This started life as a response to a query about whether or not I knew of any books for learning games design for someone just starting out, but it is a common enough question I thought I’d promote it into a blog post (especially since I’ve been too busy to post recently).
There are certainly good books on games design, GameCareerGuide.com I think has a few articles listing good titles. I couldn’t judge their quality as I’m primarily a programmer rather than a designer. However I’ve always thought that trying to learn games design by reading books (or even going to lectures in a design course) is a flawed way of doing it. You wouldn’t try to learn to play chess by watching videos of someone else playing; maybe once you’ve already got a good grounding in the subject and you know enough to realise how much more there is to learn. But until you’ve got a good handle on the fundamentals, it would just be a deluge of information, with very little context.
My take on it is that, rather than spend a lot of money on books on the subject, that one of the best ways to learn about game design is by evaluating games. That is, playing a wide variety of games, and taking the effort to critically evaluate and compare titles. There are titles held up as great examples in their genres, like Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Halo, Command and Conquer, Call of Duty, Fallout 3, etc. There are also games which try hard but just aren’t as good. As a designer, you’re expected to know why some games are good, and why some are bad.
If you can take a pad and pencil and write down what are the good and bad points of these games, and compare them against other games, then you’re learning the fundamentals of game design. Does the user interface feel good, or is it confusing? Look at the challenges in the game and evaluate them – are they fun? Do they allow players to learn skills, and feel like they are progressing? Is the difficulty curve sensible? Is there sufficient challenge and variety in that challenge?
You can play a game and look beyond the immediate experience, to see the mechanics behind the game, and judge whether they work or don’t. You can look at several different games in the same genre and pick out what they have in common, and where they are unique. You can spot bad design just by playing a game, and then think of ways that you might avoid those flaws. Anyone can do those things, but a good designer is great at doing them. A good designer does that without even thinking, they celebrate the good in games they’ve played, and vilify the bad. And no-one can be a good designer without experience of games, lots of games, all different sorts of games. If you want to be a games designer, you should be playing as many games as possible.
The only other thing I would say, and it may sound harsh to those who come here hoping for insight because they want to jump straight in as a designer, but it’s better to clear up any misconceptions now. Practically no-one becomes a games designer as their first job in the industry. Really. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who was a designer as their first job in the industry, and I know a fair few designers.
The competition to become a designer is fierce, and it is very hard to prove your worth in an interview. Most often, designers start in another facet of the industry – most commonly in the art or programming side, but also sometimes from QA / testing – and while they’re at a studio in that role they can demonstrate their ability as a designer and persuade the management that they would be useful in a design role. And even then there are dozens of people at a studio, all of whom have varying amounts of talent in design, and only room for a few people in actual design roles.
So if you really, really want to get into games, then don’t focus solely on design, you need another role. At most studios, in most roles you will have some design input into the game you’re making, especially if you are keen and get involved in design discussions, even more so if your ideas are good. But if you’re expecting that you’ll do a Computer Games Design course at University X and then swan straight into a straight design role (even a junior one), then you are going to be sorely disappointed.