Saturday, October 20, 2007

Textbook Review: Chris Crawford on Game Design

This is part of the series on book reviews.
"Chris Crawford on Game Design" (Chris Crawford)

Chris Crawford is an interesting character of the industry. He's been in the industry since its very beginnings. He is so animated as a public speaker that it is physically impossible to be bored while listening. He is outspoken, highly opinionated and quite curmudgeonly. He can be egotistical at times; some would say he's earned the right. The industry owes him a debt of gratitude for starting the first incarnation of GDC in his living room. (Personally, I considered this debt paid in full when, at GDC 2006, he told a room full of game developers that games were dead as an artistic medium. Which left me to wonder what he was doing in the Game Developers Conference if he no longer wishes to be a game developer. But I digress.)

It is important to understand at least a little bit of the man when reading this book, because the author projects a lot of his personality into it. This is not a stuffy, academic textbook by any means; this is 100% pure Chris Crawford opinionated ranting. In short, the book is exactly what the title says -- no more, no less. This makes it worthy of study, but also of limited use.

So, what is in this book? Roughly the first half talks about general game design concepts: the nature of play, challenge, interactivity and so on. The second half includes a chapter on every game that Crawford ever designed, and the lessons he feels he learned as a designer. Somewhere in the middle there's a chapter devoted to recommended books to read, and another on games to play, for the aspiring designer -- which both include an overly-biased dose of Crawford's own work. The book ends with a wonderfully entertaining (if not necessarily educational) chapter called "Old Fart Stories".

Anyone who reads this book needs to keep a box of salt at the ready, to take one grain at a time with each sentence. Some of Crawford's assertions are bathed in wisdom. Some are a bit off the mark. Some appear to be the ravings of a madman. It is not immediately clear which are which; readers must make up their own minds. As such, it helps to have a solid academic foundation (if not outright experience) in the field before reading this book; you'll need it to make your own informed opinion.

All that said, it's an easy read, so it's probably worth the weekend that it takes to skim through it. Different people will get different things out of it, but it's worth at least taking a look at so you can decide for yourself what nuggets of brilliance (if any) are embedded in the book. Unless you have absolutely no respect for Chris Crawford, in which case you're not going to buy this book anyway. (I've met developers who worship Crawford, others who despise him, and a few who are in between. Hmm. Maybe you should try meeting him in person before deciding whether to read his book?)

Students: Do not read this until you've already done a lot of other study and practice; otherwise you're likely to just get confused when the things that he says start contradicting what you'll learn in later classes. When you think you're ready, go ahead and read it, being prepared to have your own debates with him in your head.

Instructors: Since this is not a comprehensive text (nor even a particularly focused one), I can't see it being used as the basis for an entire course. As part of a higher-level theory course where students are expected to compare and contrast various designers and their rhetoric, this could be one of several books... although depending on the length of the course, again, it may not be practical to have students read more than an occasional excerpt (and forcing them to purchase five or ten books just to read one chapter from each is just cruel).

Professionals: If you work in the industry you probably know the author, by reputation if nothing else. If you've seen him speak at GDC, imagine all of that dropped into a book and you know what you're in for. You'll probably read about some obscure games that you've never even heard of (mostly Crawford's own) which I suppose has value in itself, and debating the finer points of this book with other designers could be an interesting exercise if you can convince them to read it at the same time. But due to the large amounts of questionable material in this book, I'd leave it until after you've covered the more important works.

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