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Ranking Sources of Information and Discussion about Game Design (long)

(This is a transcribed and much modified version of a screen cast from my “Game Design” Channel on YouTube.)

The number one way to learn to design games is to do it, to make games that you've designed, and this is why it's much easier to start with tabletop games, because you don't need to learn computer programming. Programming is a whole discipline, a whole job in itself. If you have to learn that before you work with games you are putting the cart before the horse.

There are lots of ruts in the road for game design, and experienced people can steer you around those ruts. You don't, in other words, need to dive into the “school of hard knocks,” you can learn by reading, listening and watching. But in the end you have to do it.

I'm not going to talk much about face-to-face sources. Clearly the very best sources of information and discussion are in-person, whether it's a class with a good teacher or through a local Game Designers Guild, or just talking with game designers and players. If you're talking with the right people and with the right attitude these are the best ways to learn other than actually making games. Unfortunately (speaking as a retired college and grad school teacher who also taught some high schoolers in college courses), the US education system is a huge mess, many official teachers at every level are poor teachers, and self-appointed teachers are no better than the official system. Too many teachers at every level are trainers, trying to teach by rote, rather than educators, trying to help people understand how something works, because the latter takes a lot more effort. The goals of the current system - memorization and regurgitation - are guaranteed to stifle thinking and creativity.

On to the non-face-to-face stuff. Signal-to-noise ratio is what I'm going to use. We want high signal-to-noise ratios, in other words we want something that gives us a lot of information, compared to the waste of time as people blather often-half-baked (and unsupported) opinions along with ad hominem arguments, as happens so often these days (especially online). The Dunning-Kruger effect shows itself everywhere.

There are lots of different sources of information, some of them cost money, most are free. The free ones tend to be less worthwhile - surprise, surprise. But it certainly isn’t “you get what you pay for” (one of the most moronic phrases in the language). So a low signal-to-noise ratio means there's not much useful information compared to the useless stuff, a high signal-to-noise ratio means there's a lot of useful information.

Here is a list (in S:N order, best to worst):

• Books written by one or two authors

• Online courses

• Books written by many authors

• Articles (edited/curated)

• Blog posts and uncurated “articles”

• Videos

• Panels/speakers at game conventions (and videos thereof)

• Podcasts

• Non‑anonymous online forums (especially Facebook)

• Structured forums (reddit, Quora, etc.)

• Anonymous Online Forums/comments

• Twitter

The most bang for a buck, most useful way to spend your time, is with a book written by one or two authors. Most of the numerous books about games are solely about video games. Unfortunately, if in fact you're not interested in video games you have a problem. Furthermore, many of the books about video games talk more about game studies than about actual nuts and bolts of how to design games. My book is the one I recommend (of course), Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish published by McFarland, a large independent publisher, in 2012. It was reduced in price to $19.99 from $38 paperback, and $9.99 for Kindle, so it's the best bargain as well. This book is designed to help someone learn on his or her own, it's not a textbook. Insofar as you start learning game design with the tabletop, not video (so you don’t need to be a programmer) it serves as both a tabletop game design book and a video game design book.

(Yes, this is my own book: I wrote it to fill a gap that existed. I’m not going to ignore a resource just because it’s mine.)

Online courses: some of these are written, most are audiovisual, some are free, some cost money. You can think of online courses as something like an oral book in the case of audio-visuals, or like a written book in the case of the written courses. Courses about actual game design as opposed to game development are hard to find. Most of the courses online that are listed as “game design” teach you elementary programming. They don't teach you how to design a game except in passing. Game design has nothing to do with programming. Let me repeat that: game design has nothing to do with programming. Programming is a means to make software. Game design is to determine how a game is going to work, the rules of the game in effect.

I have a lot of courses on Udemy that are about game design. You can get discounts at pulsiphergames.com. The free courses are quite elementary, for people just starting out. If that's you, then you should try the free ones.

The next best source is books written by many authors. A book written by a single author (or two) tends to be focused on a topic and follow a logical structure, but that's rarely true when there are many authors, typically each writing one essay. Chapters can be very hit and miss. A free book of this type is Analog [Tabletop] Game Design published years ago. I wrote the lead chapter, “The Three Player Problem.” There’s also the (not free) Kobold Guides to Game Design (there's more than one). They tend to focus on RPGs because Kobold is a commercial RPG supplement publisher. There are many books related to videogame development that are written by many authors in this chapter form, so there are a fair number of choices.

When you consider books or courses, find out whether it's self-published. Most anyone can self-publish a book or course, there may be no editing other than self-editing. Some people can do this well, many cannot.

The next most useful source is articles that are edited or curated. I differentiate these from typical blog posts because a blog is usually self-edited. By curated I mean somebody is editing or at least looking at the content and possibly making suggestions for improvement, and so it ought to be higher-quality, but I've seen lots of fine blog posts and I've seen some weak curated articles. It's also true that curated game articles are rare. There are online and even printed game magazines, some of which cost money, many of which are free. Those are all curated articles. There are not many websites that are curated. Enworld.org (the major site for tabletop RPG fans) comes to mind because I’m writing a twice monthly column there about (mostly tabletop) RPGs and game design (“Worlds of Design”). I even get paid a small amount for it! That’s unusual these days.

Next we have blog posts. In general, blog posts are more cerebral, have more thought content, than videos do. It's the nature of the media, but more people nowadays want to watch or listen than want to read. My blog (http://pulsiphergamedesign.blogspot.com) has been running since 2003. Some of it is repeated on Boardgamegeek or Boardgame Designers Forum and sometimes on Gamasutra (gamasutra.com). Gamasutra is the number one site for video game developers, hosting many blogs by video game developers.

Videos are your next source. They are frequently hosted on YouTube, some are in channels such as Extra Credits and my own channel, Game Design. Some are more entertainment than teaching. Mine is a teaching channel. They are generally free, although there are sometimes advertisements involved. Many of them are supported through Patreon. I would have stopped adding a video or two a week long ago, without Patreon.

The next one as we go down from more useful to less useful ways of learning is panels or speakers at game conventions, and also videos or audios of the same, which are made more often than you might think. For example, I record the audio of many talks I give it game conventions. They’re available on my website.

Panels tend to be more diverse and less focused than individual speakers. The signal-to-noise ratio ought to be better for the individual speakers, but that depends on the people involved.

Next we have podcasts. Many podcasts are more or less spontaneous or involve a lot of chitchat between the two or more hosts, in contrast videos usually are carefully planned. So in a podcast there can be lots of wasted airspace. Unfortunately, I think many podcasters are more interested in hearing themselves than in helping their listeners, so it's haphazard. A virtue of this format, because they are purely audio, is you have the opportunity to listen to the podcast while you’re doing something else.

Then we go to non-anonymous specialized online forums. Facebook is a major player here. In recent years many game-related discussion groups have moved to Facebook because it avoids anonymity. For example, the late James Mathe ran three groups, each with over 5,000 members. There’s an equation “online plus anonymity plus audience equals” something we really don't want to deal with. The people on these forums are not only not anonymous, they have to behave or they may be banned by the moderators.

Of games only sites we have prominently Boardgamegeek that has forums for specific games. I confess I rarely go there for discussions. It suffers from some of the Internet mass nastiness, but the game design section specifically is an awful lot of “look what I did,” and over the years I look at it less and less. On the other hand Boardgame Designers Forum is less “me oriented” and offers a much higher level of useful information.

With structured general forums like Reddit and Quora the problem is so many of these places are all about the writer. Some even actively don't want to hear about solutions such as books or articles or blog posts or podcasts that answer the question very well. They want it answered right there. So it's all about the forum, and yet that's a recipe for duplication and wasted effort. But it’s the ME generation after all. Quora is closely watched by moderators and I sometimes contribute there. I don't mess with Reddit, which could be quite toxic back when I tried it out.

Then we have the purely anonymous online forums and comments and the traditional formula really applies here, online plus anonymity plus audience equals something very bad, that is, you're likely to run into a lot of nastiness posing as an expert even when the writer is clueless, and a lot of “look at me” behavior (amongst which is “I’m cool because I have an opinion”).

Some people recommend that you don't read the comments on any piece online because there are many weak minded people who feel such a need to validate their own opinions and preferences that they attack anyone who is different.

Tom Sorensen is a Charlotte Observer sports columnist, what he says about sports applies the same for games. “In sports, as in politics, there are people who think that if you dare disagree with them you are a moron, and not even a regular moron but a certified moron." Another Sorensen quote:

Message boards are where the perpetually put‑upon gather. I get it. When I was in college I worked to be cynical. Then I grew up. Message board writers are mad at referees, the media, the government, the school board, rival teams that get all the breaks and the world. If your job is at all public, you hear from them. In the old days I responded to their emails and Tweets. But I got nothing out of it. They were angry on rainy Mondays and on sunny Saturdays.

With games it is the same. He regards Twitter as one of these message boards. I use Twitter a fair bit, and occasionally I get something useful out of it. I haven't run into too much hostility although it's there, but anything where you were limited to 140 character entries is just not likely to provide high-quality information. The change to 280 characters helps discussions be more like discussions and less like people talking at one another without listening. The Jury is Out.

What do I use? While to me books are a treasure trove, online courses can be if you can find one that's appropriate. I rarely watch individual videos or listen to podcasts.

I like to attend talks at conventions by people I respect, but unlike many I don't go to conventions to play games, I go to conventions to talk with people or listen to people, so I have the time available. I like Boardgame Designers Forum for tabletop games. I pick and choose very carefully from Gamasutra blogs. I use Twitter but I'm not using it so much for discussion as dissemination of information, and occasionally running across an article recommended by somebody else.

The most fruitful discussions I have are with gamers face-to-face. There’s no way around that. But if I want to express an idea of some complexity I’ll write an article/blog post, with one eye on putting it in a book someday.

Try to spend your time wisely. Keep in mind that the most important thing is to make games.

Let me know if you have a favorite source I haven't listed.

Comments

Your Book

I must give a shout-out for your book, lewpuls. I spend time in the hobbies of both tabletop game design and video game design, and I found it a breath of fresh air and very nearly a how-to book, similar in goal to Keith Burgun's releases about his "Clockwork Game Design" philosophy. I appreciate your efforts. I just put it in my "to-read" pile once again, as I'm shaking off my "winter's rest" and hoping to give my efforts some serious energies and discipline.

I also second the recommendation of Gamasutra. There's a lot of intersection between game design whether it's analog or digital, and frequently there are useful snippets of insight to be found there.

I agree lewpuls' book is

I agree lewpuls' book is good. I probably should re-read it as well.

"Then we go to non-anonymous specialized online forums. Facebook is a major player here."

The problem with Facebook is that the groups UI is 100% rubbish. I see an interesting thread in some group quite often, but it is impossible to keep up with that thread over the (at best) few days it is active. There is no good way to navigate the different subthreads that form, and not even a way to find the thread again one or two days later if I want to go back to see if anything more of interest have been added. Every other online discussion forum I used in the last quarter of a century was MUCH better than Facebook. It is as if Facebook is making an effort to keep everything low on valuable content and that it should be impossible to find old content.

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