Unusual Books for Game Designers
Many of the best game designers I know are sponges: they absorb a little bit of everything they come into contact with. They squirrel away nuggets of information until one day, they’ll run into a particularly difficult design problem. Then, like magic, they’ll pull out a piece of wisdom or an esoteric fact that makes everything click into place. Sometimes it’s something small: an idea in a brainstorming meeting or a suggestion for a new feature. In other cases, their insight can shift their whole team’s approach to a problem.
As a designer, you have something unique to contribute that can only emerge from your particular blend of thoughts and experiences. As you widen your range of experiences, you’ll find that you can tackle your design problems from more interesting angles.
With that in mind, I’ve put together a collection of books that have, directly or indirectly, informed my game design process. Some of these books are specific to game design, but most were written with other fields in mind. They’ve had impacts on the way I work with people, the way I approach problem-solving, and the way I see the world.
Since this is a fairly long list, I’ve divided my recommendations into several categories:
- Game Design Practice: What it says on the tin: Books specifically about game design. There are plenty of others, but if you want to dive into the nitty-gritty, these ones will help you cover a lot of ground.
- Adjacent Disciplines: These don’t focus on game design, but they can help you get a basic grounding in other game development disciplines. When you know enough to be able to talk with specialists on your team, together you’ll have access to awesome design solutions that you couldn’t have gotten to on your own.
- Human Psychology: Unless you’re a particularly unusual kind of designer, you’ll probably be making games both with people and for people. Exploring different facets of how humans work can give you new, deep, and exciting insights for your design process.
- Mindset and Philosophy: As you’re moving through your career, you might run into personal issues with self-confidence, public speaking, and other personal blockers. These books address a wide range of interesting philosophical topics that can both improve your own outlook on how you approach your career and give you some interesting deeper themes to explore in your design.
- Working Together: When you’re working on a team, it’s very unlikely that everyone’s going to agree on everything all the time. Knowing how to navigate good working relationships with your teammates is an essential part of a game designer’s toolbox. This category dives more specifically into solving problems that might arise from working on a team.
- Business: Whether you’re pitching a game to a publisher or making design decisions on an internal project, having a solid understanding of basic business principles, (and more complex ones for that matter), is a useful skill set to have. At a basic level, it can help you keep your studio running. Beyond that, it can help you connect with your players, your studio heads, potential publishers, and new business partners.
Since these books cover a wide range of topics and world views, you might not agree with every point these authors make (I know I certainly don’t). That said, I think there’s something good to be learned from every one of them. Each book covers a topic that can be applied both directly to your design practice and indirectly to your interactions with teammates, your mindset, and your personal philosophy. Feel free to keep whatever data is useful and discard the rest.
Game Design Practice
“This is a book about games at their deepest level. No matter how good a game looks, it won’t be fun if its mechanics are boring or unbalanced. Game mechanics create gameplay, and to build a great game, you must understand how this happens.”
— Introduction of Game Mechanics: Advanced Game Design
If you want the nuts and bolts of why different gameplay patterns feel good, this is the book for you. It’s a platform-agnostic deep dive into advanced game design topics like systems design, progression loops, and game economies. It assumes you know some of the basic principles of game design, so I wouldn’t recommend diving right in if you’re a beginner. If you’re looking for a more advanced discussion on the theory and numerical realities of how to make a game feel good, though, this book will give you the tools to take your systems design chops to the next level.
“When people play games, they have an experience. It is this experience that the game designer cares about. Without the experience, the game is worthless.”
— Jesse Schell
Alright, full disclosure, I work for this guy. BUT it’s also a really good book. It’s a book on the theory and the psychology of game design as viewed through dozens of different “lenses,” Jesse’s term for different perspectives on game design. It’s a great place to start as a beginner but also goes into depth on a variety of topics for more advanced designers looking to improve their craft. If you want a one-stop shop for what game design is and how to improve on it, this is a great bet.
The Game Narrative Toolbox by Tobias Heussner, Toiya Kristen Finley, Jennifer Brandes Helper, and Ann Lemay
“Narrative design for me is the combination of writing and game design with the goal to tell a story in a computer game. It is not the sum of both fields, but rather the area where both fields overlap in the quest of story creation.”
— Tobias Heussner in The Game Narrative Toolbox
Each of this book’s four authors specializes in a different subfield of narrative design: MMOs, mobile games, indie games, and RPGs, to name a few. As they’ll tell you, while storytelling is a very broad space, narrative design and game writing bear a specific set of challenges and therefore require you to learn specific skillsets to tackle them. Luckily, this book will help you learn what they are. It goes in-depth into tools and techniques for solid narrative design as well as common pitfalls. If you’re looking for a wealth of information on the narrative design from a cross-section of the industry, this is a great place to start.
“Is this an art or design book? I would also say no; after all, we are going to focus on algorithms and their affiliated programming techniques… It is my hope, however, that designers and artists can incorporate all of the material here into their practice to make new, engaging work.”
— Daniel Shiffman
I was introduced to this book back in college by one of my professors, Golan Levin. He pitched it as a comprehensive, easy-to-digest guide about user-facing code that was written for artists. Its down-to-earth style, solid real-life examples, and easy-to-follow code snippets make it an excellent introduction to anyone looking to learn the basics of common game programming concepts like vectors, movement, forces, particle systems, and even the basics of larger topics like neural networks. And hey, it’s free in PDF form online! (The link also includes a variety of ways to support the author if you appreciate his work.)
“This book is about the revolutionary computational technique, fragment shaders, that is taking digitally generated images to the next level. You can think of it as the equivalent of Gutenberg’s press for graphics.”
— The Book of Shaders
This one’s a bit of a strange book in that it is neither (a) a traditional book (it’s hosted on a website) nor (b) complete (it’s a work in progress). That said, if you’re interested in learning how shaders work, it’s probably the most easy-to-read, I-can-actually-follow-this instruction book I’ve ever read.
If you’re not familiar with the concept, shaders are the snippets of graphics code that describe how each visual material in a game should function. You use shaders to make objects change colors, look like glass, shift from one texture to another to mimic a burning piece of paper, or even glitch the vertices of 3D objects to make them appear to ripple, fluctuate, or wave in the breeze. They’re one of the lower levels of game code and they’re considered a more advanced topic in game development, so as a game designer on a large team it’s unlikely you’ll be making them directly.
That said, knowing what shaders can do and having a basic understanding of how they work will help you talk to the graphics programmers and artists on your team. Once you know how to describe the effects you’re looking for, you’ll open the door to awesome graphical effects that can add interesting layers to your gameplay.
“‘Good story’ means something worth telling that the world wants to hear. Finding this is your lonely task. It begins with talent… But the love of a good story, of terrific characters and a world driven by your passion, courage, and creative gifts is still not enough. Your goal must be a good story well told.”
— Robert McKee
Lots of people are interested in immersive storytelling in gaming, especially given how versatile the medium can be. Storytelling is not only one of the more difficult areas of game design to break into, it’s also one of the most deceptively complex and scope-explosion-y. It ties together not just writing and story structure, but things like ludonarrative harmony (when the mechanics mesh well with the narrative), player choice, systems design, and other thorny topics.
While game writing, narrative design, and game story are wildly different from storytelling in other mediums, it can be immensely helpful to get a basic grounding in the craft. Storytelling in general has been around for as long as humans have been sentient, so there are a lot of lessons out there to learn, particularly in older, more well-explored mediums. If you’ve only got time for one, I’d recommend Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting: it explores the abstract theories of what makes for a good story and dives directly into the mechanics. It’s written for screenwriters, but a lot of the high-level lessons transfer to game narrative.
A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, and Murray Silverstein
“Each pattern describes a problem which occurs over and over again in our environment, and then describes the core of the solution to that problem, in such a way that you can use this solution a million times over, without ever doing it the same way twice.”
— A Pattern Language
As a non-architect, this book is fascinating. It has several hundred chapters, each of which lasts about 3–5 pages. Each chapter contains a breakdown of some form or pattern that can be found in architecture like high ceilings, comfortable courtyards, reading nooks, or city roadways. The authors describe the pattern, why people tend to build it, why it works (or fails to work if designed poorly), and examples of where it’s found all over the world. It starts at a high level (designing a city), then zooms into granular details (what separates a good porch from a bad porch.) The team for this book really did their research; there are a TON of great patterns to draw from here. If you’re interested in level design, environmental storytelling, or games that take place in physical spaces, this book’s an excellent resource.
“ My job is to put the right people in a room and help them to collectively think, dream, argue, heal, envision, trust, and connect for a specific larger purpose.”
— Priya Parker
If you’re interested in what makes a gathering between two or more people work on a psychological level, this is the book for you. It goes far beyond the usual ideas about themes, decorations, and recipes. Instead, it dives into the heart of what gives gatherings their purpose. It goes into detail on why setting a specific purpose is important, how to come up with a good one, and all the details that cascade from that decision including who to invite, how to select a venue, preparing your guests for the gathering ahead of time, and so much more. This book will really get you thinking about the psychology behind how and why people get together and interact in a way that can have very interesting implications on your game design, whether it’s multiplayer or single-player.
“We have all experienced times when, instead of being buffeted by anonymous forces, we do feel in control of our actions, masters of our own fate. On the rare occasions that it happens, we feel a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like.”
— Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi
Depending on the type of game design you do, you might already be thinking about “flow” on a daily basis. Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi was the first to coin the term after his decades-long search for the circumstances in which people achieve their happiest moments. As he puts it, “the best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” The book goes into much more detail into the specifics of what flow is and how to induce it. If you can harness this principle in your game design, every game you make will feel fulfilling, worthwhile, and memorable.
“A defining moment is a short experience that is both memorable and meaningful. … What are these moments made of, and how do we create more of them?”
— The Power of Moments
Like Flow, The Power of Moments provides deep analysis on a strong positive emotion. In this case, though, their focus isn’t on flow, but a concept they call “defining moments”: big, memorable, share-with-your-friends-years-later memories that stand out from the blur of the everyday. If that isn’t a marvelous set of tools for a game designer to have in their back pocket, I don't know what is.
Mindset & Philosophy
“Some of our greatest ideas, art, and inventions … came from quiet and cerebral people who knew how to tune in to their inner worlds and the treasures to be found there.”
— Susan Cain
If you’re like many game designers, you may have an inclination toward introversion. I’ve talked to many designers who consider their introversion to be more of an obstacle than an asset, especially in a field that requires so much talking, collaboration, and networking. This book gives a lovely perspective on why introversion can, far from being a hindrance, be a boon. She walks through the reasons why introversion is currently undervalued, names instances where being an introvert can work to your advantage, and demonstrates how you can leverage introversion’s unique strengths. If you find yourself drained after meetings, playtests, and conferences, I’d give this book a shot and see if anything from it calls out to you.
Think Like a Rocket Scientist: Simple Strategies You Can Use to Make Giant Leaps in Work and Life by Ozan Varol
“We all encounter complex and unfamiliar problems in our daily lives. Those who can tackle these problems — without clear guidelines and the clock ticking — enjoy an extraordinary advantage.” — Ozan Varol
As a game designer, there are times when you might find yourself on the cutting edge. The “right” design decision isn’t obvious or, as is often the case with new genres and technology, the way forward is completely unknown. Through the lens of rocket science, this book walks through some of the common, often high-stakes situations that we run into when we’re facing the unknown, then offers some good ways to deal with them. You’ll also learn a lot of fun astronaut tidbits along the way.
“‘Yes, I know vulnerability. I know it well. It’s an exquisite emotion.’
‘Can I get to the exquisite without having to feel really vulnerable in the process?’
— Brené Brown in conversation with her therapist
This book tackles a universal and fascinating subject: shame. Its author, Brené Brown, is probably the most well-known researcher in the field. In Daring Greatly, she dives into the science of shame: what it is, how it can subtly grow to incapacitate us, and how to overcome it. It broaches tough topics like caring what other people think, perfectionism, fear of the unknown, and other paralyzing states of mind that are rife in any creative field.
A couple years ago, a coworker put together a small book club for a few people at work. The book she picked for us to read was Daring Greatly. Over several weeks of discussion, it gave us a space to discuss some really deep topics that we wanted to improve on at work. We discussed diversity and inclusivity, the ways we interacted with our teams, difficult conversations we’d had in our careers, and the ways we cultivated respectful relationships with clients and managers. I highly recommend it as a personal read or, if you’re feeling adventurous, as the basis for your own book club with your coworkers.
The Charisma Myth: How Anyone Can Master the Art and Science of Personal Magnetism by Olivia Fox Cabane
“Imagine what your life would be like if you knew the moment you entered a room, people would immediately take notice, want to hear what you have to say, and be eager for your approval.”
— Olivia Fox Cabane
Charisma’s weird. On the one hand, it can feel like a fun, desirable personal trait. On the other hand, it can feel gross and manipulative as all hell. Like any tool, though, it’s useful to know how the mechanics work so that you can find thoughtful, ethical ways to use it (or to recognize when you or someone you work with might, in fact, be using it manipulatively.) And when it comes right down to it, charisma can make a big difference. Game design is a team sport, after all, so any skills that will help you get everyone moving in the same direction are helpful. While I’d argue that you can be an excellent and effective game designer without being charismatic, it certainly doesn’t hurt, especially if you’re in a public-facing role. If charisma doesn’t come naturally to you, this book breaks charisma down into specific actions, personality traits, and ways of engaging with the world that you can practice.
“A simple refusal motivates my argument: Refusal to believe that the present time and place, and the people who are here with us, are somehow not enough.”
— Jenny Odell
I’m including this book as a mental challenge. It’s a scathing breakdown of the tech industry in general and the information economy in particular. It offers deep insights on how new technology and our current economic model incentivize you to be always ‘on’, both at work and in your free time through new technology like social media platforms. The author drives the point home that your time, your attention, and the way you see the world have all become commodities that brands all over the world are constantly fighting over.
While it’s mainly a critique of social media, its arguments are very relevant to game design. As a game designer, it’s very probable that your work contributes in some way to this great distraction. Do you agree with some of the points the author makes? If you do, how can you as a designer respond through what you create? Are there ways that you can balance the scales through your designs? Maybe, maybe not. Very good food for thought.
Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen
“Relationships that deal productively with the inevitable stresses of life are more durable; people who are willing and able to ‘stick through the hard parts’ emerge with a stronger sense of trust in each other and the relationship.” — Difficult Conversations
Almost all games are made by a team. Unless you’re part of a hivemind, (and maybe even then), there will be times when you and your teammates disagree about something. You may have differences in opinion about the design of your first boss battle, or you might have totally different visions of how you want to respond to a piece of feedback. You might also run into personal problems over the course of development. If you do, it’s useful to have a set of tools to detangle, deescalate, and move forward on these problems as a team. Difficult Conversations does a great job on that front to the point where it’s become the next best thing to required reading at my company.
The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable by Patrick Lencioni
“Not finance. Not strategy. Not technology. It is teamwork that remains the ultimate competitive advantage, both because it is so powerful and so rare.”
— Patrick Lencioni
This one’s a bit more corporate than most game designers will encounter on a day-to-day basis, but it makes some really solid points about teamwork. What’s more, it’s (a) very short, and (b) the first 80% or so is told in story form, which makes it pretty entertaining to read. It tells the story of a new CEO who, as she’s starting her retirement, is brought in to manage a struggling startup whose executive team is driving the company into the ground. It goes through the methods she uses to get everyone working together as a team again by pointing out the big dysfunctions they’re encountering and working through them. It's got some good takeaways and I’d recommend it if you’re looking to improve your team’s shared vision and trust in each other.
“This book is about execution. It’s about making sure your game comes out. It’s about the profoundly unsexy world of accounting, of budgeting, of making sure you planned for localization in your release schedule.”
— Mike Futter, The GameDev Business Handbook
If you’re thinking of starting your own studio, you may have already begun to encounter the myriad of logistics, overhead, and details that come with studio management. This book and its twin, The GameDev Accounting Handbook, give you the grounding you need to take that on. It includes granular advice from dozens of professional studio leads, lawyers, and other industry professionals on the nitty-gritty of running a studio. It goes over topics from company formation to hiring practices to scheduling to client relationships. There are plenty of start-a-new-business books out there, but this one goes into the details and decisions specific to the games industry.
“Your career, your finances, your reputation, your love life, even the fate of your kids — at some point all of these hinge on your ability to negotiate.”
— Chris Voss
Negotiation is really, really hard. It can feel extremely adversarial whether you’re asking for a raise, trying to get your team on the same page, or working with a new client to hash out the details of a contract. This is a great, entertaining breakdown of negotiation tactics by a former hostage negotiator for the FBI. At times, its advice can come off as manipulative or callous, but knowing the psychology and tried-and-true techniques for negotiation can make you feel much more comfortable the next time that you come across a situation where you need to negotiate.
“A consultant is someone who provides value through specialized expertise, content, behavior, skill, or other resources to assist a client in improving the status quo … A consultant improves the client’s condition.”
— Alan Weiss
Once you’re a few years into your career (or earlier if you’re a freelancer), you might begin to offer your services as a consultant to other teams. While a lot of the skills you have as a game designer will transfer without any issue from team to team, it’s helpful to have some skills specific to consulting under your belt as well. This book goes over topics like getting your name out there, creating value for your clients, and building/maintaining solid relationships with the people you’re working with. Like many business books, it’s (unsurprisingly) very business and profit-focused, which can sometimes feel grating to people in creative fields. If you can learn the language, though, it’ll help you do what you do best: work with people to make excellent games.
Got any other good books that you think that game designers could benefit from reading? Leave a comment below!