book review

21st Century Game Design, a review

Chris Bateman & Richard Boon (2006) 21st Century Game Design. Hingham, Charles River Media.

by Joris Dormans (2005)(*)

Games are not forms of art, but forms of entertainment aimed at a large audience. From this point Chris Bateman and Richard Boon start their discussion of contemporary game design. This point of view might be reduced to a difference of words: as entertainment games can be and are compared to cinema by the authors, a cultural form that many would approach as a form of (popular) art. But the pragmatic and businesslike approach of Bateman and Boon is quite refreshing in an academic field that is dominated by technological and artistic perspectives.

21st Century Game Design is divided in two parts and thirteen chapters. The first part covers a demographic survey of the gaming audience, and tries to break away from some of the intuitive assumptions about gamers that usually inform game design. The second part focuses on design, but might be better to have further divided these chapters in two or even three independent parts.

Bateman and Boon's demographic survey draws for a large part on the Myers-Briggs typology of human psychology. At the core of this typology are sixteen personality types, each with its own preferences and attitudes. The authors have gathered statistical data of about four-hundred players to correlate these personality profiles to different skill sets and tastes in games. The result is a model that is divided in four basic player types (the Conqueror, the Manager, the Wanderer and the Participant) which are all subdivided into a game-literate hardcore and a causal gamer segment. Bateman and Boon use this data and the estimated market sizes of each segment to discuss market vectors and strategies for market penetration. Most publishers, they argue, work with primitive audience models, and as a result make games mostly for the first two types of players. These games can be commercially successful but ignore a market that is potentially much bigger, but which may also be a little more difficult to reach.

The audience model that Bateman and Boon built was long overdue, but as I am not a psychologist nor a market researcher I find it difficult to assess the quality of their model. In my untrained eye their audience model appears to be little more than pop-psychology and the volume of their data (four hundred interviews) is not very large. One of the effects is that they have to acknowledge that they have gathered little information on the fourth player type (the Participant). However, the advantage of the broadened scope of player-types becomes clear in their discussion of game design.

In the first five chapters of the second part (chapters six to ten) discuss design issues. The subjects range from design practices and interface design to abstraction and game structure. Of these I liked the two chapters on abstraction the best. Bateman and Boon argue that all games are abstracted in some sense. We have seen similar views expressed by others: Chris Crawford talks about stylised simulation, for example, and Steven Poole discussed the unrealism of games. These positions are well known. Bateman and Boon add a detailed discussion of how what is abstracted and how these abstraction work. Here they draw on instances of abstraction previously encountered in games and relate these to the particular tastes of the different player types. Especially the well-catered Conquerer type and the largely ignored Wanderer type are polarised and much attention is paid how to reach an audience that justifies the development budget. As a player with strong Wanderer tendencies I can only applaud the effort of Bateman and Boon to put back on the map a larger diversity of player tastes.

The business-like approach to many game design generally works well. At least it caused Bateman and Boon to relate game design issues with a fairly detailed audience model and development costs. On the other hand, it also causes the book to focus mostly on the big budget and commercial games. There is no denying that a lot of those games are developed, and that the age of the bedroom programmers is long past, it does ignore a few developments at the lower end of the gaming market. Most importantly recent development in (small) internet games, advertisement games, political games and educational games have created a market where the budget is much smaller but the volume of titles is much larger. Although the book does not specifically address the design issues particular to these type of games, 21st Century Game Design can inspire designers working on this end of the market.

The second part of part two on design is formed by two chapters that discuss a large variety of game genres. Contrary to many previous attempts Bateman and Boon expose their method of classification and organise their genres around 'nucleating games' that define their genre. Their classification is detailed and multi-tiered, covering no less than 75 pages of the 330 page book. The repeating structure and length make it more suited as a reference than something you take time to read completely. And as a reference it is quite successful. The system of nucleating games and the mention of other games that helped shape the genre make it a valuable historical overview. The description of the genres and games draw on the structures and concepts discussed in earlier chapters, which makes them condensed and accurate.

The last chapter forms a part on its own on the evolution of games. It has been published earlier by Bateman as a 2003 IGDA article. It postulates a theory informed by biological and geological theories of the chreodes which are a particular field of potential. It is an interesting perspective that does for a part explain the conservatism of the game market but by and large it remains a hypothetical metaphor.

In the end,21st Century Game Design, is an excellent book. It has the physical appearance and lay-out of a typical computer how-to book, but it easily rises way beyond that level. It does not have academic pretensions, but it can easily pass among peers of the academic persuasion. Most importantly, it draws on a large pool of experience and business acumen which make it a welcome addition to the fields of game studies and game design.

(*) I bought this book during the last week of 2005. Upon noticing the copyright year (2006) it became something of a challenge to put a review online before the end of the year. I succeeded, and never felt more up-to-date as a result. Which is probably just what the publisher was aiming for ;).