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Book Review: Chris Crawford On Game Design

Volume Number: 19 (2003)
Issue Number: 9
Column Tag: Review

Book Review: Chris Crawford On Game Design

by Ron Davis

I first picked up Chris Crawford On Game Design at the local bookstore because I am a wannabe game programmer and often look at game design books. I kept picking it up because there are a lot of Mac screen shots and descriptions of Mac games in it. This is very unusual for a game book, but Chris Crawford is a game programmer from way back.

One thing to know about this book is it is very much about Chris Crawford. Very oriented toward his opinion and his philosophy, with nary a line of code in the whole book. The book is broken up into two sections; the first part is an overview of game design and the second is a history of all of the games Chris has written. Because of this his personality comes through very strongly. Maybe it is just hard to write about the cool things in the code you've written and not come off seeming an egomaniac, but after reading the second half of the book I didn't really like Chris. Now that I've read the first half, I'd say he knows his stuff, but I probably wouldn't want to hang with him, as he might feel the need to point out my flaws.

Before you get a bad opinion of me, let me quote the beginning of the chapter entitled Random Sour Observations:

    "You would never guess it from my comments in this book, but I have a reputation for, shall we say, outspokenness. That reputation is mostly on the mark, although it is often colored by the anger of those whom I have skewered. My particular talent is not for detecting problems - anybody can bitch - but rather for phrasing my criticisms in a style that hits hard. I hold euphemism and tactful ellipticity in contempt; integrity demands the expression of truth in the clearest and most compelling terms."

The tone of the book is biting. He freely lambasts everyone in computer games with a broad brush. So if you have a thin skin and don't want to hear someone say all programmers are autistic, lack all social skills, and will therefore never be able to create a game that reaches anyone but horny, violent young men, don't buy the book.

Now on to the good stuff. The first half of the book Chris talks about the history of games, both computer and otherwise, the core concepts of Play, the requirements of Challenge, Conflict and Interactivity in computer games. Then he goes on to discuss the missing element of creativity in modern computer games, and common mistakes game programmers, companies, and designers keep making. There is a chapter dedicated to what he thinks a game designer needs to know entitled The Education of a Game Designer and one that lists a bunch of games he'd like to write. Then he talks about Storytelling and how it is lacking in modern games and people don't even seem to know it. The last chapter in this section of the book is the previously mentioned chapter of sour observations on the gaming industry as a whole.

There is some great stuff in these chapters, and rather than go through them one at a time, I'm just going to talk a little about some of the stuff I thought was cool.

In the chapter on challenge there is a long and interesting discussion of how the brain does things and how it learns. This he closely ties to game play and how the complexity of a game can increase without losing the player. Whenever our brains learn how to do a complex task we first have to think of each little step, and this thinking is slow. As we repeat the steps we shove the doing of the steps down in to our cerebellum and no longer have to think about things to do them. When playing a game we do this as we learn the game. So stuff that was slow and complex at the beginning isn't even thought about at the end. On the other hand, in games that are sequels, you either have to make the experienced player redo the now easy stuff or lose the new player with the overwhelming complexity of the game.

The chapter on Interactivity is the core of his philosophy of computer games. It is interactivity that makes computer games different from other games. Its really broader than that. Interactivity makes computers in general different. You can type things on a typewriter, but it is the interactivity, the ability to react to mistakes and change them, that make a word processor more useful. Chris points out good computer games are interactive. Unfortunately many modern games have ceased to be interactive today.

When Chris says creativity is missing from computer games today he's talking about a couple of things. First nothing new is really happening. People are looking at the kind of game they want to write first and them making up some half assed story to do the same thing previous versions of this type of game did. And he is right. Is there really a difference between what the player did in Doom and what they do in Unreal? You run around and shoot things. They may look prettier. You may have new weapons, but really you are still running around shooting things.

Also missing from creativity is an understanding of "art" in general in game design. In his chapter on the education of a game designer, he talks about the lack of liberal arts education in game designers. For the most part game designers are programmers, and programmers are a lot more interested in the challenges of creating the game technically, the algorithms, the graphic engine, etc. than in the challenges the player faces. He gives a long list of books you should read if you want to be a game designer. The list is sure to leave you feeling like you are completely unread. There are only 4 computer books in the bunch, Code Complete, The Mythical Man-Month, Algorithms and The Art of Computer Programming, all of which are the basic texts every programmer should read. The other lists include everything from The Way Things Work, to The Story of Law, to Walden by Henry Thoreau, to Shakespeare, the Federalist Papers, and the New Testament.

I did like his suggestion in this chapter to "take up a mildly dangerous hobby" like motorcycling or sky diving. Now I can tell my wife it is job related.

The last half of the book is about individual games he wrote. It is an interesting history, written a lot like those conversations you always end up in when hanging with other programmers who have been doing this a while. Talking about the challenges of a particular project, how they overcame them. You learn what he learned from each game and what he thinks did and didn't work. You also get a fascinating insight into the history of computer games. His first game was written on a computer that had no display. All input and output was done through a typewriter. Yet he wrote a tank battle game for it.

Chris worked for Atari and wrote a number of games for them. Then when he left Atari and had time on his hands, he bought a Lisa and started programming for the Mac. He wrote a number of Mac games and talks about them in the book. You can even go to his website ( and download a number of them.


Overall there is a lot to learn from this book. Not in the "How do I make 3D objects?" way, but in the how should this specific kind of computer program, a game, work for the user. It is about being a game designer, not a programmer. About creating all the stuff you do before you write a line of code. That's what makes it worthy of your bookshelf. If you want a programming book wait for my next column; it'll be on a more technical book.

Ron Davis


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