Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Radiator Book Club: the Game Design Bibles

Several independent parties have asked me for book recommendations and stuff, so now I'm starting a series of posts about books to read, and some notes on how to possibly approach them.

These are core books that establish terminology and basic theory about games and development. If you've played games for a long time, much of this material will seem obvious / simple / not worth saying... but that's only because games are in your blood. A lot of it isn't obvious to everyone. So, it's important to maintain a "greedy" attitude in reading -- pick and choose what you like from these texts, and don't feel obligated to like (or read) the entire book.

Rules of Play (Katie Salen, Eric Zimmerman)
I'm pretty sure Rules of Play is taught in, like, every university-level game design class in the world. It's extremely comprehensive in approaching game design as science and culture -- it's pretty much a primer on everything. The problem I'm seeing, though, is in the people who've rarely played games but want to make games as a career: they read this book and think this theory IS games, rather than a tool that sometimes helps you think about games. (see: "the map is not the territory") These "textbook developers" have a strange way of doing things, often wondering aloud how best to satisfy The Five Different Types of Players or how to Teach the Core Mechanic, instead of, uh, talking like a human being. I think game design is really lucky in that the veterans / masters of this field will usually preach against simple fundamentalism like that... well, usually.

Game Feel (Steve Swink)
When a review says a game's controls are sticky or sluggish or snappy, what are they actually saying -- does the "attack" on the input curve increase too sharply, or is the animation blending too slow, or what? Here, Swink tries to deconstruct a lot of these concepts into a core grammar about "feel" and the ways that games feel to players, and I think Swink has mixed success in this book. The technical analysis is excellent, and breaks down what a game camera actually does or how a computer actually measures joystick input. However, Swink is much less convincing in his aesthetic conclusions as to what game feel really means to players, or future possibilities for feel. It's like this book has invented a fantastic new type of hammer, but then it uses the hammer to try to cut a board in half. Still, this is a very strong (technical) text for sensitizing yourself to feel and presence in games.

Homo Ludens (Johan Huizinga)
Huizinga is part of the holy Game Studies trinity of first-era researchers: play theorists who were studying ALL forms of play (toys, sports, playground, board games, etc.) before anyone else, and only now we've re-discovered them and now we're trying to apply their theory to video games. The other members of the trinity, as I see it, are Roger Callois and Brian Sutton-Smith, but Huizinga's Homo Ludens gets pushed more often than the others because his writing style is the most readable. Also, his theories of sportsmanship, spoilsporting, and cheating grow increasingly relevant as "e-sports" becomes more prominent... I generally ignore the rest of the book though, which is largely about connecting play to World War II-era society, and seems really outdated compared to the earlier parts. (Huizinga died in 1945.)

Thinking in Systems (Donella Meadows)
The dominant vein of formalism in game design today has its roots in systems thinking, which argues that everything in the world can be analyzed as things that interacts with other things, and these interactions can be grouped into systems. Donella Meadows is one of the most influential systems theorists of our time, and her primer to systems thinking is still very readable and practical. In it, she discusses feedback loops and supply chains, and how those can control commodities and influence human behavior. A lot of this may seem like common sense to you, but again, it wasn't always like that. Most people forget to read the last chapter of this book -- and conveniently, this is the chapter where Meadows pulls back and warns you about the weaknesses and limits of systems thinking. That kind of self-awareness is rare in an ocean of ideology.