all of their respective courses, this one text could serve as a constant companion to students across an entire curriculum. While Introduction is inherently weak in some areas (notably game design), it gives a solid list of references to other works; any question that a student may have about any aspect of game development is probably either answered in this book, or in one of its direct citations.

Students: Personally, I think every student should own this book as a reference guide, the same way everyone used to own a dictionary and thesaurus before the Web made those obsolete. That said, I went so far as to make this textbook required (and even assigned some readings from it) in several of my courses last year, and for the most part my students ignored it -- whether from the intimidation factor or the expense, I don't know.

Instructors: If you require this book, be prepared to go all the way with it: make sure there are enough assigned readings and problem sets that supplement your existing course that it's worth the trouble. Ideally, work with other professors so that the book is used across several classes. That said, for game design in particular, I think there are better books out there; this is best used in a more general program, or especially an art- or programming-focused curriculum that has a Game Design course on the side.

Professionals: Even at the professional level, this is still a decent reference text. It would come in most handy if you're asked to do something outside of your specialty (a graphics programmer being asked to do some AI, for example) or if you just want a better understanding of what your co-workers do all day. It's probably best to just ask your manager to get a shared copy for the office, rather than having to own your own personal book.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Textbook Review: Fundamentals of Game Design

This is part of the series on book reviews.

"Fundamentals of Game Design" (Ernest Adams, Andrew Rollings)

This book covers the core concepts of the field of game design, and for good measure adds an in-depth look at a large number of currently-popular genres and the design elements specific to each.

I love the structure of Fundamentals; the topics flow nicely into one another, and the exercises at the end of each chapter make it easy to design lessons around. The coverage of game genres may be unique to this book; on the other hand, as new styles of gameplay are invented and others lose favor, this book will eventually date itself.

As for the content itself, the majority is (more or less) the sole opinions of the authors, and as such should be taken as a set of theories – not scientific laws. Like a programming code or religious text, this book is meant to be interpreted and discussed, not blindly followed.

Students: This book is absolutely worth reading once you’ve already studied the basics of game design and want to get into specifics. Do not read this as your first book; you’ll be tempted to assume that everything in here must be taken as gospel, and it has the danger of tainting your own artistic vision for years until you un-learn it. But as your study advances, you can properly see this as one approach of many, and the content will give you a valuable perspective.

Instructors: The worst way to use this book is to lecture directly from the text in an introductory course. I have great respect for the authors, but our industry does not need a new generation of Adams and Rollings clones; it needs creative people who can think for themselves. My preferred use of this book would be in an advanced, conceptual class where students already have a foundation in conceptual and practical game design; class time would consist not of lecture, but of moderated discussion. Everything in the book is subject to heated debate (even from the beginning with the definition of what a “game” is) and the debates in an advanced class would be wonderful.

Professionals: Experienced game developers will probably get little out of this book. If you have always been highly specialized and want to learn more about other areas of design then this book can help you, but that’s about it.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Rant: The Need for Accreditation in Game Design Programs

I just saw a job posting on the HR website of a university that I will not name here, for a "Digital Game Design Faculty".

Requirements for the position:
  • Bachelor’s degree in education with experience in graphic design and animation.

  • Proficient with Maya, Swift3D, Adobe After Effects, Adobe Flash, Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, Final Cut Pro, Motion, and DVD Studio Pro.
No. No, no, no. A thousand times no. When I say that a game designer is an artist, I say this metaphorically, not literally. Game design is its own field.

The really sad thing is, these people probably have no idea what they're doing, nor will the person that they hire. And this will ultimately be a black mark on all education, not just this particular school, as the industry sees just how many schools mis-name their academic programs... and if the name isn't even right, what would you assume about the quality of instruction?

The only way I see out of this is industry accreditation, probably through the IGDA. Because universities can only be honest with students if they know enough about the subject material to proceed honestly in the first place.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Textbook Review: Game Design, Theory & Practice

This is part of the series on book reviews.

"Game Design, Theory & Practice (2nd Ed.)" (Richard Rouse III)

This relatively well-known book was an early stab at a book about game design for non-designers (by “early” I mean that it’s more than five years old, thus predating many of today’s college curricula and the majority of other textbooks I've reviewed). It includes an eclectic mix of game analysis, best practices, and interviews with influential designers.

Most of the content is at a pretty basic level, making it an easy read. Of course, this also limits its usefulness to more experienced designers. Each chapter is mostly self-contained; this also makes it easy to read (one chapter at a time, and if you put it down for a few months you don't have to repeat old sections that you'd forgotten) but also makes the book feel a bit disjointed.

Students: This book is a great place to start for self-study if you know you want to design games but you don't know where to begin. It will help you understand the field, by showing you how some designers approach their craft, and you will come away with a variety of new perspectives on how to make games.

Instructors: It’s probably my own inexperience as a teacher, but I haven’t figured out how to include this book in a class (much as I’d like to). The topics don’t flow well, every chapter seems disconnected from the others, and there are no exercises or questions at the end of any chapter, so using this book would require a lot of extra prep work on the part of the instructor. This is perhaps not so surprising; it was never written for the express purpose of being used as a classroom text, after all.

Professionals: If you’ve already got a couple of shipped titles under your belt, most of the practical advice in this book will be nothing new to you. You may still find it entertaining, but it will probably not be of great help in honing your craft.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Textbook Review: The Game Design Reader

This is part of the series on book reviews.

"The Game Design Reader" (Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman)

This companion to Rules of Play is simply a collection of important essays and other written works about games. It includes pretty much everything that I'd call "foundational" to the field: Costikyan's I Have No Words, Church's Formal Abstract Design Tools, Bartle's Player Types, and so on.

Unfortunately, it tries to be a little of everything; there's some New Games Journalism, some pieces on players and gamer culture, and other things that don't really have to do with designing a game. And most of the articles are freely available online anyway, making me wonder why I should force my students to pay some exorbitant amount of money for a textbook.

This is not to say that the articles (design-focused and otherwise) aren't useful. They are still important works in their own right, many people in the industry have read them already, and any serious student should read everything in this book. It's just that no matter what the subject of the course, the majority of the works in this book won't be relevant. I suppose you could build a course around the book, "Important Readings in the Game Industry," but I'm not at liberty to do that right now. An alternative is to require this book for several courses in game design and game studies, with each course covering different readings… but that requires a bit of coordination between professors to ensure minimal duplication, and pity the poor students who take half the courses only to have to purchase the same book again if it ever goes to a Second Edition.

Students: If you’re serious about games, you should have at least a passing familiarity with everything in this book. Buy it on your own and read it over a summer when you’ve got nothing else to do. Or, if you’re on a tight budget (and what student isn’t?), find the book in your local bookstore, copy down the table of contents, and track down all of the articles online. For those few readings that can’t be found online, you should be able to check out the appropriate works from a library, or just read them in the bookstore.

Instructors: I’ve gotten by with just assigning relevant online readings, without forcing students to buy this book. I do suggest to my students to track down additional relevant readings from the book on their own time.

Professionals: At the very least, take a look at the table of contents and see how much of it you recognize. If you haven’t seen anything mentioned, you’ve got some wonderful reading experiences ahead of you. More likely, you’ll recognize some important works that you’ve encountered before, and the rest won’t be relevant to you. Take a look and decide for yourself.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Textbook Review: From Blue Sky To Green Light

This is part of the series on book reviews.

"Game Design: From Blue Sky to Green Light" (Deborah Todd)

This relatively short book covers everything that happens in preproduction; it gives a reasonable treatment to game design documents and the iterative process, and it even has a section on pitching a game to a publisher. It also covers the creative aspects of game design that I myself am weakest at: storytelling, character design and level design.

Overall, the book delivers what it promises, and not much else. You won’t find a lick of material on technical game design, content development during the actual creation of a game, or anything like that.

The only real weakness of the book is that it’s extremely current and uses a lot of very recent examples (as of the time of publication). This means it is likely to obsolete itself in a fairly short time, as the games within become dated and the business of the industry (hopefully) moves beyond the developer/publisher royalty-with-advance model. Although perhaps that’s intentional, if the author hopes and expects to make new editions every few years.

Students: Odds are, the first project you work on will already be in full production by the time you’re hired. Preproduction work, concepting and pitching are usually reserved for experienced design leads (not always, but usually), so this will not be immediately applicable to your first job. That gives you time to read it after you break in to the industry, if you're the procrastinating type. But if you’re curious what the early stages of a game project are like, you’ll get a pretty good overview by reading this book. It’s also not terribly big or intimidating, so reading it while still a student might not seem like such a daunting task.

Instructors: This book is rather specific to the earliest phases of game development, making its use limited in most classes. If you’re teaching a practical game design course where the deliverables include a one-page game concept, a slightly larger game proposal, a game design document and a verbal pitch to a “publisher” (i.e. the instructor), this book will cover you. If the only practical development course you teach involves all of that in the first three weeks and then it’s straight into prototyping, you might not have enough time to make the book worthwhile as a required text.

Professionals: Designers in the industry are still very guild/apprentice-like. If you do indeed start your first design job in the middle of a project, you’ll probably experience a few preproduction cycles vicariously through your leads before you’re forced to do it yourself. Depending on how you look at it, that either makes this book redundant with your experience, or it will reinforce it. In any case, it’s probably worth a read just to see what others have to say on the subject. And if you happen to find yourself in a small studio where you’re thrown into the role of Lead Designer on your first job fresh out of college… then you should read this just so you have some experience backing you up (even if it’s not your own).