What is this book? It’s my attempt at furthering the discussion of design that we need so badly. We need more books that can kick off this conversation and give it places to start. For a while I was attending a game school called The Guildhall at Southern Methodist University, majoring in level design (I got kicked out after a few months), and it was pretty clear to me that my instructors didn’t know where to begin teaching design. We watched videos about parallax scrolling in Disney movies, and we took a test on The Hero’s Journey.
Now, I’d be the first to admit that game design is “interdisciplinary”—that game designers benefit from having a lot of different skills, from understanding things like how to animate depth to what kind of stories players expect—but I still saw this wild grasping for subjects as a symptom of the lack of a foundation from which to teach game and level design.
I also vaguely remember the level design textbook we had to read, which was biased toward a single kind of game. Remember what I said about games discourse reproducing the same kinds of games over and over? The book was clearly written with first-person shooters in mind; I remember a whole chapter on lighting. And while the principles of using lighting to create a mood are interesting and definitely of use to a level designer, we should save the specifics for after we have a grasp of the basics.
Since Greg Costikyan pointed out how badly we needed a vocabulary, many books on game design and development have been written. Some revolve around a particular kind of game; others talk about how to work on big teams with programmers, artists, and project managers, which is great if you’re going to work at a huge company, but it’s not quite as useful if you’re part of the growing number of game creators working in really small groups. We’ve got game design books that focus on theoretical questions about games and fun, or on how to study games like the cultural artifacts they are. There are even books that have made strides toward establishing a new vocabulary to talk about games. We still have very few books that are meant to serve as a beginner text for game design—especially books that are applicable to games in all their dazzling diversity.
It’s my hope that this book can be as universal as possible, that the framework described within can fit as wide a body of games as my perspective can manage. But I’m not unbiased. This book began life as a guide to designing platform games like Super Mario Bros.—or my own Mighty Jill Off (2008) and REDDER (2010)—before it became something else. If my tendency toward a certain kind of game in this text shows, I apologize.
This book is also specifically about digital games, or videogames. This isn’t because board games, card games, folk games, or other nondigital games aren’t worthy of interest or design. In fact, videogames share a history with this vast continuum of games, and we have a lot to learn from them. (In fact, many design ideas in digital games are borrowed from nondigital ones.) Because the human players of nondigital games are the ones required to keep, and internalize, the rules, there’s a stronger existing discourse about design among board game players and authors than digital games have ever possessed.
What makes videogames so worthy of discussion is their capacity for ambiguity and, hence, storytelling. The computer keeps the rules in a digital game, so a player on level one might not know what level three looks like, that her character is going to lose her legs before the end, or that there’s some playing technique she will have to become aware of and master in time but is unaware of this early. The ability to withhold information from the player, and to give her the liberty to discover rules and complexities of those rules on her own, makes the design of digital games so interesting. Plus, their capacity for using visual art, animation, and sound, while not completely unique to digital games, is a facet of design that warrants more discussion.
What isn’t this book? It’s not a guide to any single tool or technology. This book won’t help you learn how to edit Unreal maps. There are resources for that and for any other game-making tool or editor you’re called upon to use. To write this book with any one technology in mind would be to write a more limited book. This book is about design. Design is not technology.
This book can’t be the perfect tome that covers all games and all aspects of design. It can’t be the ultimate book on game design—the last and only book you’ll ever need on your shelf—because it’s one of the first. So this book will have a few holes. If this book has the intended effect, readers like you will step forward and write the words that are missing.
This book is intended above all to start a discussion, to be a starting place for a necessary talk about design that hopefully will continue long after. Once you break a silence, it’s impossible to get folks to shut up. Criticize this book and tear it apart—as long as we keep talking about what design is.
Here is a book on digital game design. May many more follow.