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Chris Crawford on Game Design

Reviewing a book from my hero

Published on January 25, 2020

Chris Crawford is my game design hero. I deeply appreciate Chris’ principles and how much he adheres to them, I love the way he looks at things, the way he reasons, the way he argues. What he says resonates profoundly with me, and he has been a source of inspiration for more than 15 years. I've read pretty much everything he published, both in books an on his extensive web site, but curiously I had never read Chris Crawford on Game Design (New Riders, 2003) cover to cover. Now I did, and here are some thoughts about it.

Let me start by telling who Chris Crawford is, just in case you don't know (shame on you!). Chris is one of the pioneers of the gaming industry. He designed, programmed and published his first game in the 1970s, worked at Atari when Atari was synonymous with video and computer games, created some big hits in the 1980s, founded the Game Developer's Conference (the first GDC edition took place on his living room!), and helped to expand the frontiers of game design in a bunch of ways. In the 1990s he abandoned game development to pursuit what he believed to be next big step in computer-based entertainment: Interactive Storytelling.

So, Mr. Crawford is a brilliant, deep, idealistic, and kind of retired game designer. Would you expect from him a book full of practical tips for the daily work of a game designer working on the 21st century? Maybe specific suggestions on how to work on a contemporary game development team? What about the most up-to-day jargon used by the current generation of game designers? Would you expect discussions about how shiny, next-gen graphics are important for game design? Well, think twice then. 😉

Book 'Chris Crawford on Game Design', by (you guessed it!) Chris Crawford.

My not-so-beautiful hand and Chris Crawford On Game Design.

The first chapters of the book focus on core aspects of game design like play, challenge, conflict and interactivity. The author often treats these topics in a more abstract and fundamental way than others. When talking about challenge, Chris talks about how our brain works, about what kinds of reasoning we are able to perform, about how all of this has been traditionally used by game designers, and about how it could be used. When talking about conflict, Chris doesn't limit himself to violent physical conflict (which is by far the most common type of conflict we see in games, even to this day): he emphasizes that there are different dimensions of conflict, that people get interested in more subtle forms of conflict as they grow up, and that this can be explored in designs that may appeal to large audiences.

Another large set of chapters are devoted to the author's own designs: he describes 14 of his own games, using them as source of real problems game designers must face, how he dealt with them, how that approach worked, and why. These chapters are also filled with stories from the old days of game development.

Inside the book 'Chris Crawford on Game Design'.

Inside Chris Crawford on Game Design. It looks like a book. The left page shows a passage in which the author describes his thought process to overcome a real design challenge in one of his early works.

In addition to those, there are chapters about some miscellaneous topics, like The education of a game designer (summary: read, a lot, about everything), Games I'd like to build (more like a collection of unusual (not necessarily in a bad sense!) game design ideas), and more assorted stories from the past.

Do I recommend this book? Not for everyone. I suspect this is the kind of book that is more attractive to audiences with more experience in game design, in life, or both. This is more advanced reading than most of the other books on game design. Not because it is complicated (it is not!) or because it is full of math (it is not!), but because it focuses on the fundamentals, on the essence, on the reasons behind the things. Most other books are more “easily used”: they provide advice that you can just start to live by; they give rules that you can just follow. This book will help you understand why these rules exist. It will also help you to understand more about the history of game design, about which paths the industry took and which paths it didn't take (but could have taken). This is all good stuff, but requires more work and maturity from the reader. If this sounds good to you then, yes, I do recommend Chris Crawford on Game Design!


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