Foundations

I am constantly surprised at how few people in our industry take an active interest in advances and developments in areas outside of their own little sphere of interest. In fact, so few developers look at competitors' games it's little wonder we keep reinventing the wheel. Part of me can understand it though; you work 10 hours a day doing graphics, the last thing you wan to do when you get home is turn on a computer or play some games for research purposes. And to be fair you can get by in this industry pretty well as a journeyman nine-to-five kind of guy, no matter what some people say. Personally, though, I like to spend a fair amount of time, usually outside of work, checking out what is going on in the field of graphic design and video games. I often end up playing games I don't enjoy just to see what they did or to put the graphics under the microscope.

In England this was much less the case, but in Japan it is often I who points colleagues into certain directions if they're stuck or need some inspiration. "You should check out how they did hat in Quake 4" or "See the Titan Quest editor if you need some tips on how to make a good tool." The reply is usually "huh?" or "what game?" and "never heard of it." I end up bringing my copy into work, show a crowd of gathered colleagues what I meant and then watch as the company buys their own copy for reference purposes. I really don't mind this at all, except I expect others to do likewise, which doesn't happen often, and people jokingly call me "otaku" simply because I make the effort. Okay, I do play too many games for fun so I guess I am a geek in that respect, but sill, it's a little unfair. How can you expect to be a good game artist i you don't keep up to date on new technologies and competitors?

The history of video games is much more of a lost tome of knowledge these days. True, it is far less important to know about Space War! or Pong in the current climate of awesome technological power but I find that kind of thing terribly interesting. Some of the younger entrants to our industry had a PlayStaion 1 as their first inspiration. These kids never had to get up to change channels on their televisions or recorded music on little plastic squares with magnetic tape in them. Ah, those were the days. Still, for them to know who Nolan Bushell was or where Mario got his name are trivial and unimportant matters; it certainly won't make them do their job better If you are interested though there are a few books I can heartily recommend. Notably these books all favour massively long subtitles; a strange quirk.

The Ultimate History of Video Games: From Pong to Pokemon--The Story Behind the Craze That Touched Our Lives and Changed the World by Steven L. Kent (link)
This is an incredibly comprehensive book with a truly awfully designed cover. But don't let that put you off, this is a great book that covers the whole gamut. As a result, though, it can never go into too much detail as it has a lot to get through, but it serves as a good introduction to anyone with more than a passing interest in the history of our craft.

Game Over: How Nintendo Zapped an American Industry, Captured Your Dollars, and Enslaved Your Children by David Sheff (link)
This is by far the best, most engaging book with a game history background. Written in a documentary style this work looks at the beginnings of Nintendo of America mostly, with some more sparse background on the mother company. And it's quite a ride! From the humble beginnings, the sudden explosion onto the scene of Donkey Kong and the problems that spawned it, the delicious lawsuit regarding King Kong and the absolutely edge-of-seat chapter on the troubled routeTetris took to the Gameboy. This last story is worth a book in itself and was also recorded as a television documentary called "Tetris: from Russia with love" and constitutes probably this industry's most memorably tense moment.The way it's written and the detail it uses to draw out the characters involved makes this a must-read for anyone interested in Nintendo and the game business in general.

Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture by David Kushner (link)
Focusing on two of this industry's most, um, peculiar characters, John Carmack and John Romero, this documentary book takes some liberties with reality, often quoting conversations that probably never happened exactly as they are presented but tells, nonetheless, a very engaging story of genius, politics, late night programming sessions and an acrimonious split.Unsurprisingly the bulk of the story revolves around Wolfenstein and Doom and the scene that grew around it. A very interesting and compelling read for anyone regardless of their affinity to first-person shooters.

Smartbomb: The Quest for Art, Entertainment, and Big Bucks in the Videogame Revolution by Heather Chaplin and Aaron Ruby (link)
Written in 8 section this book jumps around in time a little to tell the story of the emerging game scene, some of its characters and games. Covering people like Cliffy B. and, it wouldn't be a game book otherwise, Shigeru Miyamoto. Though it's less structured that 'The Ultimate History of Video Games' which takes a far more linear approach, it is a good read. As this industry is still fairly young you'll find a lot of old ground being covered here but that doesn't mean this book isn't worthwhile.

On the Edge: the Spectacular Rise and Fall of Commodore by Brian Bagnall (link)
This is not a game book per se, but it charts the history of the company that brought us the Commodore 64 and its insane founder. I am reading this right now and so far it is proving to be a gripping tale.

For people who can read Japanese and want to learn more about individual games I can recommend the Japanese version of the guide book. These cover not only the ins and outs needed to master a game or learn about all the little details you've missed but also come with production reports, concept artwork and interviews with the team or, usually, the director. I know of no particular books on Japanese game companies but the above mentioned books include stories of Sega, Capcom, Nintendo and the like.

8 comments:

  1. In Japan there is the annual "CGgraphics Making of game graphic" book. I'm always surprised by the number of industry secrets i learn in these books...
    Another good book is "High Score - The illustrated history of electronics games", which is a kind of very short version of the Kent book, but with a lot of great illustrations (advertisings, game designs etc.). I recommend both.

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  2. Ah, yeah, "making of game graphics", I have a few issues of those but haven't seen them around for a couple of years now. Is it dead or am I blind?

    On the subject of magazines, CGWorld often has some game related topics, showing some modelling tricks or high-end 3D cinematography (FMV) stuff.

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  3. I'd add Chris Kohler's Power-Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life. It seems appropriate. To be honest, I've yet to read it, but on the few chances I've had to page though it looked interesting. It's very Nintendo-centric, which is just fine by me.

    Amazon Link

    Game|Life, a blog Kohler edits/writes for.

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  4. Kohler's Power-Up is probably the best book on video games I've read.

    The Commoder book sounds great, anyway. Next stop: Amazon UK...

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  5. Commoder? Oops. That would be Commodor, obviously.

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  6. Good grief. COMMODORE.

    All right, all right, I'm going to bed.

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