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).  

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How Was The Level Designed? Time Cannon: Desert and Chaos Dimension

In this ongoing series, I’ll take you behind the scenes into how I designed a level, to hopefully teach something about level design and the processes we use as level designers.

The idea behind Time Cannon was interesting- what if you, as a player, had all the time in the world to set up the perfect shot to change history? Scratch that, what if you could scrub backwards and forwards in time with fine control to set up the perfect shot? It was an interesting initial design idea, but not one that was without its challenges for me as a level designer. 

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How was the Level Designed? Rovey: Jungle

In this ongoing series, I’ll take you behind the scenes into how I designed a level, to hopefully teach something about level design and the processes we use as level designers.

Rovey is a 3d action adventure, in which you have to collect three items on each level to advance to the next level. It takes inspiration from old school 3d platformers like Mario 64, Banjo-Kazooie and others. 

Whenever I start work on a new game, I always try to see what the design doc/leads’ pillars for the game are, in terms of aesthetic, theme and especially emotion. What is the overriding emotion of this game? Is this supposed to be a difficult game, a relaxing game, a narrative game where the mechanics take a backseat? Knowing that the lead took inspiration from 90s 3d platformers told me that this game could be more challenging to the player, and more focused on action and dexterity, as those games often were, instead of smoothing challenges to make it easier for players as would be appropriate in a more narrative driven game.

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I Made a Game! RocketCat has been released!

I and some talented friends made a silly platformer featuring a cat with a rocket launcher and semi-accurate physics platforming! I led this project that took about four months and features 12 unique contributors. We’ve made 24 levels of absolutely free rocket launching goodness for you. Yes, you! What are you waiting for, check it out here!


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Tutorials Suck. This Book Tells You How to Make Them Better

Book Review: Learn To Play by Matthew White 

Tutorials suck. Everyone’s had an eye-rolling experience with an overly basic tutorial level. This is how to move. Good! This is how to jump. Now crouch. Amazing! Why don’t these work effectively? Well, they are patronising to most experienced players but they are necessary to prevent new players from becoming stuck. Experienced players are totally out of flow, however, and exceedingly bored. This leads to the inevitable, “When is the fun beginning?” and hatred of the tutorial level. Why does this happen, and how can we as game designers do better? 

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The Brilliance of Subnautica

Spoiler Warning: I will be spoiling events and creatures up to the exploration of the Degrasi habitat at 500 meters. If you haven’t played the game I advise you to call in sick for the next two days, buy it from steam, play it, and then come back here and read these thoughts. For the rest of you, read on…

Subnautica is, simply put, brilliant. There it is, job done, column written. Err, okay, I guess I’ll explain why. And to tell you why, I will talk about the exploration of the Degrasi Habitat.

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Tension Found: The Death of Autosave


Stop me if this sounds familiar.

When I first played Far Cry 3, I played it on the hardest difficulty, because I was, you know, HARD CORE. But I also quick saved every ten seconds, literally after I killed any enemy, because the game was even more HARD CORE. This led to a bizarre and disjointed play experience, where I would contrast moments of high intensity with samey, grinding repetition. There was both low intensity (nothing was ever at stake, I’d lose at most ten seconds of progress) but also very irritating and grindy, because honestly the difficulty was just too high. But players will always do things that make them feel good about themselves (set difficulty to higher than ideal) and help them win (use quicksave every ten seconds like a goddamn winning coward) even if this results in a less than optimal play experience.

How do we get out of this quagmire?

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Perfect Information: The Killer Feature of Slay the Spire and Into the Breach


The prevailing thinking behind many strategy games over time has been to not reveal too much information to the player. Give them the black box, hold information back, and then figuring out the model of your strategy game becomes an engaging moment-to-moment game in and of itself. I remember playing dozens of hours of Civilization II, figuring out optimal strategy. Each round, each victory, I’d raise the difficulty, playing with fewer benefits, and subconsciously understand more and more of the black box, the tactics, tech, units, wonders and strategies the designers had created and put into that black box. It was a lot of fun.

 In the last couple of years, two of the biggest indie success stories have come from turn based tactics gaming, and both of these games have thrown the black box out. I think there’s a design lesson in that.

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