What if you could learn video game design directly from the best designers in history? What if they showed you exactly how to develop your most successful ideas, and avoid the ones that could destroy your career?
To learn from the best of the best – in their own words, from their own mouths – look no further than the Game Design section in your local (virtual) bookstore.
But a search for “game design” on Amazon turns up 18,415 books. Clearly, there’s a lot of poo to wade through before you’ll find a true game-changing gem.
Maybe there’s a shortcut…?
I spoke with three of today’s top game designers to get their opinions on which books are absolute must-reads. Jenova Chen (Journey, Flower), Hal Milton (Marvel: Avengers Alliance) and Kelly Toyama (Assassin’s Creed: Bloodlines) have weeded out all the crappy books for you. So you can get straight to the good stuff.
Here are their recommendations on the all-time best books for aspiring video game designers. (Spoiler alert: Some of the top game design books aren’t about game design!)
Find game schools near you
Jenova Chen Recommends
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
“Positive psychology is the science behind happiness engagement. It helped me tremendously in understanding how to design better games for a wide audience.”
Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games
“This book is by my mentor Tracy Fullerton which I used in my study at the University of Southern California. And it’s been updated just recently!”
Hal Milton Recommends
The Visual Display of Quantitative Information
“Speaking of information design, Edward Tufte has been out making a particularly lucrative career evangelizing his beliefs regarding effective information design for decades. He’s a great lecturer and has an eye for vivid examples of good and bad design. Many folks may find some of the text at points to be ponderous, academic folderol – but there are more than enough pretty pictures worth sifting through and understanding.”
A Book of Surrealist Games
Alastair Brotchie and Mel Gooding
“This is a collection of games and exercises that were used to potentially spark a creative insight – or just enhance some substance-fueled wacky times. Old favorites like ‘The Exquisite Corpse’ and others are covered.”
The Book of Adventure Games
“This 1984 book can be found used and is just a guide to all of the text and graphical adventure games from the time. This book has maps and walkthroughs of titles that are the bedrock of interactive fiction. Seeing how these creators crafted these small titles and managed to tell such big stories was incredibly useful for me and I believe still a relevant artifact for modern game designers to have on hand.”
Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art
“This is a must read. Through his deconstruction of comics, you not only learn a lot about graphic design, but also information design and how the two interact. Information design is the foundation of the user interface/experience. This valuable insight is coupled with Scott’s ability to deconstruct – in other words, what are the component parts of your fun idea and how will it be experienced by and interacted with by the player?”
Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered the World
“Knowing how the industry itself works is as valuable as knowing how to create. This was the first book I read that pulled the curtain back a bit. Nowadays, there are countless resources online and offline that you can hook into. David Sheff’s book provides a wonderful look at the console industry of the 1980s and 1990s from Nintendo’s perspective.”
Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting
“This is a snapshot of Hollywood from the 1970s and early 1980s based on the experiences of screenwriter William Goldman (Princess Bride, Marathon Man). You’ll also get, for my money, some of the best written screenwriting advice ever put on the page: Plotting, story structure, how to define and manage the stakes for your characters and audience – just great stuff. That those nuggets are nested within a great historical read about film making in Hollywood is just a bonus.”
Kelly Toyama Recommends
Characteristics of Games
George Skaff Elias
“A lot of game design books get lost under theory. Trying so hard to define the discipline in the terms of higher learning that they spend most of their pages defining terms, arguing about what a game is, or other sort of high-brow thinking. While those discussions are interesting they don’t make me feel like a better designer. They don’t teach anything. Characteristics of Games is not like that. They really quickly get to the meat of the problem and focus on creating interesting questions and useful categorization. I highly recommend this book – best game design book I’ve ever read.”
Game Architecture and Design: Learn the Best Practices for Game Design and Programming
“A very practical book. It does not spend a lot of time on theory but gets directly into the guts of making games. The front half is more relevant for design, where the back half is more about team dynamics and architecture concerns. A good read for anyone wanting to get into making video games.”
A Theory of Fun for Game Design
“This is a super quick read – I think it can be read from cover to cover in an hour. It’s a good theory book in that it stays light and asks more questions than pushing answers. It’s thought provoking and a good add to any designer’s bookshelf.”
Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability
“This is a Web usability book, but no matter how good your game or design is, it can easily be killed by UI/UX problems. Knowing and understanding how people flow though the experience of your design is important weather you are making games or websites.”
Start Your Education
If you’re thinking about studying game design, you can get free info from top design schools to help you make a decision. Enter your ZIP code below.
Huge thanks to Jenova (thatgamecompany.com), Hal (www.linkedin.com/in/halmilton) and Kelly (www.titanstactics.com) for sharing their favorite game design books. Help spread the love by sharing this article with your design-savvy friends.