I don’t often use books as references for what I do because the field I’m in evolves so fast. Business models are evolving fast thanks to the introduction of new technologies and shifts in consumer habits. How products are designed have shifted from a waterfall approach to an agile methodology. And of course technologies change even faster. If I had rested on my laurels and didn’t continue to level up, I would be irrelevant today. So while I am constantly learning and adapting faster than most books can keep up, I have found a few books that I’d love to recommend which have been influential to me.
So I put together this list of books that I think are timeless and thus useful in today’s game development environment, but could also still be useful many years from now. Some books are truly timeless, like The Little Prince and The Art of War, while other books admittedly are hot trends right now like The Lean Startup. Whether these hot to trot reads will stand the test of time, we’ll see, but I think there are some learnings here that I think you can take with you from project to project from decade to decade.
So here we go, in no particular order!
The Little Prince
By Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
This magical novella by acclaimed French literary laureate Saint-Exupéry can have a life long impact, and it’s meaning can have an evolving impact when you read it as a child and then as an adult one day. It’s been translated more than most books in history, and for good reason. What you take away from the story transcends age and culture. It’s written with layers of meaning exploring the importance of enlightenment, and as we get older how we gradually seem to lose our ability to be open minded and curious, which shuts us off to the greatest gift we can give others, which is the wisdom we accumulated in life. To a child, it’s an empowering and whimsical tale, and to an adult it’s a reminder to keep your mind open to new ideas and experiences.
And I think that’s why this book means so much to me even to this day. I have found that my life and my career is rooted in a thirst for building new experiences. As adults, we work towards mastery of a specific field, but this leads to the danger of closing your mind off to new ideas that challenge what you know. We become obsolete, out of touch, and even jaded. The sort of things the younger generation mocks, and yet we are too set in our ways to see it. To constantly reignite a sense of responsibility for bearing and sharing wisdom to help others, we need to climbing down from our tower and embrace the humble feeling of being a pupil to new ideas and experiences. And only then can we understand how our wisdom can be applied to today’s generation of challenges or problems worth solving.
This book is a very short read, which presents the danger of just breezing through it. Take the time to leisurely digest the story and deeper meaning with each passing quote. There are flashes of pithy brilliance that triggers flashbacks into your own life and the kind of life you led.
“You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.”
“A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral.”
“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
The Art of War
By Sun Tzu
The Art of War isn’t a typical book. It is quite literally a military treatise that outlines military strategy and tactics. It’s been used in military thinking, business schools, and yes even game development! This book dates back to the 5th century BC and is often regarded as the reason why China was so dominate during this period in history.
The thing about building great things is that if you want to make a living from it, you need to understand the ecosystem you are creating in. How many times have you seen an inferior product dominate the marketplace? You do not live in a vacuum and how your competitors act greatly influences how successful you can be depending on how you react or act. This isn’t to say that you are in a dog eat dog world. But through the years, like many of you, I have worked on all sorts of projects that never recognized the strength and weaknesses of my own organization and our competitors and suffered the indignity of building the best product out there and still coming in second place.
What’s so compelling about this series of strategic and tactical points is just how obvious they are if you just think about it. It’s a great reminder that the best war to wage is the one you never have to. It’s all about outsmarting your competitors. Too often great product creators view the business side of the industry a necessary evil. If anything, great product + great business is a strategy that ensures that you reached the most people with the best products out there.
“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be”
“Opportunities multiply as they are seized.”
The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses
By Jesse Schell
Understandably, I get asked a lot about my experiences in game development. Many people tend to think of game design as something akin to creativity unleashed via unicorn riding on rainbows, where game creators sit around and come up with cool ideas all day and play fun games. OK, admittedly there is a lot of that. But I’d argue that the difference between armchair quarterbacks and folks that actually contribute any given Sunday (football reference, as an FYI) is the ability to create via a very tactical process. Creating great games takes a systematic approach and framework that turns your ideas into something tangible. And ultimately fun to play. This book does a great job of demystifying this often times misunderstood process.
The book avoids technical lingo (though you really should be comfortable with such lingo as its that powers games at the end of the day), and lays out a very useful framework to help you to get to the heart of what makes games fun. While I will say that you don’t need an existing game development background to read through this book, it is however rather academic in its approach. Think of this as a reference to have around. It’s definitely a lot to chew on if you try to read through it in one go. I go back and reread it every few years just to refresh.
“You must know what your audience will and will not like, and you must know it even better than they do. They might think they know, but often there is a big difference between what they think they want and what it is they will actually enjoy.”
The Lean Startup
Eric Ries pretty much ignited all of Silicon Valley with this book, and it’s not an understatement that this book has become the bible for many rising entrepreneurs and startups. I had the pleasure of “experiencing” this book first hand when my startup Wicked Loot was selected to participate in an accelerator program, which is designed to help fund and mentor early stage companies. Now I co-founded several startups in the past, some of which were successfully acquired, so I was already of the impression that I didn’t need the book when I first got it. But after pouring through it on 1 go (it’s a quick read, easy to understand, with a lot of great examples), I instantly saw how there was a new paradigm for how to prove your company is on the right track with its latest idea.
In many ways, as the book outlines, I had to throw away a lot of the business thinking I was trained to act on, thanks to the rigorous preparations I went through during my time at Columbia Business School. This book is all about making you realize two key things. First, for any new venture, resources (in particular $$$) is highly constrained. And thus second, you better prove your idea in the rawest form that somebody out there really wants your product exists before you go and waste your time, money and energy on a long journey bound for failure. Better to fail quick and iterate til you think you got what works before you double, triple down.
I been an advocate for a variant of this approach in the indie gaming scene, as indie devs face similar challenges as most startups, and I would even argue that the lean approach can be useful when building big projects with lots of resources by testing specific features that are still unproven. There are principles that carry through no matter what you work on, ie. how you need to constantly validate your actions through solid metrics.
“Startup success can be engineered by following the process, which means it can be learned, which means it can be taught.”