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Game Design: Theory and Practice Review, Page 2

by Stephen Granade

The practical aspects are good, insofar as they go. The chapter discussing design documents is the best of them. Design documents are something of a mystery, as few examples are available outside of companies and there is no standard format. Worse yet, design documents can be misused or under-utilized, simply because a designer isn't really sure what they are for. "A design document is all about communicating a vision for a game, for mapping out as much information as possible about how that game will function, what the player will experience, and how the player will interact with the game-world," says Rouse in Game Design, painting the purpose of a design document with broad strokes. He goes on to fill in the painting with discussions of writing styles and what should and should not go into the document. Best of all, the book's appendix is an entire sample design document for an arcade game, "Atomic Sam," which never saw the light of day.

Game Design: Theory and Practice is by no means a perfect book. One of its more egregious flaws is how the theory is sometimes presented. While Rouse goes to great lengths to explain that his sample design document is not a set-in-stone format, he does little to explain that his take on design theory is similarly not the law of the land. He presents his theories as fact, making broad statements such as "Melding in techniques from other genres is the best way to advance the genre you are working on and to create something truly original" with little discussion of why this is, let alone that this statement might not be established fact. Indeed, he also talks about the problem with the "high-concept" style of design, defined as "An idea for a game which attempts to merge disparate types of gameplay or setting into one game, without regard to whether those different ideas will work well together.... Usually synonymous with 'bad concept.'" The middle ground is left unexplored.

Compounding this is the book's occasional high-handed tone, during which theory is ladled out with a heaping side-dish of condescension towards any who might disagree. In discussing the merits of non-linear versus linear gameplay, Rouse writes,

Designers who think too highly of their own design skills may also avoid non-linearity in their designs because they want the player to experience every single element of the game they decide to include. "Why spend a lot of time on portions of the game that not everyone will see?" say these egotistical designers, starting to sound a lot like the accountants.

Heaven forfend that designers actually think their games are worth us playing through in their entirety. Thankfully, most of the book is written in a less polemical style.

Even though the book is nearly six hundred pages in length, I found myself wishing it covered more ground. The history of computer games is completely missing from the book; not even a brief timeline is included. Hints of that history appear in some of the interviews, such as when Chris Crawford discusses the atmosphere at Atari during the big video game slump of the mid-1980's. Only successful games are analyzed. This may seem logical, but you can often learn more from projects that went wrong than ones that went right. Business aspects of game design, including dealing with publishers and management, aren't covered. Most glaring, at no point does Rouse talk about how you actually become a computer game designer, which is the number one question would-be game designers ask.

Finally, the CD seems to have been filled with programs simply for the appearance of added value. Rouse emphatically states that the book will not teach you game programming. Why, then, does it include two text adventure languages, a dialect of BASIC, a text editor, a sprite library, and more, all of which pertain to programming and none of which are directly connected to the book's chosen topic?

(One side note: I find it ironic that throughout the book Rouse refers to the designer and often the player as "she," given how small the number of females in the computer game business is.)

These problems detract from the overall impact of the book, but do not obscure its value. Game Design: Theory and Practice makes a valuable contribution to the field. For one, it codifies design elements and presents them in an accessible manner. By doing so, it provides an alternative to learning on the job or experimenting on your own. For another, it does a good job of presenting basic rules. I firmly believe that artists should learn first the rules, then when they should be broken; Rouse's book is a good place to learn some general rules. Finally, I hope that people will take the book as the first part of a conversation about game design. Development of an artistic theory never ends, and this development is helped by the input of others. With any luck, Game Design: Theory and Practice will add to this often-unheard conversation.

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