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Whether you want to create your own indie games or work in the gaming industry you’ll need to know about game design. This seems like a complex topic because it covers so many different ideas like storylines, characters, animation, gameplay, and VFX/graphics.
But you should get started somewhere and this list is the best place to start.
I’ve curated the 20 absolute best game design books ranging from graphics to story creation and user experience. This is similar to my top game artbooks post, but instead of concept art books I’ll be covering the technical mechanics of game design for people interested in the whole shebang.
Note: If you’re serious about video game design I highly recommend this game design video course on Pluralsight. It totals well over 20 hours of step-by-step video tutorials on every aspect of game design. And this comes with a free trial account so you can test if this might work better for you than a book.
Level Up! The Guide to Great Video Game Design
Building an indie game is tough work and there’s no shortcut. You need to put in the hours and craft ideas that resonate with players. But where do you even get started?
Level Up! The Guide to Great Video Game Design by Scott Rogers is the perfect guide for anyone interested in video game design. Scott opens the early chapters talking about idea generation and marketing. You’ll learn what makes a great video game idea so you can weed out your bad concepts quickly.
Later in the book you’ll learn about the technical processes of pre-production and post-production as they apply to professional game design. You’ll learn about mobile game design and console game design so there’s plenty of overlap regardless of whatever system you prefer.
In this newest edition you’ll get expanded chapters talking about game monetization and documentation for scaling a project from the ground up. This also includes tips for game designers who eventually want to break into AAA studios.
This is a great book for indies and professionals alike who just want to learn and master the craft of video game design.
The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses
Jesse Schell is the author of this incredible book featuring the best attitudes and questions to ask before building a video game. The Art of Game Design presents over 100 questions to help designers think about the psychology, gameplay, usability, storyline, and what makes a game fun.
You’ll learn how to plan out game ideas and how to consider which ideas work best together. There are no single correct answers because it’s hard to gauge which titles will become hits. Who would’ve guessed games like Katamari Damacy or Animal Crossing would become as popular as they are today?
I would not personally recommend this book for an absolute beginner because it does get challenging. You’ll have to think about the process of game design in great detail and it helps to have already created some games in your spare time.
However grabbing a copy and keeping it on your bookshelf for reference is not a bad idea.
The Ultimate Guide to Video Game Writing and Design
The challenge of creating a video game comes from wearing many hats. Most people excel in one area like graphics/art, programming, or writing gameplay mechanics.
But most indie game developers learn all these topics and that’s the goal with The Ultimate Guide to Video Game Writing and Design. In this book you’ll go far beyond the simple game mechanics to get to the emotion that drives players to pick up that controller time after time.
Major points throughout the book build upon how to write proper screenplays for video games. These are more than just dialogue and cutscenes. These scripts dictate why players are playing and while they’re much more important in RPGs, they’re still a huge part of all video game design.
You’ll also learn about creating a game bible which holds all the information about your game world.
In the last few chapters you’ll learn about the professional game industry with tips on breaking in and pitching your ideas. This is the ultimate guide to game creation and while it doesn’t touch on game mechanics it does cover fundamental topics that every aspiring game designer needs to know.
Fundamentals of Game Design
If you’re looking for a compendium of video game design then this is the book you need.
You’ll learn about idea generation and initial development along with interface design, storytelling, usability, and the technical aspects of games for different devices.
Inside you’ll get lots of tips from industry experts but you’ll also get free worksheets and exercises to help you develop your own ideas. This is perfect for indie game designers who have no idea where to start and need a huge reference guide.
But this can also be helpful for concept artists and programmers to understand what makes a great video game. If you work on any part of the video game pipeline then you really should consider grabbing a copy of this book.
How Games Move Us: Emotion by Design
Here’s one of the more recent publications written by games designer & researcher Katherine Isbister. This book helps readers understand the emotional side of game design with information about the most popular games and how they evoke empathy from the players.
How Games Move Us: Emotion by Design is really a primer on great storytelling within games. This is much more of a cultural book than a design book, looking more into the culture of gaming and who it targets.
But through Katherine’s studies and insights you can learn what makes the world’s most popular video games so great.
There is rarely a single answer to this debate just like there’s no single best way to create a movie. But Katherine’s book is valuable to anyone who wants to create games that fully immerse the player with real emotion rather than building simple shoot-em-up games for thrill and excitement.
Characteristics of Games
I’m surprised how many MIT Press books cover the art of game design. Most actually aren’t too impressive but Characteristics of Games is one of the best you can get.
This book covers the entire history of gaming which goes far beyond simple video games. Topics include sports, tabletop games, and recreational activities like billiards and darts. The goal is to connect ideas and draw conclusions based on similarities between the world’s most popular games.
Understanding true game design is more about human psychology. What do people want out of video games? How do they want to feel and what gets them coming back for more?
If you want to be a successful game designer you’ll need to answer these questions and find ways to replicate those answers in your work. And frankly this is one of the best books to get introspective about game design.
The three authors all work in the professional games industry so you get real commentary & insight from highly respected pundits in their fields.
Drawing Basics and Video Game Art
I wasn’t going to include this book in the list until I recognized that it goes far beyond simple artistic techniques. This book is obviously targeted at game artists who want to improve at concept art or 3D modeling.
But Drawing Basics and Video Game Art covers more than just art techniques. This book looks into the future of gaming and draws connections between the world’s most popular series.
You’ll read insights and anecdotes from the gaming industry that look into the quality of art as it relates to a game’s production. This also includes galleries of fine art compared to the concept art & graphics of AAA titles.
This book really is meant for artists first. You learn all about character art, environment art, anatomy, and how to design realistic concepts for games.
But you also learn about game design trends over the past ~30 years and how much the graphics have evolved. This provides insight into the future of gaming which can be incredibly valuable to aspiring game designers.
Slay the Dragon: Writing Great Video Games
A huge part of game design is the actual writing and character development. If you’ve never written fiction stories before then you may struggle with this task.
Thankfully Slay the Dragon: Writing Great Video Games can guide you from a complete novice to a competent story writer in just 230 pages. The authors both have experience writing for games and movies so they know how to tell stories that capture attention.
But the difference in gaming is interactivity. Sometimes cutscenes will be different based on the player’s actions. This type of nonlinear screenwriting can be tricky and was actually covered in Lane Raichert’s interview.
The difficulty of game writing is also what makes it so fun. If anything the most frustrating part is not know how to approach it!
This book teaches everything you need to know from the basics of genre selection to character development and leaking information to the players slowly to keep them interested. If you want to be a game writer or if you want to build your own games from scratch then this book is a must have item before developing your plotline.
An Introduction to Game Studies
Many designers learn by studying the past and emulating the greatest successes. This seems to be the goal with Frans Mayra’s book An Introduction to Game Studies.
It’s fairly brief with only 208 pages but it covers a lot of ground. You learn the history of gaming from the 70s through each decade into modern times. You’ll also learn the fundamentals that make gameplay so fun and what makes certain games so memorable to the culture.
You’ll get into a lot of theory and creative writing which can be huge during initial development. Frans teaches you how to think about gaming from a larger perspective on how it can impact groups of people and the culture at large.
Most of this book is a theoretical analysis using real-world examples and case studies to lay out foundational knowledge of game design. It does not offer a step by step approach to creating video games, however it can help you think outside the box when building your own ideas.
Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish
I don’t always look into tabletop games for inspiration but they are a great place to start. Video games follow many of the same rules as traditional games and the objectives are often similar(multiple players, competition, score keeping and rules for who wins).
The author Lewis Pulsipher has been teaching game design in America since the early 2000s and he has his finger on the pulse of modern gaming. He’s still very active in the community contributing articles and speaking at conferences every year.
His writing style in this book is very cordial yet relaxed. It’s a fun read and it’ll teach you a lot of common mistakes to avoid during the game design process.
However it’s not a full solution to creating a game from scratch so I’d recommend pairing this with another game design book like Fundamentals of Game Design.
Theory of Fun for Game Design
If you want to create a memorable game you’ll want to make something that can stand the test of time. People can still play the original Super Mario Brothers to this day and enjoy themselves. That’s a feat very few game designers can achieve, but there may be a method to this madness.
Theory of Fun for Game Design was recently updated in full color with tips and advice for aspiring game designers who want to create memorable games. This update includes screenshots and illustrations demonstrating popular games and features that encourage user to keep coming back for more.
In the early chapters you’ll learn about how game design works and what makes gaming fun. Most of this comes from the author’s personal experience as a game designer in the industry.
In later chapters you’ll learn about historic video games and what makes them stand out amongst a sea of games long forgotten. This book will only be interesting to people who want a bigger picture on game design, whether it’s creating games in a studio or just studying the history of gaming.
Games, Design and Play: A detailed approach to iterative game design
If you’re looking for a pragmatic step-by-step approach to game design look no further than Games, Design and Play. It’s one of the newest and hottest books covering game design in the modern era.
It covers 288 pages focusing on the details of game design looking at the tiny microinteractions and graphics that sell the world’s biggest titles. This is also a guided book that holds your hand along the way helping you create a new video game idea from scratch.
The authors look at game design as an art form with many correct answers. This book teaches you a common workflow to follow starting from initial idea to creating the game world, player objectives, ultimate goals, and mechanics for gameplay.
You’ll also be given spreadsheets and document templates to help you outline new ideas. With each idea you’ll find yourself questioning the fundamental aspects that make a game playable. What keeps people coming back? What sells this world and the gameplay? What needs improvement or what feels out of place?
This is, in my opinion, one of the most pragmatic books on game design.
If you pick this up with no prior knowledge you’ll learn a hell of a lot about game design. And best of all you’ll learn it the right way.
The Gamification of Learning and Instruction Fieldbook: Ideas into Practice
At 480 pages long this is one of the most detailed game design books on the market. But this goes far beyond regular game design into the concept of gamification for modern interfaces.
This book covers topics like detailed game mechanics and the moral background of game design. You can pick up this book if you want to apply gamification to an existing UI. But it’s best used with a brand new idea that you want to build from scratch.
It doesn’t pander specifically to designers, developers, writers, or any single aspect of the game design process. Rather it hooks into the fundamentals of gaming that makes playing a video game fun and exciting.
This is perfect for mobile or console game designers who want to build addictive yet valuable gaming experiences.
Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games
The author of this book Tracy Fullerton is a game designer with years of experience teaching at USC. Her specialties are in game direction and digital media so she has a lot to say on the entire process of game design.
You’ll study existing games and break down the primary components that make popular titles so engrossing. You’ll learn about foundational skills and practice exercises to help you come up with great ideas from scratch. And best of all this book doesn’t require a technical background so it’s perfect for artists who want to get more into game design.
Tracy’s writing style is super easy to follow. She has a natural knack for teaching and this shines in her writing work.
In this 535 page book you’ll learn everything from idea generation, prototyping, writing, testing, and revising new ideas into the game design process. It’s the perfect book for professional game designers and indie creators alike.
Video Game Storytelling: What Every Developer Needs to Know about Narrative Techniques
Writing a video game storyline is much more in-depth than crafting a small fanfic novel. You need to develop realistic characters from scratch and consider how they might interact with each other. This also includes plotlines and twists that keep players interested in the game.
Video Game Storytelling is one of the best writing books for video game designers. The author Evan Skolnick has written for magazines and comic books so he’s a well-versed writer in all fields. But his advice for video game writing comes from practical experience on various Activision games.
This book takes you through a step-by-step process for analyzing your writing and how it applies at all stages of game design. You’ll start with initial ideas and learn how to build them into more realistic worlds with believable characters and plot points.
You’ll get plenty of real examples that help you see the turning points in major video game storylines. Plus you’ll learn handy tips to help you break down the game design process into actionable steps to keep the narrative on track.
I would highly recommend this book for anyone interested in writing their own game. It’s practical, affordable, and it covers insider tips that you can’t find anywhere else.
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
User psychology is a huge facet of great game design. If you don’t understand what the user wants to do then you’ll never be able to deliver a great experience.
And when it comes to psychology books for user experience I can’t think of anything better than Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. The author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a professional psychologist who shares his knowledge on what makes a user flow naturally through a typical experience.
These ideas can be applied to anything from mobile games to checkout lines in the grocery store.
But this book looks into the principles of getting people into a natural state of flow and self-awareness where activities just seem to happen one after another.
Keep in mind this is a psychology book so it does not pander specifically to game design. But if you want a better look into the psyche of people and the activities that drive up happiness then you’ll want to read this book.
Game Design: Principles, Practice, and Techniques
While it’s somewhat of a misnomer to call this the “ultimate” guide to game design, it’s still a fantastic book on the foundations of what makes great games.
If you want to learn game design and apply it to your work without jumping into programming then this book is for you. It’s just under 200 pages but it gets into lots of design theory like 2D vs 3D games, multiplayer games, storytelling, difficulty curves, and how to handle goals in gameplay.
The authors often refer back to professional games from the past few decades using their successful features as prime examples for modern game design.
In the final few chapters you’ll learn about professional game production from brainstorming ideas to pitching your concepts and everything you need to develop a potential blockbuster. The writing style is fun to read and this book works great for both beginners and experts.
Creating the Art of the Game
I can only recommend this book to game designers who want to be involved in the art side of production. Creating the Art of the Game looks into 2D and 3D production pipelines to help you understand how ideas come to life through graphics and rendering.
The author Matthew Omernick is a professional 3D game artist but he also has years of experience as a game designer.
Each chapter discusses the pros and cons of individual workflows and stylized methods for rendering graphics. The author does not state that one specific method is better than another. However he does share thoughts on his favorites and what he notices performing well in the real world.
Again this is mostly an art book so it may not interest all game designers/developers. But if you want to be involved in the artistic creative process then I would definitely recommend adding this book to your reading list.
Game Feel: A Game Designer’s Guide to Virtual Sensation
The entire gaming experience encapsulates more than just gameplay. It involves graphics, music, sound effects, and how the game makes the player feel in the moment.
The book totals 376 pages and it can be a tad verbose in some instances. But the content is genuinely well-written and it’ll help you adapt to the modern world of game design. You’ll learn about how players relate to their avatars and what gets them delving deeper into an imaginary game world.
I would mostly recommend this to serious game designers or anyone with more experience in gaming. A beginner may struggle with this text because it assumes some knowledge of game mechanics and how they work on a fundamental level.
But if you’re interested in the addictive & emotional aspect of video gaming you’ll enjoy reading through Game Feel cover to cover.
Making Games Better: The Art and Process of Game Design and Development
This is certainly the newest book in the entire list and it’s also one of the most affordable titles. Making Games Better teaches designers and developers how to create beautiful games that work well for the players and help studios/indie devs earn money.
You’ll look at both sides to see which workflows fit best in a studio environment and which concepts often lead to the best final outcomes for players. This book also gets into great detail with documentation for managing a game with a team of people. Even documenting a game you run by yourself is crucial to stay on top of all the features and changes.
Both authors have years of experience building professional games for clients like Sony and Bioware. Their tips are sure to prove useful to anyone looking into professional or indie game development.
All the books in this post are incredible and offer a detailed look into the professional task of game design. More gamers are turning to indie development and with a decentralized release process it’s easier now more than ever to push out a high-quality video game from scratch.
If you’re not sure where to start I’d recommend an all-encompassing book like Games, Design and Play. But you can find plenty of more specific resources in this list catering to storytelling, animation, and custom interactions for modern gaming.
No matter where you are in the learning process you’re bound to find something in this post to help you improve. If you’re willing to try anything and fail along the way then you’ll pick up the art of video game design with relative ease.