The Making of a Great Modern Game Designer

January 9, 2010

Book Review
Andrew Glassner

Creating Games: Mechanics, Content, and Technology. By Morgan McGuire and Odest Chadwicke Jenkins, AK Peters, Natick, Massachusetts, 2008, 500 pages, $69.00.

A modern, major video game is a large-scale and complex project. Such games routinely involve dozens of people working for several years, with budgets of millions of dollars. The force that conceptually unifies this tremendous outpouring of creativity is the lead game designer. Like the director of a feature film, the lead designer is rarely an expert in every aspect of the production, but he or she is ultimately responsible for setting the vision and making sure that everyone's contributions are coherent and consistent with that vision. A film director typically doesn't operate the camera or compose the music, but to have meaningful conversations with cinematographers and composers he or she needs at least a general understanding of how these specialists work, what issues shape their processes, and what tools are available to them. In the same way, a game designer needs a general understanding of each of the many disciplines that go into making a modern game.

To that end, many great designers have at least some command of the history of games (from board games to the latest electronic titles), visual art, programming, psychology, game theory, economics, mathematics, pacing, musical composition, narrative, real-time networks, online communities, marketing, leadership, cooperation, and a dozen other topics. Oh, and the game has to be fun. And, if the studio is to stay in business, the game has to earn great reviews and make a lot of money.

Creating Games has an ambitious agenda: help a reader become this kind of remarkable polymath. Of course, no single volume could serve as anything more than an introduction to most of these topics. For the most part, the book embraces this limitation and offers general but thorough introductions, devoting each of its 19 chapters to a high-level survey of a single discipline.

For such a whirlwind and broadly ranging tour, it's essential for readers to trust their guides, and to feel that the information they present is accurate and reliable. McGuire and Jenkins fulfill those criteria admirably. The writing is friendly and just casual enough that the authors' personalities come through. The book is engaging, clear, and well focused. The text combines a general survey of each topic with occasional asides offering specific and well-chosen detail. This combination gives the book a sense of confident authority.

As we might expect from a book that covers so many diverse subjects, the text is at its strongest when discussing big ideas from a high level. For example, one chapter surveys the process of art direction and the research and development of the look of a game, covering along the way the roles of the different people involved. Another chapter talks about "balancing" a game, by finding the right mix of randomness, challenges, rewards, and other elements that will make it fun to play. Nobody wants a game that's a pushover, and nobody wants a game that stacks the odds too highly against winning. The sweet middle ground comes from thoughtful design and lots of play-testing.

The authors note an important piece of advice that I was taught by a veteran art director but have never seen written down before: No part of a game should be much better than the worst part. Typically, this means that all the production values should be at roughly the same level. For example, if the sound design in your game turns out to be mediocre (probably despite your best efforts), then you might want to cut out any jaw-dropping graphics effects, because their high quality will make the sub-par sound all the more obvious and distracting. Such uneven values can make the game feel rough, whereas a game with consistent production values, at any level of quality, will feel coherent and unified to players, who will be free to focus on the game itself and not on any disparity in the technologies.

This advice is not limited to game design. In literature, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch famously advised writers to cut any prose that is far better than that which surrounds it, offering the terse maxim "Murder your darlings."

Similar unifying rules for a book of this kind might call for consistent expectations of the reader's background and knowledge, along with consistent levels of abstraction and detail in the discussions. Unfortunately, this book occasionally strays from these principles.

For example, after using little beyond addition in the first two-thirds of the book, the authors abruptly present equations with tensors and integrals in the chapter on rigid-body dynamics. This mathematics comes out of the blue, and is covered too quickly for most readers to make much of it. Even readers who can follow the math will not find enough discussion to enable them to apply these equations in practice. Similarly, in the following chapter the book descends very deep into the low-level, detailed mechanics of a variety of network protocols. A game designer needs only enough knowledge of networks to talk about them sensibly with an expert; this extended discussion of minutiae is out of place in a book that emphasizes general knowledge over low-level detail. The book would have been stronger without these atypical digressions, which many readers will skim or skip and thus miss out on learning about these topics.

The book presents brief overviews of technical topics like probability, game theory, and graph theory, and provides some illustrative examples of each. This gives the reader exposure to the basic terminology and ideas behind these fields, but there isn't much discussion of how these tools are actually used in practice. The result is that the ideas seem disconnected from the rest of the book. A stronger set of examples would have helped illustrate the value of these topics to game design, and the uses a designer can make of them.

The text offers numerous surveys of software tools for building games, along with lists of contemporary programs and pro-and-con summaries of their capabilities and costs. These are valuable surveys, not only for the specific comments on each product, but because they give a good overview of the types of features and capabilities these tools can offer. Because this is a fast-moving field, most readers will probably check online for products that have been introduced or improved after the book's publication, but their search will be more productive and fruitful thanks to these surveys.

The book includes an excellent set of appendices. The first five appendices present worksheets that should help designers organize their thoughts and communicate their work to their teams and potential publishers. For a new designer, this kind of structure can be both focusing and liberating, helping to sharpen vague impulses and gut feelings into a concise, clear description.

The final appendix offers a remarkable survey of hundreds of games, organized into about two dozen categories. Each game is briefly summarized, and its notable contributions are highlighted. Nothing can take the place of actually playing these games, but any reader who absorbs this thorough, encyclopedic summary will have had a master's crash-course in the most important characteristics of the best historical and contemporary games. Any list of the best or most important examples of anything inevitably involves some controversial inclusions and omissions, but I found this list to be very well chosen and the game's short summaries to be clear, concise, and illuminating.

This ambitious, wide-ranging book succeeds in giving its readers a broad overview of many topics that contribute to contemporary video game design. For someone who has never worked in the field, this book will give a general understanding of how a game is designed, the working of a modern studio, the roles of different departments and the people in them, the tools they use, and the technical issues that are important to them. The exercises at the end of each chapter enhance the book's value as a course textbook.

With its wealth of information on many subjects important to game design, the book would serve well as an introductory text for a student considering a career as a game designer.

Andrew Glassner (andrew@coyote-wind.com) worked for many years as a research computer scientist in 3D computer graphics. He also designed a multiplayer game for the Microsoft Network, and directed several short films. He is currently a consultant to the video game and new-media industries, focusing on issues of computer graphics, character design, narrative, and storytelling.



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