I am currently reading two books, both called 'On Game Design', one by Chris Crawford and the other by Ernest Adams and Andrew Rollings. Both of them are Very Big Books.
They're subjects are ostensibly all about the mighty and arcane art of game design, but I have to say, I'm finding both quite ennervating. All three authors seem to take a long time getting around to actually saying what they want to say. Crawford's writing style is currently clearer, whereas Adams and Rolling are less so. One very interesting quote from A+R, right at the very start, sums the two books up: "One area that we have not addressed is level design."
They are both huge theory books, in otherwords. At least, as far as I've read them. Both of them are also concerned with very long and boring issues that aren't really all that important. A+R go into very long detail about their definition of gameplay, for example. While Crawford does a much larger job of talking about the roles of Conflict and Interactivity.
What amazes me about these two books is that they both have 'codex' ambitions, to create some sort of "bible" of games and game design lore, starting from the basic foundations of play and then, it seems, moving on into videogames. Yet they both make for intensely depressing reads. To read them and take them at their word, one would think that to be a game designer requires an intense level of academia and a sort of hermit-like disposition. Not to mention a capacity for intellectual spoonfeeding.
I am of the view that game design is both interesting and in need of study, but not like this. For one thing, play is really not that complex a process to understand. What amazes me is why some people seem to feel the need to make play out to be something that it isn't. There are a few basic ground rules to be learned, much like in writing, but it really doesn't need this level of tedium, frankly.
Game design should be anything but tedious, and I'm sorry, but endless windy examples do not really make the case for it. The books are also full of really serious attempts to politicise games and gaming philosophy, for reasons that I haven't fully understood yet. Crawford talks long and loud about how more interactivity must always be better (to which I am forced to point at Steel Battallion and say 'Oh really?') by saying that more 'cinematic' films are nearly always better. Rubbish. Adams and Rollings, meanwhile, are determined to forgo all mention of the actual practical end of design (the levels, see above) and instead take a noble/humble view of game design as a craft, not an art, and advance a model of design documents that clearly are not about the game design, but the game production design. (see Designers Without Rules on this site).
What the hell is going on here?
In a form that is in danger of obliviating itself, shouldn't would-be authors be attempting to inspire new new talent instead of stultifying it? Shouldn't they be encouraging people to actually have opinions and artistic intent, instead of saying "Designing games is a craft, like cinematography or costume design". That's right folks, the last thing that games would ever want to be is controversial or, you know, artistic. Crawford adds to this sentiment by adding that play should always be safe, feel safe, and so on.
I believe that this is the result of the 'videogames are boardgames extended' school of thought: A one-way ticket to oblivion. It is a message to would be designers that they should have no ambitions or controversial opinions. It is Old School. It's time for the New School. The one that says it's OK for a designer to actually challenge players intellectually, morally, even ethically. The tools are right there, but these two books tell you that you are wrong to use them that way.
From the outside looking in, this sort of thing is simply going to scare off many talented individuals. And then authors wonder why there are many games professionals who hold gaming academia in such low esteem. Rightly so, if this sort of thing is anything to go by.
A much better model for a game design book would be something like Screenplay, not because it is about screenwriting, but because it is short and sweet and practical. Syd Field dares to cut to the chase and use examples, lay out a simple premise that works well, and then he proceeds to develop it. He doesn't spend a hundred and more odd pages preaching the pseudo-academic patchy theory of unfulfilled childhoods, 'all games are one' and 'the noble craftsman' to the unwashed.
When will someone write a game design book that starts out with 'You have a right to create!'
You might be able to tell that I'm annoyed.
I'll have more on this when I finish the books in question, and the piece all about game design formats is also on the way.
Particleblog's comments have moved to The Play Room.