Chris Crawford is one of the earliest pioneers of games and game design, and any book with his name on it is required reading for anybody professing to be interested in the subject of game design. Chris Crawford on Game Design, published by New Riders, gathers all of Crawford’s experiences through the decades in a single volume. The book is broken down into 100 lessons, including section with war stories and anecdotes that makes for light reading while still remaining educational. The book is perfectly aimed at game designers and those interested in game design, and still remains relevant to non-designers, providing the deep insights in to the games industry.
The early lessons in the book cover the basics of game design—defining terms, explaing what it means to play, and exploring the types of play that people engage in. These types of play are broken down further in to the elements that make up play—challenge, conflict, interactivity, and rules—with passages on play not needing to be exotic to be interesting. Crawford also covers some common mistakes such as obsession with cosmetics, deriving the conclusion that higher graphic quality is not always better.
There is a brief detour into some of the lessons we can learn from cinema in regards to graphic quality. Substance, rather than cosmetic appearance, can make for a more intense user experience, Crawford explains. Accretive design — the “me too” movement — is also railed against. I found myself nodding agreeably as I read through this section.
Throughout the book Crawford refers to various seminal games, and covers several of them (mostly his own—Balance of Power probably being his most well known) in detail, taking apart each game to see what made it interesting or appealing to different people. The chapter covers almost Crawford’s entire ludography—successes and failures exposed in all their gory innards, including a small piece of history on how each game came about.
A section on education for the budding game designer (and even some professional game designers) gives insight in to the areas one should pursue both at school and in life. Crawford emphasizes that degrees are important, especially in today’s economic climate, and that many companies won’t consider you without one, but he also drives home the importance of self-education. To be a competent games designer is to be a life-learner, he says. An extensive and very esoteric recommended reading list flows throughout the education lesson.
Towards the end of the book, Crawford turns to navel gazing. He examines what’s wrong with games and the game industry today, giving his view through “random sour observations”. He harps on the industry’s “Hollywood envy” and the sleaze and representational violence factor that is creeping in to a lot of modern games, along with the short-sightedness of decision makers.
There is also a chapter that is not so much a lesson, but one about the games that Crawford would like to build given enough time, money, and energy. He offers more than a dozen game ideas to anybody willing to implement them. At face value, some of the games are variations on a theme with a heavy leaning towards the strategy/wargame/balance of power style of play. But there are gems worth contemplating, including my two favorites: Spies, a game idea based on conversation, and Corporate Politics, a sort of “SimCorp” in which you start at the top and work your way down (down being how low can you sink with political back-stabbing before you’re ousted).
Crawford writes far too infrequently for me. I devoured this book with gusto and I look forward to his next one. This book belongs on the shelf of anyone who has even the remotest interest in what makes a good or bad game.