August 2, 2008

The Path to Wisdom

Filed under: Games Development,XNA — bittermanandy @ 8:45 pm

I’d originally been planning to show off the the (very!) early stages of my game, Pandemonium, today; but I hit a minor bump in the road and it’s not quite ready for showing yet. (Top tip: if CLRProfiler.exe keeps displaying a “Waiting for the .NET Framework” message when you run your game, then keeps crashing when you shut it down, try running as Administrator. Took me hours to work that one out…)

Instead I think it’s a good time to tell you about the Five Books You Must Own If You’re Writing XNA Games

Game Coding Complete, 2nd Edition (Mike McShaffry)

You might think this a strange selection as XNA doesn’t even get a mention, not even once. All the code samples are in C++ and DirectX. So why is it the first book on the list?

The very simple reason is that whether you use C++ or C# is, really, just an implementation detail (though obviously, C# is better! :-). What you will get in this book is a massive 884 pages absolutely jam-packed with valuable information about games, making games, and the games industry from someone who has been there and done it all. I struggle to think of a single topic (XNA excepted) that the author doesn’t discuss with familiarity and wisdom, in an easy style. Design? Coding? Scheduling? Testing? Algorithms? Maths? Graphics? Audio? Networking? 2D and 3D? It’s all there. This is, I believe, the single best book about games development that has ever been written. You need it on your bookshelf – no, on your desk, within easy reach.

Microsoft XNA Unleashed (Chad Carter)

The range of XNA books available is slowly growing, and I’ve got most of them. (Not all of them are good. I’ve been through the pain of reading some of them so you don’t have to…). I keep coming back to XNA Unleashed for a few reasons. Firstly, it covers pretty much the whole range of what XNA can do, and takes great care to ensure that the earlier stages are described in great detail, making it an ideal first purchase if you’re just getting into XNA. The second reason is that the supplied code samples (on CD and downloadable) are particularly clear and well-written, and include a whole bunch of classes and methods that you’ll find yourself coming back to time and again. Recommended.

XNA Game Programming Recipes (Riemer Grootjans)

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book when I ordered it. The idea of arranging the contents into recipes just seemed a strange way of doing it, it didn’t seem to match up to the way I read books.

All I can say is that it is a format that works brilliantly. The author writes in a style that is clear, simple and to the point. (This does mean the absolute basics don’t get treated in as much detail as in XNA Unleashed, but it is otherwise a much better book for intermediate or advanced coders). Each recipe is either self-contained or references the work that it builds upon, and there are some stunning ideas here, all explained very clearly and concisely.  It’s the kind of book you can flick through, open up a random page, read for a bit and think: “…that’s brilliant!” Even on my first skim through I noticed a couple of recipes that exactly solved issues I’d been pondering in my head for a while.

If I had to pick fault, it would be that the book could have used more diagrams. This is a minor complaint, though, because the whole point is to run it and see it in action – then use it yourself in your own games. I would also have liked to see more discussion about audio. Still, as a handy reference to remind you of how specific XNA concepts work, or as a source of inspiration for truly imaginative solutions to realistic problems, this book succeeds on almost every level.

Effective C# (Scott Wagner)

There’s a well-known saying in coding circles: “C is powerful but lets you shoot yourself in the foot. C++ lets you re-use the bullet”. Fortunately Effective C++ by Scott Meyers has come to be considered a compulsory text for any C++ programmer, because it shows you how to use the language properly.

I am very glad to say that the author has achieved with this book what Meyers did for C++. It is, simply, the definitive guide to developing C# code that doesn’t just run, but runs correctly, effectively and efficiently. I found it particularly appropriate for someone like me, coming to C# from a C++ background. I look back at the early code I wrote when I started playing with XNA and I wince – I’ve learned since then, and it was this book that taught me. To spell it out: if you’re writing in C# and haven’t read this yet, your programs are probably fundamentally flawed.

The only drawback is that it only covers .NET 1.1, and the framework changed a lot in 2.0 and later. I am reliably told there is a second edition due later this year that will cover newer versions. I will be buying the second edition as well. (This, and Game Coding Complete mentioned above, are the only books I’ve ever been able to say that about).

Develop and Game Developer

I know, technically these are magazines not books, but to make up for it I’ve listed two.

Together these publications cover just about everything that is new in the games business. Particularly of note are the Post-mortems in Game Developer, which provide a uniquely in-depth insight into the challenges that particular games encountered during their development. Both magazines also provide extensive job listings and offer regular columns on each of the major games development disciplines: coding, design, art, sound, and business.

If you’re a professional in the games industry (or possibly a student? not sure) you can subscribe for free if you live in the country of publication, but both are worth the subscription price even if you can’t take advantage of that offer.

I hope this helps – I know when I get started with something I’m always keen to buy a few books so I can gain the benefit of experience without quite as much trial-and-error as having to make mistakes on my own. With XNA in particular, there are a few books that really aren’t that useful; I don’t think it would be fair to call them out, but with any luck these recommendations of which ones to buy should help keep you from wasting money on turkeys.

(Disclaimer: I have no connection in any form to any of the authors or publishers of these books or magazines).

“A clever fighter is one who not only wins, but excels in winning with ease.” – Sun Tzu



  1. Also make sure to get the correct version of the CLR Profiler 2.0

    Comment by Dean — August 3, 2008 @ 6:21 am | Reply

  2. Thanks for the recommendations. I already have Game Coding Complete, but I will definitely be checking out these other books now too.

    Comment by camomilk — August 6, 2008 @ 12:20 am | Reply

  3. […] at 3:06 pm · Filed under Games Yesterday i noticed that Andy Patrick placed a nice blog on the five books you must own if you are writing XNA games. So i’ve looked over them and found it funny to see Game Coding Complete: Second Edition on […]

    Pingback by The path to more wisdom « ravenger online — August 6, 2008 @ 2:07 pm | Reply

  4. Great stuff as always. Thanks.

    Comment by Muttley — December 10, 2008 @ 2:41 pm | Reply

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