Theory of Fun for Game Design Paperback – 17 Dec 2013
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About the Author
Raph Koster is a veteran game designer who has been professionally credited in almost every area of the game industry. He's been the lead designer and director of massive titles such as Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies; and he's contributed writing, art, soundtrack music, and programming to many more titles ranging from Facebook games to single-player titles for handheld consoles. He has worked as a creative executive at Sony Online and Disney Playdom, and in 2012 was honored as an Online Game Legend at the Game Developers Conference Online.
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The first thing you notice when you pick up A Theory of Fun is that there is a sharp division to it: the left-hand pages are text and the right-hand pages are pictures, with very little overlap. You are going to prefer one of these to the other - I guarantee it. What's more, in reading the book you'll get an inkling of why; it operates at many more levels than its cheerful veneer would suggest.
The basic premise is that games are important. They're important because the brain is a highly efficient machine for recognising patterns, delivering pleasure when you learn new patterns. Games provide a context for recognising patterns where there is no external pressure to do so; this is what people call "fun".
The argument develops that games are also an art form. If people are learning things from playing them, then those who create games in some way determine what is learned. However, although many game designers do have an implicit understanding of what they're designing, few (if any) have an explicit enough understanding to reason about the design process itself. To be able to discuss what is in effect an internalised process, they need a theory of game design; that is what this book aims to deliver.
It actually does reasonably well in this regard. The test of a theory is its ability to be used predictively, and although A Theory of Fun doesn't come up with a bounded set of rules that can be applied to determine whether any given game will be fun, it does have a non-exhaustive set that can be applied to determine if a game isn't fun. Fail even one of these rules, and your game is looking bad.
The scholarship behind the formulation of these rules, by the way, is considerable; it's one of the glories of A Theory of Fun that its results seem to effortlessly derived. I put this down to its being a book by a game-designer; the crafting of its structure is just so elegant. All is there that is needed to be there, yet with imaginative doors that open wider when you push them with thought. Whatever your game design experience, it will appear just right for you; that's the skill of a first class game-designer at work. Knowing this, at times it's breath-taking.
This is a fun book, with a fun message.
Play games: go grok yourself.
If you are looking for ideas about why games look and behave the way they do now, why many are repetitive, derivative and fairly stagnant at this point in time, and want an opinion about they could evolve in the future then this book will be of interest to you. If you're interested in games design and why people want to play games, then you will probably find this interesting and easier to read than a formal book on game design theory. If you want a book that will give you ideas for the an entirely revolutionary game, it might give you that so long as you can read between the lines and make the leap on your own.
The book was apparently written based on slides from a games conference presentation, and that is the feel that comes across in the book. It is divided loosely into chapters, but it doesn't feel like it coherently brings everything together. The many `factual' statements are referenced throughout each chapter, although very little of the referenced literature is discussed in any detail, and many of the implications of the statements are left undiscussed and rather interpreted from the author's world view. Rather ironic given that some of it is about the theory of `chunking' and how our previous knowledge affects the way we interact with the world! Also, I don't whether this is a problem in the e-edition only, but the references are all asterisks, so it isn't easy to look up what was mentioned in the text, although the final section does contain the references with a short description of each.
What I did like about the book was the little cartoons, without which the book would have been very dry. What I didn't like was the 42 quotes about `how great this book is' and the `this author is really talented and famous' sections at the beginning of the book. I get suspicious when I need that much reassurance that the book I'm about to believe is brilliant and going to change my life. It isn't, it didn't. Sorry.
I don't agree with everything in the book, but it's beautifully presented and argued.
I'd recommend this book to anyone who wants to gain a deeper understanding of what actually goes on when people play games.
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