Eleven Books Every Beginning Game Designer Should Read

Here are some books I think every starting game developer should read in their careers. Disclaimers: I don’t get paid for any of these opinions (or links), and no, those books have not all fallen on me and crushed me or my cat (yet).

11. The GameDev Business Handbook (Futter)

If you are thinking of running an Indie studio, you NEED to get this book. Mike Bithell has been there, done that and made every mistake along the way, as he admits in the intro to this book. That’s why his business partner, Michael Futter, created this book. This book was made to tell indies all about the things they didn’t think they’d have to know. Licensing, taxes, accounting, copyright, Human Resource issues, all of the minutiae of actually running a small games business is covered in this book. An essential read for indies. 

Further Reading: For a definitive question and answer workbook for starting an indie studio, try Indie Games, From Dream to Delivery. If you are a producer for a games studio or thinking about becoming one, pick up The Game Production Toolbox

10. Replay: The History of Video Games (Donovan) 

Game designers need to know the history of the medium. As the saying goes, “Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.” This book does a good job of going through the foundation of games, through the 70’s and 80’s. Each chapter takes a look at a different geographical place, which does a good job of telling multiple stories that occur at largely overlapping times and turning it into a coherent narrative. 

Further Reading: For a definitive history of the early period of games, try They Create Worlds (Smith). For a more graphical based history, with lots of cool art and historical promotional materials, see High Score (Demaria). Finally, for a more recent history of a selection of games, check out Blood, Sweat and Pixels (Schreier).  

9. The Design of Everyday Things (Norman) 

Game design fits under the umbrella of design in general, and, in my opinion, The Design of Everyday Things is the best book on general design out there. If you don’t know what affordances, user-centered design or UX really are (or you have questions), this is the best book to start with. Ironically, this book feels a bit outdated because at the time the concepts it talked about were new and had to compete with decades of antiquated design thinking. Because of the success of this book and designers like Jonathan Ives at Apple working to apply user-centered design, many of the arguments of the book appear self-evident to us now. Such is the power and reach of this book. 

Further Reading: Universal Principles of Design gives a good overview on design principles and is more comprehensive than The Design of Everyday Things. The Evolution of Useful Things gives a similar interesting look at how items like paper clips and staplers were first designed and their design history. 

8. Game Feel (Swink)

Game Feel serves an underserved niche of game design- Why do games feel good to play? And how can we, as designers, replicate that? By breaking down how humans perceive the world and using in-game examples of psychological phenomena, Swink takes us step by step through the process of how players engage with and indeed, feel the games they play. 

Further Reading: Expanding from just game feel to general UX, Design For How People Think is an excellent introduction to the topic. For a more generalized psychological principles (some related to UX), try How We Decide

7. Getting Gamers (Madigan)/ The Gamer’s Brain (Hodent)

I’m cheating here and I don’t care. The reason is, I feel torn with this selection. The more complete book is the excellent The Gamer’s Brain by Celia Hodent. But as a practicing neuroscientist, the text can be a bit dry. Getting Gamers on the other hand is not nearly as comprehensive, covering 11 chapter-long topics related to player psychology, but the style is breezy and easy to read and the text is legitimately funny, a rarity for games books. Get The Gamer’s Brain if you want a comprehensive, but denser view of player psychology; and Getting Gamers if you want an entertaining but not as comprehensive romp through player psychology. 

Further Reading: For more on gamer psychologies and the topographies of gamers, check out Nick Yee’s The Proteus Paradox (Yee).   

6. Introduction to Game Design, Prototyping, and Development: From Concept to Playable Game with Unity and C# (Gibson Bond) 

This book is really three books (Well not really. It’s quite large, but that’s not what I mean). In the first section, game design takes center stage, and I think Gibson Bond can hang with any of the names further down this list in terms of game design. He adds to the tetrarch of game design started in A Book of Lenses and creates a layered Tetrarch that is more comprehensive and I think makes more sense holistically. The second ‘book” is basic programming logic and understanding. This is ideal when you already have some programming knowledge and are looking to brush up. Coding is best practiced, not read, at least for me personally. The final third is a bevy of sample projects for Unity. These are okay, but I personally find it hard to follow written tutorials for Unity, and they very quickly go out of date. For that, I much prefer going to Udemy and getting something like GameDev.TV’s excellent C# Unity Developer 2D Coding Course (on sale, of course). But the first two parts of this book are worth it on their own. 

Further Reading: For a translation of classic programming design patterns specifically for game design, get the excellent Game Design Patterns (Nystrom). Another excellent (and hefty) book for programming, specifically for AI, is the third edition of AI for Games (Millington). 

5. A Theory of Fun (Koster)

Why are games fun? It’s often the simplest questions that are hardest to answer, that require us to dive deepest into our cognitive toolboxes and, once solved, provide us with the most enlightening of answers. That’s how it feels as Star Wars Galaxies creative director, polymath and general smart guy Raph Koster breaks down why games are fun to play, what that even means, and why pattern matching and recognition is so important to the human experience. Foundational for game developers- and it’s got cute cartoons! Get this book. 

Further Reading: For more information on flow and the flow state, read the source: Flow (Csikszentmihalyi). For more on players and a poetic dive into what players bring to the play experience, check out the effervescent The Well Played Game (De Koven).

4. Players Making Decisions (Hiwiller)

This is, straight up, an amazing game design textbook. I fold corners of the left page down whenever I find something I want to remember to come back to, and I had to stop with this book because almost every one of the first hundred pages were folded down. This book is excellent. Game design is mostly psychology (specifically cognitive psychology) and this book gives an amazing overview of psychology and the different ways it touches games. Highly recommended. 

Further Reading: For a book with a narrower focus on creating a shared vocabulary for game design with a lot of in game examples, supplement with A Game Design Vocabulary (Anthropy). For a rah-rah book about becoming a game designer with some good practical exercises, try Think Like a Game Designer (Gary). 

3. Advanced Game Design (Sellers)

This is the one game design book I wish more people would read. This book is AMAZING. It is two things. 1) It is the intermediate game design book we all need once we get past, What is flow? And how do I make a character controller? And 2) it is simply the best explanation for systems theory I have come across in general. Pages 1-40 were paradigm-shifting for me. It changed my entire view about how the world is organized and shifted its axis, giving me an essential tool for picking out systems and how they work along the way. Once you’ve gotten past 1, 2, and 4 on this list, this is the next book to read. Really, really great.  

Further Reading: For a generalist (read: non-game related) view of systems and systems design, try The Systems View of Life (Capra). 

2. Game Design Workshop (Fullerton) 

This is a classic, as evidenced by it being it’s 4th edition. Fullerton presents the play-centric view of game design that, partially owing to this book’s success, has defined the last fifteen years. Great exercises that you do alongside the text keep you engaged and learning, and this is the most solid basic text along with 1 and 4 on this list to learn fundamental game design principles. 

Further Reading: The other big textbook a lot of people read is Rules of Play. I found it a little dry, personally. Skimming and reading parts of The Game Design Reader (A Rules of Play Anthology) are also encouraged. Combined with the other books on this list this will give you a decent approximation of the first year of game design school. 

1. A Book of Lenses (Schell) 

This book is excellent. Schell has been many things throughout his career, as he is eager to point out early. He was a juggler, he worked on attractions for Disney, and he has been for a long time now a very successful independent games developer. He takes a fun, whimsical approach to game design, putting his own spin on game design topics and advancing the discourse and discussion. I love his talk about the little gift and the big gift, triangularity, and the conceit of the lenses (a little over one hundred different “lenses” or ways of looking at your game design). Because game design is so creative, Schell understands that viewing the problem from different angles (or lenses) is a great way to break that creative problem down and attack it. This book gets game design in a fundamental way. Highly recommended. 

Further Reading: Of course this book comes with its own “game,” a deck of cards with each of the lenses printed on it. Check out A Deck of Lenses.

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