Understanding Video Games text-book
Review of Chris Crawford’s Chris Crawford on Game Design

Date posted: May 11, 2006
Updated: Dec 22, 2006

Reviewed by Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen

Author: Chris Crawford
Title: Chris Crawford on Game Design
New Riders Press, 2003
ISBN: 0-13-146099-4
Price: $39.99
Pages: 621


There are times when you think Chris Crawford is out there. And he probably is sometimes but this is the cost for being honest, personal, and trying to push the boundaries for thinking about games research. This book is a mixed experience with some interesting thoughts, a few good chapters, and an abundance of historical anecdotes. However, there is too much old wine on new bottles just like in Andrew Rollings & Ernest Adams book on Game Design. This is to some degree unavoidable but readers should be warned that a not insignificant amount of the content has already been presented in earlier book(s).

The book is not really structured in accordance with any higher principle but the different chapters more or less seem to be written separately. It starts off with some introductory chapters on important computer games, play theory, challenge, conflicts, interactivity, becoming a game designer, and story telling. These cover the basic stuff that is mostly well-known from Crawford’s earlier work.

After this, Crawford throws in some thoughts on interesting titles he would like to build. It is unclear whether these are titles he haven’t seen out there or if he just think he could do better. This chapter is relevant because it shows the links between game design ideas and different sources, for examples books. The next chapter entitled“random sour observations” criticizes licensed games and massively multiplayer games but mostly comments on the problems with new interfaces for games.

In the next 14 chapters we are presented with different titles Crawford has designed, and interesting elements of this process. They give a perspective on game design’s history and some game design pitfalls are identified.

One chapter deals with the title Eastern Front (1941) with interesting discussions on the first scrolling map and mentions it as the first commercial computer game to publish its source code. Furthermore, it contains interesting thoughts on play testing, tuning, and AI. In a few sentences the basics of play testing are laid bare starting with:”Most suggestions are additions; some are embellishments, some are corrections, and some are consolidations.”(Crawford, 2003: 256). He then shortly explains these different types of suggestions’ bearing on the game, and why they must be treated differently.

Balance of Power is probably the most well known Chris Crawford game, and it is also dissected in a chapter especially in relation to the background for the game design and the publishing. There is a very good example of how you can make best possible use of a given platform. Balance of Power was developed for the Macintosh with a more serious audience in mind, and at the same time taking advantage of the mouse interface (not the standard back then).

As one of the last titles, Balance of the Planet is covered with a focus on the challenge of using a specific topic in your game design. According to Crawford it takes a great deal of knowledge of a certain area to make it work as a game. The chapter also addresses the clash between gaming and education, and the problems of both doing a traditional game play and presenting a topic in enough detail. The game initially failed commercially but in the long run almost made up for this as it was used in educational institutions.

The number of game design books out there has grown considerably from a few dating back to the late 1970s and early 1980s to at least seven published titles in the last three years dealing more or less exclusively with game design. Chris Crawford has been part of this since the start with his early book The Art of Computer Game Design from 1982, which is most interesting. More than a few of these books claim to be compulsory reading for coming game designers. This is in my opinion not true for this book although the back cover reads “learn foundational skills from the grand old theoretician of computer games”. For that the book is too fragmented, subjective, and closed around itself. It fails to draw on other people’s research, and for good and bad exclusively presents Chris Crawford’s perspective.

Overall the book is very personal and this makes it full of nerve but it also makes it rather hard to pinpoint its particulars merits. The interesting discussions and information is scattered all around in the book although I think it becomes increasingly interesting as we get further into the book. The first chapters are old news but makes up a good foundation for aspiring game designers. Still it is done more thoroughly in other books by others or Crawford himself.

Most of the game examples are relevant, original, and interesting. But they might be a bit too heavy on technical details for some people. Sometimes the game descriptions are a bit hard to follow. It might have worked better with short standard abstracts for each game in the start stating title, year, game play, strengths, and weaknesses.

At one point in the book Crawford states “I have a reputation for, shall we say, outspokenness.” This is perhaps the single best reason for reading the book because he doesn’t hold much back. When all is said about this book, this is the book on game design that has given me the most laughs. The competition wasn’t that hard but it is still an achievement. Read the book for its quirks, open-mindedness, historical awareness, and occasional design nuggets.

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