Arguably, one of the most common questions all gamers ask themselves at some point (usually in the middle of a space battle or while solving the most intricate of mysteries) is, how do people make games? Fortunately, several of the most fabulous game designers of the past 50 years have written books to enlighten us not only about the algorithms but also the storytelling, the team dynamics, and the economics required to build a ground-breaking game.
According to Mark Wolf and Bernard Perron in their 2003 guide “The Video Game Theory Reader,” the first author ever to publish a book about game design was Chris Crawford. His 1984 book, “The Art of Computer Game Design,” is an expanded compilation of articles written for Byte Magazine in the early eighties; one of those is “Design Techniques and Ideals for Computer Games,” published on page 96 of the December 1982 issue of Byte and freely available online.
As an anecdote, it is worth mentioning that Crawford was also a regular contributor to “De Re Atari,” a book about 8-bit development on the Atari, whose title is one of the inspirations for the name of the magazine you are reading right now.
Crawford, prolific creator of early games such as Tanktics (1976,) Easter Front (1981,) and Excalibur (1983,) provides a definition, a motivation, and a classification of computer games–at least for those existing in 1984, that is. His book starts with a vital objective:
The central premise of this book is that computer games constitute a new and poorly developed art form that holds great promise for both designers and players.
This is not a book about algorithms, techniques, or programming hacks to make games faster; it is about designing engaging, exciting games that will hook players until the end. The principles described here are timeless and relate to storytelling, sequencing of events, testing, pace, and structure. In conclusion, chapter 6 describes in detail the development of Excalibur, arguably one of the most popular games of that era, and referred to by Crawford himself as his “magnum opus.”
Crawford published a second book about game design in 2003, providing opinions and advice about new categories of games that emerged during the nineties.
Jordan Mechner is the designer and programmer of one of the most successful game franchises of all time: Prince of Persia, initially released for the Apple ][ computer. But a quick glance to his personal website reveals that his programming skills (no matter how impressive) are second to his drawing and writing abilities.
Mechner writes and draws a lot and has kept reams of paper and dozens of notebooks. He compiled this information in an outstanding volume published in 2020, “The Making of Prince of Persia”, telling a story that led to an eponymous 2010 motion picture and an entire game franchise. Profusely and gorgeously illustrated by the author, it perfectly complements the original source code (in Apple ][ 6502 assembly) available on GitHub, and his timeless 20 tips on making games.
Doom is another one of the greatest games ever made. It was a genre-defining title that fundamentally disrupted the gaming industry (I hate to use the word “disruption,” but I have to admit that, in this case, that is what happened precisely.) The 2003 book “Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture” by writer and journalist David Kushner focuses on the human story behind Doom: the tension, drama, and conflict.
The result is a mesmerizing novel, an excellent read for those amateurs passionate about software history, like the author of these lines. As explained by the title, the focus is on the “two Johns” of id Software: John Romero and John Carmack.
In the Vidéothèque article of this month we showcase John Romero precisely, in a conference talk that conspicuously leaves aside the tension, drama, and conflict felt during the development of Doom.
Michael Abrash was the undisputed assembly and performance optimization king from the late 80s to the early 2000s. His books “Graphics for the IBM PC” (1984) and “Zen of Assembly Language” (1990) and his articles in Programmer’s Journal or Dr. Dobb’s Journal showed a whole generation how to extract every inch of power from PCs running the 80386 or 80486 CPUs.
His 1997 opus “Graphics Programming Black Book,” available online at the Internet Archive, focuses on the developer mindset and their tooling. It is a treasure trove of wild optimization techniques that made games outstandingly fast before GPUs existed and before the free lunch was over.
Abrash’s experience in performance tuning and game development naturally opened the door to working with John Carmack at id Software, then Valve, and finally Oculus VR.
Speaking about “black books” and game engines, we cannot forget about Fabien Sanglard. A French-Canadian software engineer in San Francisco, he published two books in 2018 describing the inner structure and algorithms of two iconic game engines: Wolfenstein 3D and Doom. They are available as free downloads (“gift what you want”) and also in printed form.
These books have an outstanding level of technical detail, diving into the internals of the 486 chip, the NeXT computer, the architecture of the code, the algorithms, and the various optimizations used when porting the game to other platforms.
Bonus: The Video Game Library
One last thing before ending this month’s Library article: if you are into retro gaming, check out The Video Game Library and its catalog of early game programming books.
Cover photo by the author.