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Book Review: Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams on Game Design

March 30, 2004

It’s been a year since I last spoke with Ernest Adams at Game Developer’s Conference 2003, where he mentioned that he was working on two books simultaneously—and vowed never to do it again. GDC 2004 has just passed and here I am, one year later, finally getting around to reviewing one of those books.

Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams on Game Design by Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams (the title of the book is a big clue as to who authored it), published by New Riders Group, is a thorough treatment of the art and science of game design for less-experienced interactive computer game designers. Adams is a regular contributor to both Game Developer magazine and Gamasutra, and a very vocal proponent of proper game design with many credits to his name. He authors the monthly “Bad Game Designer—No Twinkie!” [a.k.a. “The Designer’s Notebook”—ed.] column for Gamasutra, which is well worth reading through. This is also Rollings’ second book about designing computer games.

Game Design is divided evenly in two—there is a delta of only eight pages between the two sections—with an accompanying, comprehensive, set of appendices towards the end of the book.

The first half of Game Design discusses, in detail, game design, game designing, and game designers. Game Design opens with a chapter on what a game designer is and what they do, including the educational background and skill set that they should aspire too. It is followed by the obligatory “where do ideas come from” section. It is almost de rigueur that this chapter be included in almost any game development book that even remotely touches on game design. What differentiates Rollings’ and Adams’ contribution is how to refine the flow of ideas in to something useful, making them apply to your target audience.

On Game Design cover

Title: Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams on Game Design
Author: Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams
Publisher: New Riders Group
ISBN: 1-5927-3001-9
Published: May 2003
Pages: 621

Rating (out of 5):
4.0 out of 5 stars


  1. Thorough coverage of the subject matter
  2. Good introductory text to game design
  3. Useful as a college textbook


  1. Quickly glosses over many deep subjects
  2. Attempts to cover too much ground in one book
  3. Coverage of individual genres is mostly filler

There is a single chapter dealing with the issue of game play with many of the other chapters supporting it and building onto it. The chapter details with what game play is, how to recognize it, and maintaining consistency of mechanics and rules within the game world once achieved. The author’s position is to present game play as a series of challenges to the player, rather than as a series of choices. This is in counter-point to Meiervs definition. I don’t think Rollings and Adams present a complete and successful alternative, but it is a good alternative, and one that can be built on in the coming years just as we have built on the oft-quoted Sid Meier.

Rollings and Adams postulate that game design be drawn from the “story” model and acknowledge, briefly, that not all games require a story, but fail to expound on this latter viewpoint in any meaningful way.

Unlike many game design books, Rollings and Adams spend an entire chapter on user interfaces, walking through how bad interfaces to games can ruin an otherwise compelling experience. It is refreshing to read that the authors consider the user interface as part of the game design; I just wish the chapter could have been longer. Good and bad user interface design is a pet subject of mine and all too often there has been much grinding of teeth while playing a game with poor UI.

The final chapter in the first half of the book discusses, game balance at length, describing it as the “internal economy” of the game. I think this is a bit of a misnomer, since to begin talking of economy leads to discussion of resources and supply—amateur economic theory—and this “economic” view has a tendency to shunt thoughts down a single track. However, the authors are careful to point out that “game balance” is more than just managing of internal game resource mechanics, describing at length the qualitative as well as the quantitative.

These first eight chapters and they make worthwhile reading for anyone professing an interest in game design, presenting Rollings’ and Adams’ views on play and design. Some of the points they raise don’t quite mesh with me and other people I’ve asked, however, they’re valid, consistent and they make you think. And that’s the point of design; there are no “correct” answers, only “best fit” answers.

The next ten chapters (the second half of the book) iterates each of the major game genres as we understand them today, analyzing how the mechanics of play and design apply and are implemented in each individual genre. Some of the genres given decent coverage are First Person Shooters, Real-Time Strategy, Role-Playing Games, and Sports Sims—the last subject being something that Ernest Adams knows a considerable amount about (given his early game design career) and so the chapter is perhaps the most comprehensive and well-researched.

Rollings and Adams have really gone out of their way to make Game Design useful to academic and non-academic readers alike. The book is promoted as a potential college text and at the end of each chapter is a worksheet with exercise questions that students can use to work through many of the points raised in the preceding pages; questions are posed for class discussion and the chapter is summarized in bullet-point form on a page or two entitled “Putting It Together”.

In summary, when you require an introductory text to game design, Game Design will easily fulfill that need with a thorough and rigorous overview.

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