Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Textbook Review: The Art of Game Design

It's been awhile since I did one of these, mostly because I've been busy with other things aside from reading. I'm glad to be looking at textbooks again, because quite a few interesting ones have surfaced in the past year or two. And so today I examine:

"The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses" (Jesse Schell)

Now, this book came out about the same time that mine did, and it managed to steal the spotlight, so I really wanted to hate it. But it really is a solid book, and fully deserves the praise it has been receiving.

The information is solid, as I would expect it to be. Game design is a broad field, and Jesse has an even broader skill set, allowing him to effectively write about game design... but also about a variety of other fields that game design can (and should) draw from. This on its own makes the book stand out; many books that are supposedly on game design do not teach the first thing of it, so it is nice to read from someone who actually knows what he's talking about.

The writing is very conversational and even intimate in tone. Only Jesse could have written this, and his voice is very clear in the writing to anyone who has met him. There are no practice problems or quizzes, making it feel more like a guided tour than a stuffy textbook. I found it easy to start reading, easy to keep reading, and very accessible throughout.

Perhaps the best part, the part that I am likely to steal for my own classes, is the organization of the book. Each chapter introduces one aspect of game design, such as story, game worlds, game mechanics, game balance, or the iterative process. The topic is explored in depth, and connected to other topics. Throughout the book, a concept map is built piece by piece, chapter by chapter.

The book is comprehensive, covering not just the core concepts of game design but also everything immediately surrounding it: interfacing with the rest of the development team, dealing with companies and funding and profit-making, player communities, and so on. While a "pure" game design course might eschew these kinds of peripheral topics, I find their inclusion necessary as a way to prepare students for the realities of the industry: you are not going to be creating your own games from whole cloth, you will be designing other people's games according to their own constraints, so get used to dealing with that on multiple levels.

Embedded within each chapter are a series of "lenses" as alluded to by the subtitle. Each lens is one way to evaluate a game-in-progress, and includes one or more direct questions to ask of the current iteration. Many of the lenses directly reference one another (or sets of lenses are grouped together in the text), making something of a concept map between them as well.

If the book has any weakness as a course textbook, it is that it does not give exercises or other tasks that could be assigned as homework, so the teacher will need to provide that on their own. Additionally, the book seems to naturally assume that the reader is already working on their own game idea; it therefore does not provide any direct call to action for readers (particularly students) who may not know where to begin if they have not already started. In this, it actually makes a great companion to my book (which is practically nothing but a series of constraints that can be used to start a game project).

Students: If this textbook is not required reading in your game design courses (or especially if you do not have any game design courses), take some initiative and go read it yourself. Its combined breadth and depth make it an ideal starting point to show you all practical areas of game design and (most importantly) to get you thinking like a designer. Think of it as a foundation, upon which everything else can be built.

Instructors: This book is perfect for an intro game design course. You could cover a selection of topics that are of interest to you (or that best fit your curriculum), or try to cover all of the topics briefly just to give some exposure (as you might in a survey course). Consider having students hang onto this text so that some parts can be referenced in higher-level design courses.

Also, if you are just planning out your first game design course, you could do worse than following this book (addressing each chapter in the order it's presented) as a rough syllabus.

Professionals: A lot of the information here might seem basic if you are an experienced designer. That said, we all have our weaknesses -- a technical designer might not be great at building worlds, while not all story writers are proficient at game balance -- and this provides an accessible way to get at least a minimum baseline of understanding of those other parts of design that are so mysterious to you. The most useful part will probably be the lenses themselves (of which you can purchase a separate deck of cards, one lens per card, as a quick-reference) as they provide an easy way to objectively examine the game you are currently working on.


Unknown said...

I'm a student just starting a development couse and this book will be useful thanks for the review

schools game design said...

Same Like Nicki I am a computer programmer Will this book can enhance my knowledge in this field?

John VanD said...

I love this book I feel Jesse and you both are excellent Game designers and writers.