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Vol. 2, Issue 11
February 10, 1999
Pad Happy:

Amazon-sponsored (not) Bookshelf Edition

by Nick Ferguson

Nick F goes all literary. Well, kinda... Well, I had this week's column down as a review of Crazy Taxi on Dreamcast, but thanks to Her Majesty's Customs & Excise department, it looks like that isn't going to happen... my apologies in advance for another "divergent" edition of Pad Happy. I feel kind of at a loose end, so I think I'll use my space this week to recommend a number of industry-related books I own (or have read recently) that regular loonygames readers might appreciate.

[Editor's note: in the interest of full-disclosure, it should be pointed out, that while loonygames does not in any way benefit from the sales of these books (the links to Amazon.com are not part of any affiliates program) the site is mentioned in one book, and one book has a chapter written by one of our editors. With that in mind, I return you to your regularly scheduled Pad Happy.]

When I wrote my column on game testing a while back, I received quite a lot of feedback from people keen to get into the games industry. It's difficult to know what to say to people when you don't really know much about them or their situation, but I think that one quality that will help anyone is knowing about the history of the the games industry (especially as it's now old enough that a large number of gamers - myself included - don't really remember the advent of classic games like Pong, Space Invaders and Pac-Man). Someone much wiser than me (although I'm confident I could whup his ass at Goldeneye) once said, "Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it". I think this is increasingly applicable to the games industry, where we see the same old battles being fought over increasingly faster generations of hardware, year after year. With that thought in mind, let's see how we can learn from others' mistakes...

Probably the most famous and widely-read book written about the games industry is "Game Over" by David Sheff. Sheff was a successful freelance journalist who decided to investigate the Nintendo phenomenon after his son (like so many of us) became addicted to NES games. Although first published in 1993, the book remains an essential read for anyone interested in games because it successfully brings to life the many personalities that contributed to the success of Nintendo (including design deity Shigeru Miyamoto) in the early 90's. Whereas the original edition ends with the impending US launch of the SNES, a recent re-release has several additional chapters (by a different author) which bring the story much more up-to-date.

If you're not a Nintendo fan (get out!) or if you want a broader overview of the games industry, J.C. Herz's "Joystick Nation" (1997) is an entertaining book, focusing mainly on the Golden Age of videogaming (the late 70's and early 80's). Although you may get the impression J.C. isn't totally clued-in on the games of today (a section on first-person shooters doesn't get beyond Doom II), her passion for the titles of her youth really shines through. The book also takes an interesting sociological slant by asking what the broader effect of video games on our society will be (and, for a welcome change, tends to focus on the positive).


For a more practical look at the games industry, "Game Design: Secrets of the Sages" (1998), edited by Marc Saltzman, is a great book which pools together a lot of information and advice from numerous big names about many different aspects of game production. There are chapters devoted to every field you could imagine, from programming and art to GUI and level design - and the book is still very up-to-date! It's also refreshing to read a book which acknowledges there are often multiple solutions to the same problem, rather than just advocating one person's opinion. My only gripe would be that the focus tends to be on PC-style games, but then what do you expect from me!? A more serious, technical book is "Game Architecture and Design" (Rollings & Morris, 1999). Less user-friendly and more practical than Saltzman's book, this is a better buy for those of you already working in the industry, or those who want to know more about the realities of game planning and production and less about the theories of design (it's also pretty much hot off the presses, so you're guaranteed up-to-date info).

For the more affluent gamer, the pretty-boy coffee table book of choice has to be "re:play" by Liz Faber. Subtitled 'Computer Game Graphics', this book is essentially a graphic design portfolio using game graphics as source material. Blown up and presented on high-quality paper, many of the in-game images are quite striking. Personal highlights include full-page screens from various vector graphic coin-ops, a montage of (quite beautiful) explosion frames from R-Type, and an overblown version of the original Sonic sprite. Some of the accompanying text is a tad banal, and the more "experimental" design work often obscures the beauty of the original image, but - minor niggles aside - re:play is probably the strongest validation of the videogame as an art form available.

With all the flak the games industry is getting right now about violence, you might want to read something which takes a more objective look at the situation than the various defensive, ranting posts and editorials you'll find online. "From Barbie to Mortal Kombat" (Cassell & Jenkins, 1998) makes a point of examining the gender imbalance still very present in the gaming demographic (with a chapter by our very own Stephanie "Bobbi" Bergman, natch). "Video Kids" (1991) by E.F. Provenzo is a dated (but still interesting) analysis of the possible psychological effects of game-playing on children, paying particular attention to aspects such as sadistic imagery, stereotypes and gender roles. Finally, "Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill" (1999) is Colonel Dave Grossman's treatise on the role videogames play in the behaviour of America's violent youth. Seeing as this guy is the most high-profile critic of the games industry in the world, describing first-person shooter titles as "murder simulators", you might want to read what he has to say and make up your own mind.

Finally, if you want to read about games and be told a good story at the same time, I highly recommend "The Beach" (1998) by Alex Garland. If you haven't heard of the book, you've probably heard of the film (which stars Leonardo DiCaprio). Suffice to say, the story features a Gameboy-playing backpacker who makes various game-related references throughout the course of the novel (an element that features prominently in the film, apparently).

Well, I hope you found the above enlightening. If you check these books out on Amazon, you'll find that there are a lot of good links to similar titles in the "Customers who bought this book also bought..." sections. I find most of the customer reviews on Amazon helpful in making my decisions, but if you want some more tips on good books visit Lionhead's site (http://www.lionhead.co.uk) - they have a section where various staff members have recommended a wide range of titles, from books on programming methodology to their favorite graphic novels!

- Nick Ferguson will write about consoles next time. Hey, go read "Game Over"...


 

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