Designing Games – A well-written, comprehensive guide to video game engineering – #bookreview

Designing Games
A Guide to Engineering Experiences
Tynan Sylvester
(O’Reilly – paperback, Kindle)

If you design video games, if you hope to become a game creator, or if you work for a company whose lifeblood is creating and maintaining successful video games, you need to read this excellent book.

 Tynan Sylvester provides a comprehensive overview of the design processes that are the heart of successful games. And he describes the day-to-day actions necessary to keep game projects on track to completion.

“A game can’t just generate any old string of events, because most events aren’t worth caring about,” Sylvester contends. He is a veteran designer who has worked on everything from independently produced games to big-studio blockbuster games. “For a game to hold attention, those events must provoke blood-pumping human emotion. When the generated events provoke pride, hilarity, awe, or terror, the game works.”

Unlike screenwriters, novelists, or choreographers, game designers do not focus on creating events, Sylvester explains. “Instead of authoring events,  we design mechanics [the rules for how a game works]. Those mechanics then generate events during play.”

In his view, “The hard part of game design is not physically implementing the game. It is inventing and refining knowledge about the design.” And successful game creation involves “inventing mechanics, fiction, art, and technology that interconnect into a powerful engine of experience.”

His 405-page book also shows why you should not try to spell out everything up front before beginning work on a new game. It is too easy to overplan, he emphasizes. But it is also easy to underplan. So you should aim for a process in the middle: iteration, “the practice of making short-range plans, implementing them, testing them, and repeating.” And that loop-like process is applied not just to the overall game. “We can iterate on a level, a tool, or an interface. On larger teams, there should be many different iteration loops running at the same time.”

According to news accounts emerging from the recent Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, much of the video game creation business is now gravitating toward independent developers and game companies with 10 or fewer employees. And the main focus within that movement is on creating games for tablet computers and smartphones–platforms with lower barriers to entry. But powerful new video game consoles are expected to appear soon, and they likely will drive the creation of new games, as well as upgrades for some successful existing games.

Whether you work alone, in a small shop, or on intercontinental game-development teams within big companies, you can learn important insights, processes, and skills from Tynan Sylvester’s Designing Games.  And if you are now in the process of trying to find a design job somewhere in the video game industry, you definitely need to read it.

Si Dunn

Super Scratch Programming Adventure – Kids can learn programming without typing code – #bookreview

Super Scratch Programming Adventure
The LEAD Project
(No Starch Press, paperback)

Scratch is widely popular, free educational software for children ages 8 and up. And its simple, graphics-based programming language has a dual mission, says Professor Mitchel Resnick, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Scratch Team. The MIT group helped develop the software in partnership with The Learning through Engineering, Art, and Design (LEAD) Project based in Hong Kong.

“We designed Scratch to help young people prepare for life in today’s fast-changing society,” Prof. Resnick notes in this book’s foreword.

“As young people create Scratch projects, they are not just learning how to write computer programs. They are learning to think creatively, reason systematically, and work collaboratively—essential skills for success and happiness in today’s world.”

Super Scratch Programming Adventure deftly combines comics and programming tasks with the steps necessary to create “projects inspired by classic arcade games that can be programmed (and played!) in an afternoon.” The book covers version 1.4 of the software.

One thing you definitely don’t do in Scratch is go to a command line and key in some code. The book notes: “Scratch was designed to prevent common beginner pitfalls like misspellings and errors in consistency. Instead of typing commands, programming in Scratch is performed by dragging and joining programming blocks.”

And this isn’t just “Hello, world!” stuff. Soon after meeting the program’s graphic characters and seeing how to operate the program, kids start working at the x-y axis level to control movements by Scratchy the Cat. They also learn how to adjust the speed of Scratchy’s maneuvers and save their file.

From there, the book continues forward in 10 chapters that are organized as increasingly challenging stages. And most of the stages involve creating a new, simple game.

For example, in stage 2, the chapter focus is “Learn how to design new costumes and program a sprite’s movements, reactions, and sound effects.” By stage 7, the focus is: “Learn how to design an interactive maze with a guard, booby traps, and treasure!” By stage 10, children have learned how to upload their own Scratch projects to the Scratch website to share with others around the world (with their parents’ permission, of course).

Many kids may be able to pick up this book, open the program, and figure out everything on their own. But the laudable goals of Super Scratch Programming Adventure are best served when teachers and parents stay involved as mentors.

Besides, you might learn a few new things from Scratch programming, too.

Si Dunn

Getting Started with Dwarf Fortress – How to build and fight your way into this complex game – #bookreview

Getting Started with Dwarf Fortress
Peter Tyson
(O’Reilly, paperback, list price $19.99;
Kindle edition, list price $15.99)

Many gamers agree with this book’s tagline, that Dwarf Fortress is “…the most complex video game ever made.”

For that reason, they have avoided taking it up or have tried it, stumbled over its steep learning curve, and walked away.

Peter Tyson, however, has been writing Dwarf Fortress tutorials for gamers since 2009, and his new 230-page how-to-play it guide has been getting some good reviews from players and newcomers.

The game’s “baffling complexity and Dwarf Fortress’s infamous and seemingly impenetrable ASCII graphics can be extremely offputting to new players,” Tyson concedes. But his new book “aims to help you overcome these challenges and to guide, comfort, enlighten, and hopefully inspire the inner Dwarf Fortress player in us all.”

His approach is to focus on the game’s simulation mode and have you first  build an underground dwarf fortress. After you learn how to build and maintain the fortress, you can start tackling numerous other challenging assignments, such as gathering and managing dwarf resources, growing (and defending) crops above ground and below ground, maintaining a healthcare system and justice system (while dealing with a few rogue dwarves who turn out to be vampires!), and creating and training a militar with dwarves and war animals. 

You will also learn how to expand your fortress and protect it with a wild array of traps, machines, and powerful weapons. 

“If there’s one thing all Dwarf Fortress players should be prepared for, it is losing,” Tyson cautions. “You will lose your first few games, and probably quite quickly. But do not fear! There’s a good chance that your losses will be quite amusing.””

“Once you are familiar with Dwarf Fortress,  you may feel like creating a more challenging world,” Tyson says. “Adjusting the world creating settings to produce a world with higher savagery is the easiest way to increase the difficulty as more locations will have dangerous and aggressive animals and creatures to face. This will necessarily force a change to your embarkation strategy–and traveling equipped for battle is advisable when deploying to a particularly dangerous area.”

Sounds  like a viable strategy, too, for the real world outside Dwarf Fortress. 

Si Dunn