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Patterns in Game Design 110

Aeonite writes "The quote on the cover of Patterns in Game Design proclaims that this book is "that rare sort" that is actually "useful." It is perhaps somewhat presumptuous to disagree with someone like Greg Costikyan, but nevertheless I have my doubts as to the book's overall utility. While this book certainly seems like the sort of be-all, end-all of game design theory, what it amounts to is little more than a list, each item on the list referring to the other items like bloggers hawking each others' hyperlinks. What could have been a sort of cookbook for gaming turns out to be less a book of recipes, and more a list of ingredients: "a loaf of bread, a container of milk, and a stick of butter." Read the rest of Michael's review.
Patterns in Game Design
author Staffan Björk & Jussi Holopainen
pages 448
publisher Charles River Media
rating 4
reviewer Michael Fiegel
ISBN 1584503548
summary A comprehensive compendium of game design "patterns"

The book is broken into two Parts and 15 Chapters. Part I, "Background," explains the overall approach that the authors took in creating the rest of the book, exploring four different categories of gameplay (holistic, boundary, temporal, and structural), explaining the template used for the game design patterns that follow, and suggesting means for identifying patterns and applying them to the design of a game.

Part II, the bulk of the book, is where the Pattern Collection itself lies. The collection is broken into eleven chapters, each covering a grouping of patterns that share a common element. Chapter 5, for example, covers "Game Design Patterns for Game Elements," which includes Game Worlds, Objects, Abstract Objects and Locations. Each of those categories is further broken down into the Patterns themselves; for example, "Abstract Objects" includes Patterns such as Score, High Score Lists, and Lives.

Each Pattern is laid out in the same fashion. First, there is a one-sentence summary of the Pattern, followed by a more detailed description, and any relevant examples. This is followed in turn by examples of Using the Pattern, Consequences of its use, and its Relations to other Patterns. Relations include a list of other Patterns that fall into five categories: "Instantiates" (causes other Patterns to be present), "Modulates" (affects other Patterns and thus gameplay), "Instantiated by" (is caused to appear based on other Patterns being present), "Modulated by" (is affected by other Patterns), and "Potentially Conflicting with" (can cause other Patterns to be impossible within gameplay).

This all sounds a bit scholarly, and it is, but once you get the hang of it, it's not all that hard to slog through. However, it is indeed a slog -- each Pattern is in great part made up of references to other Patterns, which means that for a full understanding of any one Pattern, you must consume many other portions of the book. In their introduction, the authors do point out that this was their intent, and that you can "read the patterns in any order, similar to how a dictionary or encyclopedia is used." Indeed, reading through the book in any fashion is about as entertaining as reading those books. Which is to say, it's occasionally enlightening, but not really easy to do for any length of time. Here's an example from the "Surprises" Pattern, where any italicized word is a reference to another Pattern:

"One requirement for Surprises is the absence of Game State Overview or the presence of Imperfect Information or Limited Foresight. Because of this, Surprises are most often achieved by having Dedicated Game Facilitators such as Game Masters. Never Ending Stories are a way of overcoming the problems of Narrative Structures by combining Surprises with Replayability, thus making the narrative continue and change forever."

At the end of many subcategories are references to "Additional Patterns," which are only explored on the CD-ROM that accompanies the book, apparently having been left out for lack of space. Their omission (they do not even appear in the book's Table of Contents or Index) makes the book itself somewhat less useful than it otherwise could have been, since the Patterns within the book so often refer to Relations with Patterns that are not actually found in the book itself. The net result is that if (for example) you are reading about Surprises, and you want to learn about Never Ending Stories, you have to put the book down and pop the CD-ROM in. Not only is this disruptive, but it's impractical at best.

Were the CD-ROM itself more easily and logically laid out, it might have overcome some of the problems within the book. Containing everything within the book, plus the many additional Patterns not found in print, the bare-bones HTML allows you to browse either alphabetically by Pattern name, or "by chapters." This latter is somewhat misleading, for the list of Patterns within each Chapter is alphabetical on the CD-ROM, and not so within the book. On the CD-ROM, Chapter 5 starts with the following Patterns: Alarm, Alternative Reality, Avatars... In the book, however, Chapter 5 contains the category Game Worlds, and then Patterns such as Game World, Reconfigurable Game World, Levels, etc., in that order. The lack of consistency can make for some maddening moments trying to toggle back and forth between book and CD-ROM, like reading a dictionary that's in part alphabetical, and in part organized by, "nouns," "verbs," "adjectives," etc.

The CD-ROM is also inconsistent when it comes to the book's two Appendices. Appendix A, "Further Reading," contains a list of over fifty articles and books referenced elsewhere in the text, and appears only in the book. Appendix B, "About the CD ROM," appears in both the book and on the CD, where for some curious reason it's in Word DOC format. There are also an assortment of images, including colorized versions of those found in the book, as well as a set of PowerPoint presentations.

Overall, the book does succeed in compiling an impressive list of Game Design Patterns. Whether the list can ever amount to anything more than scholarly masturbation is another question. The thick language, combined with the definition of Patterns by reference to other Patterns, means that overall this book is probably about as useful in the realm of Game Design as a Dictionary is in the teaching of the English language. Which is to say, it's undoubtedly a useful tool as part of a much, much broader toolset, but in and of itself it leaves quite a lot to be desired."

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Patterns in Game Design

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  • 1994: The computer scientist and game programmer Andre LaMothe [] writes the quintessential book on game programming, "Tricks of the Game Programming Gurus []". The book is dense with useful information, humor, and actual theory on game programming. Millions of Game Players are transformed into real-world Game Programmers overnight.

    2004: Staffan Bjork & Jussi Holopainen attempt to bring all the wonder and excitement of development patterns from the business world into the Game Programming world by releasing an utterly boring book full of confusing terminology. (2.5 stars on Amazon.) Programmers everywhere are unimpressed, and budding game makers are left confused. The bright side is that the book explains what an Avatar and High Score List are.

    My, my, my. How far we have progressed. :-(
  • by digitaldc ( 879047 ) * on Monday February 27, 2006 @03:01PM (#14810572)
    At the end of many subcategories are references to "Additional Patterns," which are only explored on the CD-ROM that accompanies the book, apparently having been left out for lack of space.

    And all this time I thought it was CD media that would leave things out due to 'lack of space.'
    But this will all be explained in the sequel "Patterns II: The Missing Pages"

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