Book Review: Game Design Workshop, 3rd Edition by Tracy Fullerton #GDWW

Note: this post was originally published in the August 2014 issue of ASPects, the official newsletter of the Association of Software Professionals.

This is the final post for Game Design Workshop Wednesday. You can see the #GDWW introduction for a list of the exercises I published.

As Chair of the Interactive Media & Games Division at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, Tracy Fullerton teaches game design with a “playcentric approach”. What is a playcentric approach?

She describes it as an iterative design process with player experience goals. Her book, Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games, Third Edition, teaches the reader how games work, demonstrates how to design a new game through prototypes and playtesting, and finally explains how the game designer role fits into the larger industry. By the time you’ve read the book, you should not only be able to create new games that are compelling and enjoyable to play, but you should also be able to make a living at it.

Except, just reading a book about game design won’t make you a game designer any more than reading a book about how to draw will make you an artist. Saying that “the only way to really become a game designer is to make games, not just play them or read about them,” Fullerton fills the book with plenty of exercises to reinforce lessons as well as provide ways to practice. In fact, she recommends seeing the book as a tool that guides the reader through the design process to get the most out of it.

The first part of the book focuses on the basic components of games, providing a common vocabulary to prepare the reader for the rest of the lessons. Fullerton’s definition of a game? A closed, formal system that engages players in structured conflict and resolves its uncertainty in an unequal outcome. She makes a point of claiming no ultimate definitions of games, however, stating that what she has provided is a starting point.

An entire chapter is dedicated to the formal elements of a game. For some elements, a list of examples is given, such as the various player interaction patterns or the general types of objectives one might encounter. With a good understanding of mechanics and the rules that make up a game, the reader can critically analyze existing games and is capable of putting together unique game designs.

The chapter on dramatic elements starts with a discussion of the roles of challenge and play before explaining how traditional dramatic elements, such as premise and the dramatic arc, manifest in games. The idea is that a game designer using these elements can more effectively create powerful emotions for the player.

The mechanics and dramatic elements are static, but games are also made of systems. The system dynamics chapter breaks down a few games, contrasting tic-tac-toe with chess and Mastermind with Clue. Concepts such as resource exchange, emergent systems, and feedback cycles are touched upon, and it is easy to see how challenging it can be to identify the key relationships between the properties of different elements in the game.

The second part of the book takes the reader through the actual game design process, starting with idea generation and ending with an eye towards ensuring the game is accessible, enjoyable, and complete. It is this part of the book that really emphasizes player experience goals of the playcentric approach.

While having a lot of ideas helps you identify the good ones, you need to start with one, and Fullerton provides a number of ways to help you narrow it down.

She splits prototyping into two chapters, one focused on physical prototypes and the other on the unique challenges and benefits of digital prototypes. While one might think that digital prototypes would be ideal for computer games, physical prototypes are quick ways to work with basic mechanics without worrying about the scaffolding of creating a full application, including the need to design the right control scheme and aesthetics. I particularly enjoyed Richard Garfield’s explanation of how the design of Magic: The Gathering evolved.

I wish the digital prototyping chapter explained more about how to create the actual prototypes and not just what kinds of prototypes to make. In the most technical section, it felt like it was too much theory and left the reader figuring out how to proceed without too much guidance besides getting informed about game engines and level editors.

Playtesting is incredibly important, as without it you are designing games in a vacuum. An entire chapter is dedicated to recruiting testers and organizing the sessions that will allow them to tell you how your game could be improved, complete with multiple articles with insight into how various game companies have conducted playtesting sessions to greatly benefit the game they were working on.

Part three provides an overview of the experience of working as a game designer. My first impression wasn’t positive, as I wondered why a book about learning how to design games would give so much attention to the jobs you might get. But then I realized that this chapter wasn’t about finding a job but about the practical realities of being a game designer.

It’s rare for a game designer to also be a competent artist, programmer, and composer, which means that a good game designer needs to be able to work with a team. Being able to communicate a design decision is critical to getting everyone aligned with your vision, and you need to be able to take feedback. Everyone has something to contribute to the design of a game, as game development is a collaborative art. What’s more, understanding the business end of game development and publishing can only help your designs.

While the book features interviews with prominent independent game designers such as Jenova Chen and Asher Vollmer, a big focus of the third part was working within a larger company and major publishers. I wish more was dedicated to independent game development than a single page.

Between the exercises and the main text, the book features many game designers such as Brenda Romero and Will Wright offering their insights through articles and interviews. In my own experience as a game designer, I know there have been plenty of times when I wondered how other people would approach a particular problem, and this book provides 30 quick interviews with designers getting asked the questions I would ask.

Each chapter also provided at least one article explaining a particular topic in detail. For instance, in the chapter on system dynamics, there is an article that critically analyzes the card game Set. It provides a good example of the kind of rigor needed to break down the seemingly-simple rules and components to fully understand a game, and it prepares you to start making changes to see what impact they would have on the experience of playing it. You could look at a game of solitaire and imagine how much more complexity would be introduced by adding a new suit, for example.

I appreciated Fullerton’s emphasis on innovation. Her focus was on providing tools and skills to create more than mere knock-offs of existing games, and she sprinkled the text with her positive outlook on the possibilities of what games can and will be. I could tell that one of her goals is for her students and her readers to be the kind of game designers who transform the industry.

People without programming or artistic skills need not worry too much, as the game design lessons are non-technical in nature and are quite accessible, although the digital prototyping chapter did encourage readers to learn at least one programming language. That said, the book is the next best thing to being in an actual game design workshop with Fullerton as it combines hands-on exercises, anecdotes and interviews with existing designers, and practical lessons.

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