DenkiColin’s Recommended Reading List

Here is my current recommended reading list for those interested in running their own business and – particularly – running their own games business.

I’ve been working in the games industry for just shy of 20 years at this point, and more than 12 of those have been running companies that could (loosely) be described as independent game developers.  Therefore I thought it might be helpful for other like-minded game developers/entrepreneurs to save them some time by collating the most useful books I’ve read into a single blog-post for easy reference. These are the ones I wish I’d read 20 years ago.

You see, I don’t get to play as many games as I used to these days 🙁  And this is why – because I’m busy absorbing knowledge from books, blogs and magazine articles like these.  They’re in no particular order, other than the order I thought of them:

1 ) The Lean Startup by Eric Ries

“Before new products can be sold successfully to the mass market, they have to be sold to early adopters.”

In a hit driven industry such as games we’re always working for a Startup.  It doesn’t matter if it’s just been set up yesterday or if it’s been going for more than a decade like Denki has: it’s still a Startup, at least until it’s found a sustainable, scalable audience willing to pay for whatever it makes.  And even once we’ve found this audience we’ll still need to continually innovate; and to do that we’re going to need another Startup somewhere within our organisation. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say this is probably the most important book we could all do with studying right now as the implications are profound for everyone, regardless of our industry or market.

2 ) Made To Stick by Dan Heath and Chip Heath

“Avoid burying the lead.  Don’t start with something interesting but irrelevant in hopes of entertaining the audience.  Instead, work to make the core message itself more interesting.”

Communication is one of the most important things game developers do – whether it’s internally to team members or externally to an audience. This book introduces a few key concepts and distills them into practical, essential tools any developer can use to get their message out.

3 ) Confessions of an Advertising Man by David Ogily

“I notice increasing reluctance on the part of marketing executives to use judgment; they are coming to rely too much on research, and they use it as a drunkard uses a lamp post – for support, rather than for illumination. ”

One of the best (and wittiest) summaries of the commercial realities of creative businesses I’ve read.  It’s particularly recommended for its list of 15 Ways To Be A Better Client. Our industry could be a much better place for all concerned if those who were commissioning work understood and implemented even half of these.

4 ) Rework by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson

“Build half a product, not a half-assed product”

These guys get a fair bit of flak from those who say “it’s just common sense repackaged”, but the value they provide is putting all that common sense together with tangible examples of why it makes sense and then presenting it in a convenient format that can be referred to any time we’re tempted to think we know better.

5 ) To Infinity & Beyond by Karen Paik and Leslie Iwerks

“He (Steve Jobs) put up with a lot – if we had been a real company, we would have died nine times over – but he always stepped forward to write a check.”

Pixar are the best example I’ve yet uncovered for how a creative startup can be grown into a world-class business without losing its heart and soul. This provides a comprehensive account of how Pixar achieved it. Being officially sanctioned it’s not exactly ‘warts and all’, but it provides more than enough of a foundation for those wanting to copy the bits that work best.  If partnered with some of Ed Catmull’s lectures, “The Pixar Touch” and Walter Isaacson’s “Steve Jobs Biography” it’s possible to get most of the warts should they be wanted.

6 ) Mavericks At Work by William Taylor and Polly LaBarre

“There are no stars here”, says Lyn Heward (of Cique du Soliel) “the show is the star. How many somersaults you can do is not as important as an open-mindedness to our process, the tough-mindedness to get through the job, and what we call a ‘fire to perform.’”

This is a great collection of inspiration for anyone looking for validation that doing things differently isn’t merely desirable, it’s essential. This book provides a good overview of significant companies who have gone before, such as Xerox PARC, Hewlett Packard, Disney, and many, many more.  It’s a great diving off point for any fellow deviant thinkers.

7 ) Tribes by Seth Godin

“‘Established 1906’ used to be important.  Now, apparently, it’s a liability.  The rush from stability is a huge opportunity for you.”

Truth be told I could probably have filled this list with nothing but Seth’s books, but if I had to choose just one, and particularly given our focus on Game Development, this would be it.  Independent Bands and Record Labels have understood the value of tribes for decades, but it’s only recently that the ubiquitous availability of digital distribution has brought that importance to other creative media such as films, books and, of course, games.

8 ) Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure by Tim Harford

“The three essential steps are: to try new things, in the expectation that some will fail; make failure survivable, because it will be common; and to make sure that you know when you have failed.”

Our world has become far too complex for problems to be reliably solved by experts. This book opens with some compelling evidence that will provide the final nail in the coffin for anyone still inclined to defer to expert opinion. The problems we can rely on experts to solve have, for the most part, now been solved – they’re not the big problems we face anymore.  All that’s left now are all the other problems that we won’t be able to solve by relying on experts. Biologists have a word for the way in which solutions emerge spontaneously from failure without any sort of expert intervention: evolution.  We’re taught to fear failure from an early age, and consequently our society distrusts those prepared to try and fail – just look at what happens to any politician brave enough to run a pilot study to tackle a difficult problem. This book shows the folly of that approach and why we must change our approach if we are to start making significant inroads to tackling the problems we all face in the 21st century and beyond.  And it does this by providing example after example of successes that only became so following initial failure.

9 ) Guitar Lessons by Bob Taylor

“Without the sales, it’s all just talk.”

I came to this book as a passionate, lifelong guitar fanatic expecting to find little more than an anecdote studied history of Taylor Guitars. What I found instead is one of the most insightful first-hand accounts of how to establish and grow a business from Startup to Market Leader: the rush of starting; the challenge of making it work; the hard lessons to be learned; the tough decisions to be faced; the soul-crushing perseverance to not give up when everything goes wrong; and the humanity to do it without exploiting anyone. It’s a fascinating story of growing a business from 3 guys in a shack to over 500 employees across 2 factories in different countries with sustainability as the goal rather than profit.

10 ) Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini

“Since 95% of people are imitators and only 5% are initiators, people are persuaded more by the actions of others than by any proof we can offer.”

This is primarily about recognising automatic behaviour patterns in ourselves and others, but it also a great primer for understanding how to price products and how to present them in ways that allow people feel confident in purchasing from us.  I often find that developers feel confused or uncertain about pricing strategies, etc., and this is a good high-level introduction that will ensure we at least understand customer’s basic motivations.

There are many, many others I could add to this list, such as Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats, Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration by Warren G Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman, Against The Odds by James Dyson, Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre by Keith Johnstone, Audio For Games by George Sanger, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams, and The Complete Calvin & Hobbes Collection by Bill Watterson (yes, seriously – I mean for learning about business, not light relief).  But I wanted to limit it to a top 10 for simplicity’s sake.

Thanks to everyone who has introduced me to one (or more!) of the books on this list – you all know who you are, and I’m eternally grateful to every one of you.  And if anyone has other recommendations, please feel free to leave a note in the comments as I’m always interested in new views – the more unorthodox the better!

I hope that by sharing this list others may glean as much insight from them as I have – and hopefully much more.