About five years ago or so, I felt like I needed to improve my game design skills, so I looked around to see what kind of books there were out there, and see if I could learn anything new from them. I was not successful. Either the books were about subject matter so basic that it was useless to me, or it was about concepts so abstract that they also were useless to me.

Note: One of the few exceptions to this was Dr. Jesse Schell’s The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses (Which apparently has a second edition now!). The subject matter was basic, but Dr. Schell has a really unique and practical way of looking at the various things that make up a game that ties everything he teaches together — and it’s worth looking at for that reason if nothing else.

So there I was, wanting to learn new things — but I found out that if there were people out there who could teach me anything advanced about game design, they hadn’t written books yet.

And so I turned to other media (acting, writing, film, sports, architecture, etc) — all of which have far longer histories than games, and which are generally far more widely understood. There were many many resources available about those things, and I picked through the best of each, trying to find scraps that I could apply to game design.

For this week’s post, I thought I’d share a couple of the various books or articles that I read (or videos I watched), and what I got from them that I was able to apply to game design (in no particular order).

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Save the Cat Goes to the Movies – Blake Snyder

One of the early places I started looking was in the well-researched domain of writing. I read a lot of books about various types of writing — novels, short stories, screenplays, etc.

Save the Cat was a book recommended to me by a colleague one time when I had to write a story for a game under a lot of time pressure. It was very helpful, and I got quite a bit from it (which I partially explain in this blog post from 2010). He very clearly describes a neat technique for making sure your stories are well-structured, and which has some implications towards all activities which require pacing (like game design).

As helpful as that was, Save the Cat was just the first book in a three-part series that Snyder wrote — and I found the second book to be by far the most useful for a game designer. In addition to going over his 15-part beatsheet that he spends the whole first book on, he spends the bulk of the book talking about what he calls “Movie Genres.” Each genre is an example of one of the ten different stories we like to tell in Western fiction. Each of them is described in terms of the components necessary to tell the story.

The example I like to use is Monster in the House, which requires a Monster, a House, and a Sin. Once you know those three things, Snyder shows you, you have all the basic information necessary to start working on that story.

This is relevant to game design in a lot of ways, but I think the most promising is for anyone trying to create dynamic interactive stories: Snyder’s breakdowns are masterful, and would go a long way towards developing an algorithm to tell that type of story.

7-part story Structure – by Dan Wells

Novel writer Dan Wells gave this 5-part presentation at a writers convention in 2010. He talks about how he likes to plot out his stories, and mentions that he learned how to do this from the old Star Wars tabletop RPG. You can see how this might be useful for game design.

In essence, Wells is talking about the same story structure as Snyder (or as Joseph Campbell for that matter) — but he manages to simplify and make it much more useful.

This is the first video in the series of 5.

Many people have written about this system, (a google search turns up some good examples) so I won’t go further into it.

Improv for Actors

When you think of acting, you don’t often think about how interactive it can sometimes be. This is especially true in the world of Improvisational Acting, which sees the actor interacting with the audience almost constantly.

Improv for Actors was one of the books I read on the subject, and I liked the presentation of it, but any book would get you the general idea.

In Improv, the surest way to shut down a performance is to refuse to go along with the audience’s suggestions or your fellow actors’ contributions. It ends up not being funny, and it kills the flow.

Just watch this video of Liam Neeson pretending to do improv badly to see how that works (go to 1:55):

The most important thing I learned from it is that, just like in improv, it’s important that we “say yes” to our audience.

Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals About our Everyday Deceptions

This is a cool book about the neuroscience of how stage magic tricks affect the human mind — why they work and what elements of human nature they’re taking advantage of.

Any one of these tricks is worth knowing in case you want to solve a similar problem that the magician is solving. For example, they have a lot of information on sleight of hand or pickpocketing performers and the different techniques they use to distract people from what they were really doing and direct their attention towards what the performer wanted them to notice.

Knowing how to direct your players’ attention is obviously a valuable skill in game design.

How to Win Friends and Influence People – Dale Carnegie

I read this book when I was having trouble communicating with my co-workers. For some reason, they all saw me as unapproachable. I wasn’t trying to make myself seem that way — I, in fact, liked talking with the rest of the team — but that was the perception.

Reading this book showed me how much I can do to change perceptions like that.

Further, interacting with people (people skills, in other words) is one of the most common things you’ll do as a game designer working on a team. This book teaches you, in very practical terms, how to do that in such a way that everyone feels they get what they wanted (even you).


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