Understanding Video Games text-book
Review of Rollings and Adams On Game Design

Date posted: May 11, 2006
Updated: Oct 24, 2006

Reviewed by Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen

Author: Andrew Rollings & Ernest Adams
Title: On Game Design
New Riders Press, 2003
ISBN: 1-5927-3001-9
Price: $49.99
Pages: 621

There seems to have been a surge of books on game design these last couple of years, and it doesnít seem the trend is about to disappear. The publisher New Riders is making an ambitious attempt to become the place for publishing books on game-related issues, and they are taking this task seriously. In the last year they have published Chris Crawford on Game design, Richard Bartleís Designing Virtual Worlds, and the book Developing Online Games: An Insiders Guide by Jessica Mulligan and Bridget Petrovsky to name but a few. The common denominator for most of these books is a strong focus on practical issues with theory playing second fiddle. This book on game design is not different as it takes a very hands-on approach to designing games. The book doesnít seem to really know where it is going and lands somewhere between a text book on game design and musings on game design.

The first part of the book deals with more overall factors of game design, and the second part goes into the specific characteristics of different genres. The authors cover the genres action games, sports games, vehicle simulations, construction & management simulations, role-playing games, strategy games, adventure games, puzzle games, and artificial life.

It doesnít make much sense to go into detail but the first chapters in general cover the basics of game design very well. Especially the chapters on game concepts, gameplay and internal economics are relevant and continue Rollings earlier work. In chapter three the game setting and world is discussed and an interesting distinction is established between the physical, temporal, environmental, emotional, and the ethical dimension. These cover different overall structures that will influence your game design, and are great tools for getting a handle on the overall design considerations. Chapter 6 deals with the creation of the user experience but it ends focusing almost exclusively on the user interface. The discussion in chapter 6 on gameplay and challenges explores new land. This is especially in relation to dissecting the importance of different challenges in computer games. It might be objected that challenges take a too central places in their perception of gameplay. They have short sections on exploration and conflict but for them challenge is the overarching principle.

Scattered around the book is a lot of information on computer games in general, their historical development, and it is clear that the authors know the field very well. The book is eager to use games as examples of its thinking and this works quite well. After each genre chapter there is a worksheet that sums up the chapter in relation to considerations relevant for a specific genre, and this also works quite well.

The book has some problems, especially the structure puzzles me quite a bit. The genres chosen for organizing content are not very satisfactory in my opinion. There are more common grounds between two potential genres than between two games within a specific genre. At the same time the genres are identified on different levels for example sports games are identified by their theme whereas action games are categorized by their common structure. It also seems that a lot of the content covered in relation to one genre is just as relevant for other genres. Especially the genres strategy and construction & management simulation causes problems.

The two genres action games and vehicle simulations also overlap considerably, and although I can appreciate some of the differences it seems very confusing. The least interesting genre chapter is action games. A lot of the points in this chapter are not really very interesting in my opinion. Almost half of the design considerations in the action genre chapters deals with generalities like lives, energy, time limit, score, power ups, collectibles, smart bombs, waves, hyperspace, and end-of-level monsters. There is nothing new in this, and it becomes very descriptive and not really going anywhere. They do get extra points for mentioning Golden Axe that I spend most of a summer holiday playing in France as a child.

It also seems that game designers these days have a fear of forgetting something, and therefore have to include everything. In this book the authors are even constantly assuring us that they are only covering the missing areas and the interesting aspects. Although this may be partly true it doesnít really seem like they are very critical of what topics they take up.

The book is impressive in covering the main bases of game design although the points are not easily delivered in the genre mess. The first part of the book is most relevant but here it could also have done with a tighter focus on relevant and irrelevant content. I for one would really like to see some shorter game design books that focus on specific elements, and do not go around in the same circles. Even though the authors aspire to this and state it in the introduction they fail. Still, itís the right idea, and some of the chapters try to focus on new, interesting material. But it is far apart. A lot of the material is repetition of the earlier very good book by Andrew Rollings and Dave Morris.
The book is therefore especially recommended for readers that arenít already acquainted with Andrew Rollings first book on Game design. Others readers however will also find it useful.

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