The Barnes & Noble Review
Is the game development industry succumbing to the sameness that afflicts entertainments when the financial stakes get too high? Is it simply getting too hard to break through in an industry that’s rapidly consolidating into giant players and familiar genres? Is it time for something profoundly different?
Maybe it’s time to return to first principles. Just maybe, game designers can find more fruitful “paths not taken.” If so, Chris Crawford on Game Design is the place to begin.
Chris Crawford is the seminal thinker in the field. Back in 1979, he hired on as Atari’s manager of games research, reporting to the legendary Alan Kay. His 1982 classic The Art of Game Design shaped an entire generation of game designers. He’s been a key influence on titles ranging from SimEarth to LucasArts’ 2001 Star Wars: Rogue Leader -- Rogue Squadron II.
More than anyone else, he’s wrestled with the deepest questions about what makes games great. This book brings together his best ideas, and every game designer should hear them.
To begin with, do you really understand play? “Play is a complex and tricky human behavior. We dismiss it too readily as child’s activity, and therefore something devoid of depth and richness, but in fact play extends far beyond the realm of the child and touches a wide range of human life.”
Play can be many things, all having deep importance to game designers. For instance, it can be metaphor: a representation of something else. Sure, combat flight simulators represent the combat pilot’s experience (with the endless stretches of boredom edited out). But what did Pac-Man simulate? Nothing.
It does, however, offer a frighteningly perfect metaphor for life: “We rush about, collecting some meaningless dots… while bad guys chase us, just waiting to trip us up on some minor mistake. It's frantic, it's mechanical, it's relentless -- it's just like our daily lives.” And that’s why it had far more resonance (and success) than 99 percent of today’s photo-realistic RPGs.
Play needn’t be exotic, but it must be -- and feel -- safe. When unpleasant surprises set a player back substantially, they harm game play: “If the player fears mines lurking underneath every step, he won't take many steps” -- and won’t have much fun, either.
Every game needs a strong challenge. How do you design one that’s worthy -- and unambiguous? What types of mental challenges you can place before your players? What’s the nature of sensorimotor challenge, and the meaning of the “videogamer’s high”? What can you do with spatial reasoning, sequential reasoning, pattern recognition -- or the underappreciated social reasoning?
How do you use conflict to make a game truly personal? Why is “high” interactivity better than low? How do you build games that listen well to players, think well about their inputs, and produce clear, expressive outputs?
All this just scratches the surface. Crawford discusses why creativity is all too often missing from today’s games (and what to do about it); how to avoid common errors in game design; and much more. There’s even a full chapter of “Games I’d Like to Build,” in which Crawford invites you to beat him to the punch.
Same-old, same-old won’t do it anymore. Transcend it, with Chris Crawford on Game Design. Bill Camarda
Bill Camarda is a consultant, writer, and web/multimedia content developer. His 15 books include Special Edition Using Word 2000 and Upgrading & Fixing Networks for Dummies, Second Edition.
Read an Excerpt
Twenty years have passed since I wrote my first book, The Art of Computer Game Design. Much has transpired during that time: Games have grown up. Twenty years ago, one programmer working for less than a year could produce a top-quality game. Nowadays, a team of a dozen specialists labors for several years to give birth to a commercial product. A dozen narrow specialties have sprung up: game designer, level designer, sound effects designer, 3D programmer, AI programmer, music designer, writer, and more. Budgets for games have risen from about $25K in 1980 to several million dollars todaya hundredfold increase! And the hardware on which we work has improved by at least a thousandfold.
Yet games haven't become a thousandfold or even a hundredfold better. Today's games are unquestionably more impressive than the games of 1982, but the advances we have seen aren't commensurate with the progress of the hardware or the budgets. Indeed, some people who nostalgically play the old-time games aver that modern games are no more fun. Games are bigger, splashier, more impressive, but not much more fun, they claim.
De gustibus non est disputandemyou can't argue about taste. We'll never agree on just how much more fun the new games are. But we can agree that the games have not improved commensurately with the technology. Clearly, technological progress does not automatically make games more fun. There's something else at work here, something that can't be nailed down in program code. It's often called the fun factor, but I don't like the termit suggests that fun is a standard component that can be stuffed into a game somewhere between the mouse input code and the 3D graphics engine. I prefer to think of it as simply good game design: a soft, fuzzy concept involving a great deal of expertise, some rules of thumb, and strong intuition.
Game design is not at all the same as game programming.
Game design shares nothing with game programming; they are completely separate fields of endeavor. True, a game designer must understand programming just as a game programmer must know something of game design. Yet as these two fields have progressed, they have diverged; master game designers focus their energies on mental challenges utterly different from those that bedevil master game programmers. This book is about the problems of game design; it has no truck with technical problems, for which a plethora of books await the reader.
Since game design is so soft and fuzzy, this book cannot offer simple answers with the directness and clarity that a technical work could provide. Alas, we must struggle with vague theories instead of precise formulations; rough guidelines instead of polished specifications; abstract concepts instead of direct rules. In many cases we must accept mutually incompatible concepts, uncertain where the dividing line between them lies. It comes with the job.
Fortunately, we have a vast array of experience on which to draw. In the last twenty years, some twenty thousand games have been published. Most of these were pretty lousy; some were good; and a handful were excellent. We can learn from all of these games. Indeed, the turkeys are the most instructive, because often a turkey fails for a single, easily identified reason. A thousand factors make a great game; it's impossible to evaluate them separately when they all sing together in perfect harmony. But when just one factor sings off-key, it stands out with terrible
It's easier to learn from turkeys than from masterworks.clarity.
My first book, The Art of Computer Game Design, was still being read and recommended twenty years after its publication; I intend for this book to be similarly long-lived. Therefore, I shall not be citing the current popular games. I shall limit my commentary to the great classics, milestones that should be available to any prospective designer. Occasionally, I will pick out some special turkey that beautifully illustrates a design blunder, but when I do so, I shall attempt to describe the game adequately.
© Copyright Pearson Education. All rights reserved.