Finishing the Book, Part I of I

Well, it’s done. My first book – The Unpredictability of Gameplay, due to be published in 2018 by Bloomsbury Academic – is finished. I’m now just putting the final touches to the formatting on the footnotes and the bibliography, and then in the next few days finally submitting it to the publisher. At my suggestion they have kindly created an absolutely beautiful front cover for the work, which I can’t wait to see printed. I’m not sure whether I can post it here yet, but the moment I can, I will.

As long-time followers of the blog will know, this has been quite an undertaking, both contributing to and being made more challenging by the pretty severe burnout I’ve experienced in the last six or so months. This week I’ve had to crunch absolutely on finishing the book, and although this is only a small blip in my overall return to coding related over the past several weeks now, it has meant that things haven’t moved on from last week: which is to say, I haven’t yet fixed a few small remaining issues with speech generation, and then begun to move onto generating the variables in sentences, such as “[god]” or “[painting]” or “[place]” and so forth. As such, this week I instead wanting to reflect a little bit on the writing process – as I naturally haven’t written a full-length academic monograph before – and talk a little about what I wanted to explore in the work, what I’ve learned which will stand me in good stead for future work, and some thoughts on the future monographs that are presently flying around my brain.

The Book

As long-time readers will remember, the book is entitled The Unpredictability of GameplayI first came up with this idea at least three years ago, when I was approached by a fellow academic who edits a book series, who had heard of me and both my game design + game scholarship work, and was interested in getting a book from me. Originally I pitched a book specifically and solely about roguelikes. This was a series about game genres, and nobody had written in the series about roguelikes – nor, for that matter, other related areas like strategy games, the always-nebulous “simulation games”, and the like. I described what this project might look like, and although the editor was interested, it soon became clear that my thought process was inching toward something a little grander, and more conceptual, theoretical and “foundational”, rather than a study specifically of roguelikes. I think this was made clearer when I had a paper published on roguelikes, which I think is the first academic paper I ever had published, which showed me that there was a “market” for roguelike scholarship outside of books. So instead I drifted away from publishing in that series, and instead to publishing a standalone volume, which metamorphosed into a way of addressing a longstanding linguistic vexation. This problem, in essence, was over how we use terms like “chance” or “luck” to describe any kind of mechanical unpredictability in games, and the incredibly breadth of categories like “games of chance” or “games of luck” that encompass everything from slot machines to Dwarf Fortress. These categories – to put it mildly – seemed somewhat too broad. Consequently, the opportunity seemed to be there for unpicking these categories in more detail, and developing a useful framework for understanding perhaps the different kinds of chance, luck, or whatever we might want to call them.

After more discussion with Bloomsbury Academic, the book thereby shifted into an attempt to unpick these categories and find ways to distinguish between different implementations of unpredictability (what in the book I came to call “locations” of unpredictability within a game’s design). As soon as I confirm with Bloomsbury what I can post here, I’ll hopefully be able to post a contents list and that type of thing, but succinctly, the first two-thirds of the book primarily develops a four-part typology for thinking about unpredictability in games, depending on “where” in the game that unpredictability is found (roguelikes have all four, some other genres do not), and then the final third looks at three “case studies” where I think the typology is particularly useful: procedural generation, replay and grinding, and things that players do in order to remove or negate the unpredictability in a game (such as gameplay seeds or save scumming). The idea is therefore to first develop a more detailed way to think about game unpredictability, and then to hopefully demonstrate the analytic value of the typology I suggest in the earlier part of the book. This structure also works because although the book’s primary target audience is game scholars, and the theoretical foundations of the work are pretty dense, I’m also hoping that the work will have some impact for game designers, and indeed, game players. As I look over the final product now, I’m confident that the book does what I set out to do, and with the quality of writing I wanted – although it was certainly not an easy road.

Time and Workload

This book, even once it was my primary working focus, took me around six months of concentrated work. This came after over a year of more general work around it, reading relevant literature, sketching it out in greater detail, learning about some of the case studies I wanted to know but I wasn’t especially knowledgeable about, and so forth. Although I had scheduled ample time and energy, it was still more demanding than expected, and this was an important lesson to learn. So much of writing a book comes not from the actual content itself, and the marshalling of ideas and the analysis of examples and so forth, but rather from all the stuff in-between. Do all of the chapters follow logically from one another? Are there any glaring gaps in what I’ve written? Have I accidentally missed crucial citations? Am I repeating myself enough that people can keep track of where they are in the work, but not so much that the reader gets bored of reading the same signposting statements over and over? My doctorate, although the same length, by its nature a) was written over a longer period and b) was something that had to adhere to a slightly different set of rules. Dissertations are like books, but they remain different, and undeniably a simpler task; one simply has to produce a good piece of work which at most half a dozen people might read, rather than producing the best piece of work one possibly can, and a piece of work that a large number of people will read. These differences make the writing process into an intense and often challenging process, but also a tremendously rewarding one now that I look back at the final product, and one which also taught me a lot about writing monographs in the future; how to structure my time, and what elements to prioritise which might be less natural and inevitably more laboured than the purely intellectual component.

As a result, I’ve decided to make a few changes for when, probably next year, I commit to a new book project. My next monograph – assuming the proposal is accepted, of course! – will be a) co-authored with a colleague, and b) shorter in length anyway (we’re looking at around 80,000 – 85,000 words). This means, in essence, that I will be writing half a book next time around, and a half-a-book done in tandem with a friend and colleague one can bounce ideas off and who can take over when none isn’t in the mood (and vice versa), all things which I anticipate lessening the mental load significantly. And, of course, again, I’m only writing half as much. Even though (if we get the contract) we won’t be writing this until well into 2018, I’m confident that these shifts will prevent the project from coming to so completely dominate my life as it has in the last six or so months. Equally, the work we’re currently developing the proposal for is primarily empirical rather than theoretical in nature, which – from my experience writing journal papers – is a significant help in the writing process. Marshalling existing theoretical insights and concepts to give sense and meaning to one’s data and the analysis one wishes to perform is, inevitably, a project that is not simpler, as such, but certainly one which requires the author to step less determinedly outside of the existing boundaries of ideas. As such, looking back now, I feel writing this first book has allowed me to establish a kind of “base line”, if you will, for future work, and one which I think will be extremely useful going forward.

The Scope of the Question

Lastly, I was struck by simply the sheer number of previous engagements with somewhat-related topics out there: far, far more people have considered unpredictability in games (understood broadly) than I had imagined, even in the fairly-comprehensive review of existing literature I did in the production of the initial book proposal. Naturally, any monograph is going to draw on a tremendous amount of previous work, but in the process of developing a truly comprehensive look at the field I found myself citing a larger number of other scholars or game designers than, I think, almost any other book-length work I drew on. In part, I think this is a consequence of wanting to produce an explicitly foundational work for thinking about game unpredictability, which therefore necessitates making sure I’m being exhaustively detailed about other relevant literature; but also, in part, I was amazed by how much previous work there has been examining game unpredictability – yet without unpicking sweeping categories like “games of chance” or “games of luck” in greater detail! This ranged from anthropological work looking at ancient board games, examinations of the rise of casinos, or the growth of statistical thinking and games of chance in the Renaissance, or the relationship between unpredictable games and religious divination, the role of unpredictability in game theory, and far more besides.

This led to an experience quite unlike that of simply writing a paper, because although one is forced into brevity for a literature review, that sits in keeping with the nature of an academic paper more generally. One’s focus is expected to be more narrow, and thus a shorter literature review is not just appropriate for the length of the work, but also for the far more precise focus of any paper compared to any monograph-length work. By contrast, here – both due to the scope of my project, and the tremendous range of previous work in the area – a truly sweeping review of existing work was needed. This only continued to grow as time went by, eventually far exceeding any possible epistemological boundaries I might have imagined at the project’s start. This, equally, struck me as a crucial lesson about the delineation of one’s project in a book, and something I think I would have benefited more at the start of this particular project. Although the final product is as good as it could have been, the process could definitely have been improved by applying what I’ve learned here about how profoundly vast the body of work one draws upon in a book-length project can become, and in the importance of circumscribing more clearly the boundaries in which you are going to work. Again, as above, because my ambition was to write a foundational work this was inevitably going to need to offer the more reader an even more thorough review of the existing space than most, but looking back over the process, a tighter focus in the future will definitely aid in writing.

Final Thoughts

Overall, and despite a slightly bumpy road, I’m extremely happy with the final product. Numerous proof-readers (academics, game designers, and others) have been extremely positive in their comments whilst also giving valuable critical feedback I’ve since incorporated into the final version. At the same time, the process of writing monographs is now infinitely clearer to me than it was two years ago, and I am confident that moving forward it will be a process that will more streamlined, and less damaging to my work-life balance, than it was in this first iteration. As above, a second work is currently in development (to write in late 2018), and I also pretty much know what my third book will be (2019/2020?) – I’m excited about both of these projects, but even now I’m already applying the lessons learned here to their very earliest stages of development, aiming to build on my strengths I discovered in the process of writing this first book, and mitigate, streamline or evade some of the challenges or problems. As for TUOG, I’ll be posting more about the work as soon as I can and I’ve checked what I’m allowed to put up here, including, hopefully, an introductory chapter. In the mean time, this coming weekend I’ll be back to working on URR’s sentence variables: see you all then!

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10 thoughts on “Finishing the Book, Part I of I

  1. Congratulations! I know this has been a long and difficult task. I am interested to see what conclusions you draw and what predictions you make in the book, and wonder what impact it might have on game criticism and design. And let us know about your next book topic when you can.

    Also, are there any plans to publish an e-book version?

    • Thanks a bunch crowbar! I really appreciate it. The next book proposal is under review at another press at the moment; as noted in this entry, it’ll be co-authored, and shorter. More as soon as possible! e-Book: I suspect so, but I don’t know for sure…

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