Gamasutra: The Art & Business of Making Gamesspacer
View All     RSS
November 1, 2014
arrowPress Releases
November 1, 2014
PR Newswire
View All
View All     Submit Event

If you enjoy reading this site, you might also want to check out these UBM Tech sites:

Six Sources of Design
by Jamie Smith on 03/05/14 08:26:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


There are many ways to get in the games industry and there is always more to learn on the job, even for the most seasoned professionals. This post aims to highlight six sources of design that provide timeless knowledge for little to no cost, complementing an industry where quality is key and time is of the essence.

Do note: there may be some glaringly obvious omissions from this list. However, it is compiled from my personal experience and doesn't reflect the quality, or lack of, missing suggestions.

1. The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses, Jesse Schell

If you were to only own one book on the topic of game design then look no further than this. Each chapter is well written, digestible and provides knowledge for all levels of competency. Additionally, there are a series of lenses which propose a wealth of questions for designers to answer during the development process.

2. A Theory of Fun, Raph Koster

A Theory of Fun is the go to book for a better understanding of what fun is, how it can be leveraged and why we should leverage it. It provides more food for thought than answers whilst being a lighter read than my previous suggestion due to numerous hand drawn images, often provoking a sense of nostalgia.

3. Method, Mark Cerny

Back in 2002, Mark Cerny presented "Method" at the DICE summit. Method was created to change the philosophy of how big budget games were made with an emphasis on iteration, quality and innovation. It led developers to focus on the 3C's, core mechanics and a few polished levels before deciding to continue with the rest of the game. When first introduced, these radical insights were way ahead of their time and still remain industry standard practise today.

4. One-Page Designs, Stone Librande

Stone Librande's 2010 GDC talk blew my mind. In an industry where information not documentation takes precedence, this presentation discusses how ideas can be presented in a consistent and engaging manner whilst clearly outlining the scope. Inspired by Lego instruction manuals and architectural blueprints, it provides an insight into improving the flow of information across teams of all sizes.

5. Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Shigeru Miyamoto

It's no surprise that the first game that appears on this list comes from Nintendo but whilst Mario may have been the choice for many, Ocarina of Time is still my all time favourite. The pacing, scope, variety of abilities, well designed challenges and memorable characters set the template for the rest of the games industry to follow. It's a masterpiece that has stood the test of time.

6. Magic The Gathering, Richard Garfield

Magic The Gathering is last but no means least. It's a tactile trading card game with an abundance of strategies which have been honed and expanded upon since it's inception in 1993. The frame work from which it has been created allows designers and players to propose crazy ideas for new additions, so long as they adhere to the mana costs imposed on each card. Dominant tactics are often nullified by the power of other cards rather than being handicapped but they also rely on a solid balance of skill versus luck.


There is no fast track to becoming a game design expert but analysing and implementing the knowledge taken from the above sources will set you well on your way or may even throw up a few curveballs. Whether it be printing off your own paper game, applying a series of lenses to a core feature or analysing how often a new ability should be introduced, there are gems to discover for all manner of scenarios.

Related Jobs

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute — Troy, New York, United States

Assistant Professor in Music and Media
The College of New Jersey
The College of New Jersey — Ewing, New Jersey, United States

Assistant Professor - Interactive Multi Media - Tenure Track
Next Games
Next Games — Helsinki, Finland

Senior Level Designer
Magic Leap, Inc.
Magic Leap, Inc. — Wellington, New Zealand

Level Designer


ganesh kotian
profile image
"The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses, Jesse Schell" is an amazing book.... will try the others . Thank you

Tanya X Short
profile image
I'd also recommend the Universal Principles of Design. It's written for industrial or graphic designers, but 90% of it has excellent perspectives from which to view any given game design as well:

(The last two feel a bit more... arbitrary... than the first two. But eh, personal inspiration is what it is. :))

Lihim Sidhe
profile image
"The last two feel a bit more... arbitrary... than the first two. But eh, personal inspiration is what it is."

Stealth Mechanic

Enemies have a randomly generated Perception attribute ranging from 1-100.

Whenever the player comes into view of a given enemy or makes a disturbance those events are given an alert rating.

If the alert rating is greater than or equal to an enemies Perception, the enemy is not aware of the player.

If the alert rating is lesser than or equal to an enemies Perception rating, the enemy becomes aware of the player.

I say that to say this: I am not a math person at all. I passed Math 101 with a B that had me really trying my hardest. Everywhere I read about getting into the games industry math always pops up. I get the impression if Calculus, Trig, and Discrete Mathematics aren't within my skill set then I might as well give up hope.

The thing is I can and do think in terms of game mechanics and If/Then statements. And I got that from being a neurotic gamer who enjoys games like Magic: The Gathering, Mage: The Ascension, and observing great and poor game design on basic levels.

I couldn't even tell you what a Quadratic Equation is but I could lay out in tabletop rpg terms how AI should behave down to the tiniest detail.

Is that enough for a designer to successfully communicate his or her ideas to a 'close to the medal', hardcore, programmer?

Tanya X Short
profile image
Thanks for the reply. :) Obviously playing games (and analysing them and their systems) is integral to being a good designer. I'm not saying the sources are bad. He could have listed a ton of games as design resources and I wouldn't say they were bad sources.

Just arbitrary, without sufficient explanation for why they stand out among their peers, as particular fonts of design wisdom. There are many games with any given design-adjective you could think of: classic, influential, complex/rules-heavy, elegant, evolving, etc.

On the other hand, usually the idea of textbooks is that each one would serve a very specific educational need -- examining a topic from an angle no other textbook does (or does as well)... picking a handful of those feels less arbitrary and more purposeful. You're not really supposed to be picking a 'favorite', you're picking a matched set to provide a holistic view of a topic.

tl;dr: design is games, so whatever works for you! I think I just wanted more explanation of why *those particular* games were picked.

Craig Stevenson
profile image
I would add Game Design Workshop by Tracy Fullerton. It's amazingly useful and brings a practical approach to developing design skills. The exercises are great.

Bart Stewart
profile image
The best practical guide to good design I've ever read remains John Gall's _Systemantics_.

It's a somewhat lighthearted overview of the many ways in which designs fail, from which the author generates practical suggestions for how to design systems that *don't* fail. While it's not specifically about building computer games, the advice is highly relevant. For example (quoting from memory): "Big systems built from scratch rarely work correctly. Big systems that work are usually found to have been adapted from small systems that work."

Systemantics shouldn't be the only book on practical principles of good design that you own. But it's one worth owning.

John Keyser
profile image
I'm a Game Design student in my second year. The things that I've found indispensable:

1. The Design of Everyday Things
2. The lens deck for The Art of Game Design
3. A Theory of Fun for Game Design
4. Into the Silence (about Mt. Everest, a great book about systems)
5. The Tomb Raider reboot (regardless of your opinion about the game itself, it's a master class in design)

I've found that many things can influence good design. Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and "Mad Max" have had profound effects on my first project.