Crispy Gamer

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When gamers aren't playing armchair game journalist, they are playing armchair game designer. Given enough time and experience, every gamer thinks that they know how to make a game better, or how the genre-blending masterpiece in their head would revolutionize the industry.

What if you are one of those few gamers that wants to seriously pursue game design? And what if you want to do it without shelling out the bucks for one of those fancy college educations?

Well, ideally you would reconsider that plan. Game design is best understood in a community environment where you can throw ideas around. The big advantage of university game-design programs is that they force you to confront your game ideas head on, and improve them with the input and playtesting of friends and colleagues. But that's not always an option for most people. I took a look at a few popular books on game design to see what they have for the amateur designer.

Print Screen: Game Design by the Book
A Theory of Fun for Game Design

Raph Koster's "A Theory of Fun for Game Design" is one of the most important books on gaming of the last five years -- but, despite its title, it's less about game design than it is about games themselves. Koster's tiny masterpiece is a defense of games and gaming as integral to humanity.

"A Theory of Fun" will not give you much guidance in actually building a game of your own. That doesn't mean you can ignore this book, which lays the groundwork for understanding what a game is about and what makes one appealing. It's a good first stop for anyone curious about why we game, or why we get bored of some designs. Still, if you are serious about making a game, you will need a textbook.

And textbooks are boring. Even a textbook that is supposed to teach you about fun stuff like games has to organize the material in a specific way, include homework, and give example after example. Games are a fun and interesting exercise for the brain and soul, but every textbook on game design confirms that making them is, in fact, very hard work.

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Game Design Workshop

Tracy Fullerton's "Game Design Workshop" bills itself as a "playcentric approach to creating innovative games." Remember those high-school history textbooks that would have pages on semi-important Americans -- a page on Pocahontas, a page on Nathan Bedford Forrest, a page on Wernher von Braun? Fullerton does this with notable videogame designers, giving them a chance to express their thoughts on how games are made. It's a great idea that shows both the depth and diversity of how people approach the industry.

"Game Design Workshop" is written for the classroom almost exclusively. And a certain type of classroom, too. This is for a class about videogame design, full of people who want to become videogame designers. Fullerton is as interested in the process of game development as she is in the theoretical minutiae of what makes a game. How do you deal with executives? What does a publisher do? What are the stages of game development? If you want a text that teaches you both the fundamentals of game design and gives you an insight into the videogame business, "Game Design Workshop" is the one.

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Challenges for Game Designers

If you are a little more advanced in your thinking about games, but aren't already on the videogame track, Brenda Brathwaite and Ian Schreiber's "Challenges for Game Designers" might be more useful. It's billed as a series of "non-digital exercises for videogame designers," but its audience is conceivably much larger.

These exercises are the center of "Challenges," which is also a course book. (Considering how many of the exercises require an Internet connection, it's a little inaccurate to describe them as "non-digital" exercises.) But "Challenges" succeeds even for people who are not already videogame designers. It forces you to think about games as games and not simply as products.

How can you make Sorry! into an interesting game? What do we mean by "strategic skill"? Can you design a first-person shooter that appeals exclusively to young women? These are more than thought experiments for the authors; they are useful ways to move game design forward and see the profession in a new light.

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The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses

Of all the game-design texts you'll encounter, Jesse Schell's "The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses" is the one that can influence how even non-game designers see games. The "lenses" are a variety of things to look for in games, from high-level theory to basic design to player reaction. The sum result is a recurring theme of looking at games from a wide range of perspectives.

In fact, "The Art of Game Design" would be an excellent addition to any game critic's shelf. The body of the book is well written and educational, but each lens insert asks good questions. The Lens of Reward asks how incentives are paced through the game. The Lens of Story Machine asks if there is enough variety in the game's conflict. These lenses are checks on a game design, a list against which a design can be compared. While not every lens can be used for every game, I plan on compiling a cheat sheet for my use.

Schell's book is the most solo-friendly book of the three texts. It's not designed around group exercises. But this also makes it less hands-on than the fun little projects in "Challenges for Games Designers," and less industry-focused than "Game Design Workshop." All three texts give the impression that anyone can be a game designer -- a flattering thought -- but none shy away from the work involved. Good game design, which clearly takes as much organization as inspiration, is much more than simply saying "I have an idea?"