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Best Game Design Books to Level Up Your Skills in 2024

Alexander Brazie

Alexander Brazie

Alexander is a game designer with 25+ years of experience in both AAA and indie studios, having worked on titles like World of Warcraft, League of Legends, and Ori and The Will of The Wisps. His insights and lessons from roles at Riot and Blizzard are shared through his post-mortems and game design course. You can follow him on Twitter @Xelnath or LinkedIn.

If you’ve been searching around online for game design learning resources, you’ve probably noticed that there are an abundant amount of Unity, Unreal, and other game engine tutorials and courses, however, there is a lack of coverage on game design.

Most credible game design learning resources by practitioners who have shipped games are most available from one of these mediums:

  1. Youtube channels (i.e Masahiro Sakurai on Creating Games)
  2. Game design blog posts and keynotes (GDC)
  3. Game design books

In today’s multimedia world, books are becoming an obsolete medium to get across highly abstract and visual topics such as game design, but books still contain a lot of great knowledge because just they have been around way longer than other modern mediums.

However, there are so many choices out there, which ones are worth reading?

To help you sort through these choices, I’ve made a list of books related to game design and categorized them into the following:

  1. Must read
  2. Recommended, but with caveat
  3. The rest

By the way, as you’re reading this post, if you have any questions or issues implementing you can get free help in the #game-design channel in Funsmith Club Discord, or you can DM me there.

Get notified each week on the latest game design tips, guides, templates, and workshops that I don’t share anywhere else here 👇

Table of Contents

Here are the must-read game design books

1. The Role of a Great Game Designer

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Author: Richard Carrillo

Edition: 1st edition

Last updated: November 10, 2021

Amazon ratings: 4.9 out of 5.0 (25+ ratings)

Kindle (to buy): $9.99

Paperback: $16.99

This book is written by my colleague Richard, who has two decades of experience as a professional game designer, ranging from junior to director-level roles in some of the biggest AAA studios in the world. In this book, he clarifies what game designers actually do, as there are many
misconceptions.

It is easy to read and digest, providing a clear understanding for anyone who wants to comprehend a game designer’s role in the game development process, whether you are an aspiring or experienced game designer or a game developer in a different discipline.

The book covers topics including:

  • Essential skills for successful design
  • The difference between generating ideas and executing designs
  • Collaboration within development teams

2. Narrative Design for Indies: Getting Started

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Author: Edwin McRae

Edition: 1st edition

Last updated: September 9, 2018

Amazon ratings: 4.0 out of 5.0 (70+ ratings)

Goodreads ratings: 4.3 out of 5.0 (60+ ratings)

Kindle (to buy): $4.99

Paperback: $9.99

This is a great book for both indie game developers and upcoming narrative designers on how to integrate narrative elements into their games with actionable advice, tools, and strategies for crafting engaging narratives and creating compelling stories that enhance their games on limited budgets and resources.

Because it’s for indies, it’s also practical for beginners including aspiring narrative designers who work on solo projects, game jams, or small group projects, which have similar constraints as indie developers where you don’t have access to AAA budget and team size.

And Edwin has plenty of experience in game writing and narrative design in the indie space.

3. Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games

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Author: Tracy Fullerton

Edition: 4th edition

Last updated: August 29, 2018

Amazon ratings: 4.7 out of 5.0 (120+ ratings)

Goodreads ratings: 4.4 out of 5.0 (480+ ratings)

Kindle (to rent for 1 month): $20.69

Kindle (to buy): $52.49

Paperback: $59.99 – $63.69

Hardcover: $82.62 – $91.80

Out of most of the game design and development books out there, this is one the most layman, practical and hands-on, which is important because game design is a hands-on craft. It covers topics from ideation to prototyping and playtesting along with exercises, tools and knowledge to help you improve your game design skills.

4. Designing Games: A Guide to Engineering Experiences

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Author: Tynan Sylvester

Edition: 1st edition

Last updated: February 24, 2013

Amazon ratings: 4.8 out of 5.0 (230+ ratings)

Goodreads ratings: 4.5 out of 5.0 (380+ ratings)

Kindle (to buy): $25.49

Paperback: $22.09 – $27.61

This book covers the process of creating engaging gaming experiences from conceptualization to implementation. With a focus on engineering experiences, the book delves into topics such as:

  • Design game mechanics to evoke a spectrum of emotions and offer diverse player experiences
  • Explore multiple ways to integrate narrative elements with gameplay
  • Incentivize player engagement using rewards that complement the game’s overall design for both single and multiplayer experiences
  • Develop a metaphor vocabulary to clarify the concept of game mechanics for players
  • Use the iterative processes to incrementally improve the game instead of making fixed decisions upfront
  • Understand the impact of your game’s market positioning on its overall design direction

5. An Architectural Approach to Level Design

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Author: Christopher W. Totten

Edition: 2nd edition

Last updated: May 23, 2019

Amazon ratings: 4.6 out of 5.0 (70+ ratings)

Goodreads ratings: 4.3 out of 5.0 (100+ ratings)

eTextbook (to rent for 1 month): $22.17

eTextbook (to buy): $56.49

Paperback: $67.36

Hardcover: $155.00 – $160.00

This book focuses on level design techniques through the unique lens of architectural design principles, which are especially applicable to building 3D game levels.

Throughout the book, Christopher provides insights and strategies for creating immersive and visually appealing game levels and environments from conceptualization to execution, including topics such as

  • Spatial organization and level design through the lenses of professional level designers, indie game developers, scientists, psychologists, academics, and historical structures
  • Gameplay flow, pacing, and player experience
  • Practical exercises, examples and case studies

6. Game Balance

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Edition: 1st edition

Last updated: August 17, 2021

Authors: Ian Schreiber, Brenda Romero

Amazon ratings: 4.6 out of 5.0 (140+ ratings)

Goodreads ratings: 4.6 out of 5.0 (20+ ratings)

Kindle (to rent for 1 month): $14.55

Kindle (to buy): $52.49

Paperback: $57.41 – $58.82

Hardcover: $160.00

This book dives into the semi-controversial topic of game balance under the discipline of game design, because the balance of a game determines the fairness between passionate players in player vs player and cooperative multiplayer games.

This book provides insights and strategies to evaluate and adjust game balance throughout development by delving into the

  • Intricacies of balancing gameplay mechanics, resources, and player abilities to create engaging and fair gaming experiences
  • How to leverage a combination of game math, psychology of different gamer types, game economics and game theory to balance the game
  • Overview of tools such as Microsoft Excel, Google Spreadsheets, and other spreadsheet programs and their uses during the balancing process
  • Game Balance offers readers a dynamic look into game design and player theory.

This book is on the pricy side, as an alternative, you can also check out my comprehensive guide on game balancing.

Recommended game design books, but with caveat

7. The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses

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Edition: 3rd

Last updated: August 27, 2019

Amazon ratings: 4.7 out of 5.0 (500+ ratings)

Goodreads ratings: 4.4 out of 5.0 (3,200+ ratings)

Kindle (to buy): $56.49

Paperback: $53.44 – $61.99

Hardcover: $119.46 – $123.47

This is a classic written 10 years ago that presents psychology principles applicable across various game formats from tabletop to video games in the form of 100 questions (aka lenses) to help you improve your game design.

In the latest version, Schell added more current gaming trends such as VR and AR since his studio mainly produces AR and VR titles along with examples from well known modern titles like Uncharted 4 and The Last of Us.

Caveat: There are just too many items here for an easy read and practical application. I’d recommend using this book as a dictionary-style reference or using their one-a-day phone app instead.

8. Narrative Design for Writers: An Industry Guide to Writing for Video Games

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Author: Edwin McRae

Edition: 1st edition

Last updated: April 7, 2020

Amazon ratings: 4.3 out of 5.0 (25+ ratings)

Goodreads ratings: 4.0 out of 5.0 (20+ ratings)

Kindle (to buy): $6.99

Paperback: $15.99

Traditional stories are told, read, or watched and game stories are experienced interactively where the player can control the character. This distinctive difference changes how narratives are crafted for books/movies/TV shows and video games.

This book provides practical principles and techniques tailored to game narrative design to help writers adapt their skills to the game development context to break into the ever-evolving industry.

Caveat: This book is tailored for writers looking to cross the bridge into game narrative design in the video game development world – Narrative Design for Indies is recommended for non-writers listed in the must-read section above.

9. Game Feel

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Author: Steve Swink

Edition: 1st edition

Last updated: October 15, 2008

Amazon ratings: 4.6 out of 5.0 (135+ ratings)

Goodreads ratings: 3.9 out of 5.0 (340+ ratings)

Paperback: $38.14 – $45.92

Hardcover: $233.20

This book focuses on the nebulous concept “game feel” that makes games satisfying and memorable to play by providing theory, examples, and exercises to help you understand how to contextually combine the elements that improve the feel of a game including

  • Controls
  • Animation
  • Sound
  • Ancillary indicators
  • VFX
  • Metaphors
  • Player perception

Caveat: Great book, but heavily bogged down in details and hard to digest, hard to implement. However, it’s still a great reference for you to read.

To help with that, I added a section for in my upcoming Game Feel course in the Mastering Mechanics series where I distilled some of the most impactful concepts down from this book and show you how to practically implement them.

You can join the waitlist here to get notified for early access.

10. Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products

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Author: Nir Eyal

Edition: 1st edition

Last updated: January 1, 2014

Amazon ratings: 4.5 out of 5.0 (8,800+ ratings)

Goodreads ratings: 4.1 out of 5.0 (43,000+ ratings)

Kindle (to buy): $16.99

Hardcover: $21.59

Audiobook (Audible): $11.96

Audiobook (MP3 CD): $25.99

Like me, you’ve gone on death scroll binges on your favorite social media app where you just can’t put down your phone, and that’s not by accident. These apps are specifically designed to be that way.

And this book teaches you how to systematically design products and experiences that captivate users and cultivate lasting habits just like that using his “Hook Model” using principles from psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral economics.

This book isn’t just unique to game designers, the fundamentals taught here also apply across the spectrum to product managers, designers, marketers and startup founders.

Caveat: This book has great knowledge on player retention which can be also be applied predatorily, so please apply ethically.

11. The Gamer’s Brain: How Neuroscience and UX Can Impact Video Game Design

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Author: Celia Hodent

Edition: 1st edition

Last updated: September 28, 2017

Amazon ratings: 4.8 out of 5.0 (150+ ratings)

Goodreads ratings: 4.4 out of 5.0 (170+ ratings)

Kindle (to rent for 1 month): $16.82

Kindle (to buy): $46.81

Paperback: $49.27

Hardcover: $166.01 – $190.00

This book provides a perspective on video game design from a combination of neuroscience principles and user experience (UX) design to explore how the human brain processes information and interacts with video games in order to create more engaging and immersive gaming experiences.

This book does include some game related examples and case studies to optimize game mechanics, interfaces, and overall player engagement.

Caveat: This book has a similar goal of teaching player retention strategies as “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products.” However, it’s more specific to game UX design and less directly applicable. Expect to think carefully about how to apply the concepts involved.

The author’s background is more from the world of academia rather than a practicing game designer who has gone through the trenches of shipping a game hands-on.

12. The Gamification of Learning and Instruction Fieldbook: Ideas into Practice

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Author: Karl M. Kapp

Edition: 1st edition

Last updated: November 11, 2013

Amazon ratings: 4.4 out of 5.0 (45+ ratings)

Goodreads ratings: 3.9 out of 5.0 (50+ ratings)

Kindle (to buy): $59.00

Paperback: $33.99 – $46.61

This book draws from psychology, education, and game design research to provide a framework for incorporating game elements into educational experiences to improve engagement and motivation.

Throughout the book, Karl provides examples, case studies, strategies, tips, and worksheets for designing effective gamified learning experiences across various verticals.

Caveat: This book is for educators and instructional designers interested in implementing gamification techniques in learning environments. However, these concepts also translate to game design as well, since part of the player experience is learning and growing over time.

13. Challenges for Games Designers: Non-Digital Exercises for Video Game Designers

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Authors: Brenda L Brathwaite, Ian Schreiber

Amazon ratings: 4.4 out of 5.0 (75+ ratings)

Kindle (to buy): $9.99

Paperback: $24.99

Edition: 1st edition

Last updated: August 21, 2008

This book helps you hone the skills of video game designers through a collection of non-digital exercises and challenges designed to stimulate creativity, problem-solving, and critical thinking in aspiring game designers.

This book is practical and hands-on and non code dependent. For example, it shows you how to design and use paper prototypes to prove game mechanics using everyday objects.

Caveat: Paper game prototyping is a great skill that many new designers undervalue. Learning how to do this, will allow you to prove your ideas cost-effectively before sinking tons of time and resource into development.

A great complimentary workshop to this is The Build a Game Challenge where I show you how to build a playable digital tabletop prototype without coding and how to playtest it.

14. Introduction to Game Design, Prototyping, and Development: From Concept to Playable Game with Unity and C#

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Author: Jeremy Gibson Bond

Edition: 3rd edition

Last updated: August 5, 2022

Amazon ratings: 5.0 out of 5.0 (10+ ratings)

Goodreads ratings: 4.3 out of 5.0 (100+ ratings)

Kindle (to buy): $47.99

Paperback: $68.87

This book covers the entire game development process from initial concept to playable paper prototype, to playable digital prototype using Unity (and C#) to teach essential skills with

  • Practical exercises
  • Step-by-step tutorials
  • Real-world examples
  • Code challenges

Caveat: This book isn’t just purely about game design, it also ventures into building prototypes in Unity and C#, which is a technical barrier.

The Rest

These are worth mentioning since they are game design books. Some are recommended by colleagues that I haven’t read and the others are from other design perspectives.

15. Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals

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Author: Katie Salen Tekinbas, Eric Zimmerman

Edition: 1st edition

Last updated: September 25, 2003

Amazon ratings: 4.5 out of 5.0 (200+ ratings)

Goodreads ratings: 4.0 out of 5.0 (950+ ratings)

Kindle (to buy): $46.99

Paperback: $49.93

Hardcover: $67.49

This book delves into the fundamental concepts and theories that underline engaging and meaningful gameplay design ranging from board games and sports to video games

Through a combination of theoretical insights, practical examples, and case studies, this book provides readers with an understanding of game design as both an art and a science from both author’s perspective covering topics such as

  • Game mechanics
  • Rules
  • Systems
  • Player experience and interactivity

Caveat: This is an old book, so expect the info in here to be a bit outdated.

16. 100 Principles of Game Design

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Author: Wendy Despain

Edition: 1st edition

Last updated: December 18, 2012

Amazon ratings: 4.4 out of 5.0 (10+ ratings)

Goodreads ratings: 4.1 out of 5.0 (35+ ratings)

Kindle: $35.99

Paperback: $103.97

This book is essentially a compilation of principles spanning different sub-disciplines of game design such as mechanics, feedback loops, prototyping, storytelling, scale economy, UX design, player engagement, etc.

Caveat: This book has similar issues as The Book of Lenses. It feels overwhelming to have 100 things you need to go through. If you do decide to read this, I’d skim and jog down the ones you can apply and revisit in detail.

17. Level Up! The Guide to Great Video Game Design

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Author: Scott Rogers

Edition: 2nd edition

Last updated: April 28, 2014

Amazon ratings: 4.7 out of 5.0 (740+ ratings)

Goodreads ratings: 4.1 out of 5.0 (1,030+ ratings)

Kindle (to buy): $28.00

Paperback: $19.36 – $26.99

This book covers all aspects of video game design at different stages of the game development process from concept development to prototyping and production.

The latest edition includes updated content on mobile game design, social gaming, and emerging trends.

18. Fundamentals of Game Design

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Author: Ernest Adams

Edition: 3rd edition

Last updated: December 17, 2013

Amazon ratings: 4.4 out of 5.0 (100+ ratings)

Goodreads ratings: 3.9 out of 5.0 (160+ ratings)

Kindle (to buy): $41.49

 Paperback: $43.97 – $56.95

“Fundamentals of Game Design 3rd Edition” by Ernest Adams is a comprehensive guide

This book dives into the foundational principles of game design from the author’s perspective. With clear explanations and examples that cover various game design concepts including gameplay mechanics, storytelling, balancing, and UI,

The current edition is revised and updated with the modern context of designing for touch screens (i.e. smartphones) and motion-capture gameplay along with the rise of the free-to-play monetization model.

19. Video Game Storytelling: What Every Developer Needs to Know About Narrative Techniques

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Author: Evan Skolnick

Edition: 1st edition

Last updated: December 2, 2014

Amazon ratings: 4.6 out of 5.0 (370+ ratings)

Kindle (to buy): $11.99

Paperback: $15.98

Audiobook (Audible): $13.78

“Video Game Storytelling: What Every Developer Needs to Know About Narrative Techniques”

This book focuses on the storytelling elements of game design, which falls under the game writing and narrative design disciplines. This book covers topics such as

  • Crafting compelling narratives within the interactive medium of video games
  • Various narrative techniques, from character development to plot structure
  • Integrating story seamlessly with gameplay.

Caveat: This book is great for indie devs, narrative designers, and game writers.

20. Start Your Video Game Career: Proven Advice on Jobs, Education, Interviews, and More for Starting and Succeeding in the Video Game Industry

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Author: Jason W. Bay

Edition: 1st edition

Last updated: July 4, 2017

Amazon ratings: 4.4 out of 5.0 (70+ ratings)

Kindle (to buy): $9.99

Paperback: $19.99

This is one of few books that focuses on providing tips and advice to help readers who are newcomers or transitioning from another industry kickstart and grow their careers in the industry covering topics such as

  • Job opportunities and career paths
  • Education paths
  • Resume and portfolio preparation
  • Interview preparation
  • Career advancement strategies

Caveat: Since the industry job landscape evolves constantly, so expect some info to be obsolete.

21. Designing Virtual Worlds

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Author: Richard A. Bartle

Edition: 1st edition

Last updated: July 25, 2003

Amazon ratings: 4.2 out of 5.0 (45+ ratings)

Goodreads ratings: 4.0 out of 5.0 (170+ ratings)

Paperback: $65.00

This book provides advice, theoretical frameworks and techniques behind designing immersive virtual worlds covering topics such as worldbuilding, player interaction, and community management.

Caveat: This one is very outdated. It hasn’t been updated since July 2003, and much has changed then. It is also pricey for a book.

I recommend checking out the more current free comprehensive game worldbuilding guide by Edwin.

22. Game Mechanics: Advanced Game Design

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Author: Ernest Adams, Joris Dormans

Edition: 1st edition

Last updated: June 18, 2012

Amazon ratings: 4.6 out of 5.0 (35+ ratings)

Goodreads ratings: 4.1 out of 5.0 (170+ ratings)

Kindle: $44.99

This book provides knowledge covering topics such as game mechanics design patterns, weapon design, enemy AI, and multiplayer modes, all tailored specifically in the context of designing shooter game genre player experience.

Caveat: Expect parts of this book to be outdated since it was last updated in June 2012. It’s also pricey. It’s also contextual to the shooter genre. For a more clear and general understanding of the topic, check out my free guide on video game mechanics.

23. Theory of Fun for Game Design

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Author: Raph Koster

Edition: 2nd edition

Last updated: December 31, 2013

Amazon ratings: 4.3 out of 5.0 (600+ ratings)

Goodreads ratings: 3.9 out of 5.0 (3,200+ ratings)

Kindle (to rent for 1 month): $11.73

Kindle (to buy): $24.22

Paperback: $19.85 – $25.49

This book provides design concepts and principles from Ralph’s perspective covering topics such as game mechanics, player motivation, and the social aspects of gaming.

Caveat: From a game design perspective, I disagree with some of Raph’s perspectives and approach and see them as a bit dated. Also, I find the writing glosses over ideas and assumes things should be done a certain way. I’d recommend you to check out his book anyway to explore other perspectives and form your own opinion.

24. Think Like a Game Designer: The Step-by-Step Guide to Unlocking Your Creative Potential

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Author: Justin Gary

Edition: 1st edition

Last updated: September 9, 2018

Amazon ratings: 4.46 out of 5.0 (120+ ratings)

Kindle: $9.99

Hardcover: $21.25

Audiobook (Audible): $13.08

This book is a bit tangent to the actual craft of game design since it focuses on applying game design principles to various aspects of everyday life.

However, it’s worth mentioning since the author does go over game design principles (in the context of tabletop games)

Caveat: The author’s main industry experience is in board games, not video games. Also, the application of the book is more towards contexts outside of the actual game creation process. On the flip side, it does go over how to get a job in the game industry and publish board games.

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All tactics. No fluff . Pro advice only. Unsubscribe any time

EXPERIENCE & BACKGROUND:

[STUDIO] Blizzard Entertainment: Content, mechanics, and systems designer

(Creator of Apex Legends & former Creative Director at Respawn)

[GAME] World of Warcraft: MMORPG with 8.5 million average monthly players, won Gamer’s Choice Award – Fan Favorite MMORPG, VGX Award for Best PC Game, Best RPG, and Most Addictive Video Game.

  • Classic:
    • Designed Cosmos UI
    • Designed part of Raid Team for Naxxramas
  • Burning Crusade:
    • Designed the raid bosses Karazhan, Black Temple, Zul’Aman
    • Designed the Outlands content
    • Designed The Underbog including bosses:
      • Hungarfen, Ghaz’an, Swamplord Musel’ik, and The Black Stalker
    • Designed the Hellfire Ramparts final bosses Nazan & Vazruden
    • Designed the Return to Karazhan bosses: Attumen the Huntsman, Big Bad Wolf, Shades of Aran, Netherspite, Nightbane
  • Wrath of the Lich King:
    • Designed quest content, events and PvP areas of Wintergrasp
    • Designed Vehicle system
    • Designed the Death Knight talent trees
    • Designed the Lord Marrowgar raid
  • Cataclysm:
    • Designed quest content
    • Designed Deathwing Overworld encounters
    • Designed Morchok and Rhyolith raid fights
  • Mists of Pandaria: 
    • Overhauled the entire Warlock class – Best player rated version through all expansion packs
    • Designed pet battle combat engine and scripted client scene

[GAME] StarCraft 2: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Diablo 3: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Overwatch: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Hearthstone: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[STUDIO] Riot Games: Systems designer, in-studio game design instructor

(Former Global Communications Lead for League of Legends)
(Former Technical Game Designer at Riot Games)

[GAME] League of Legends: Team-based strategy MOBA with 152 million average active monthly players, won The Game Award for Best Esports Game and BAFTA Best Persistent Game Award.

  • Redesigned Xerath Champion by interfacing with community
  • Reworked the support income system for season 4
  • Redesigned the Ward system
  • Assisted in development of new trinket system
  • Heavily expanded internal tools and features for design team
  • Improved UI indicators to improve clarity of allied behaviour

[OTHER GAMES] Under NDA: Developed multiple unreleased projects in R&D

Game Design Instructor: Coached and mentored associate designers on gameplay and mechanics

[STUDIO] Moon Studios: Senior game designer

(Former Lead Game Designer at Moon Studios)

[GAME] Ori & The Will of The Wisps: 2m total players (423k people finished it) with average 92.8/100 ratings by 23 top game rating sites (including Steam and Nintendo Switch).

  • Designed the weapon and Shard systems
  • Worked on combat balance
  • Designed most of the User Interface

[GAME] Unreleased RPG project

  • Designed core combat
  • High-level design content planning
  • Game systems design
  • Game design documentation
  • Gameplay systems engineering
  • Tools design
  • Photon Quantum implementation of gameplay

[VC FUNDED STARTUP] SnackPass: Social food ordering platform with 500k active users $400m+ valuation

[PROJECT] Tochi: Creative director (hybrid of game design, production and leading the product team)

  • Lead artists, engineers, and animators on the release the gamification system to incentivize long-term customers with social bonds and a shared experience through the app

[CONSULTING] Atomech: Founder / Game Design Consultant

[STUDIOS] Studio Pixanoh + 13 other indie game studios (under NDA):

  • Helped build, train and establish the design teams
  • Established unique combat niche and overall design philosophy
  • Tracked quality, consistency and feedback methods
  • Established company meeting structure and culture

Game Design Keynotes:

(Former Global Head of HR for Wargaming and Riot Games)
  • Tencent Studio
  • Wargaming
  • USC (University of Southern California)
  • RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology)
  • US AFCEA (Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association)
  • UFIEA (University of Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy)
  • West Gaming Foundation
  • Kyoto Computer Gakuin – Kyoto, Japan