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The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses

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c. 2008, Taylor and Francis Group, LLC. Jesse Schell

The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses is a game design manual written by game designer Jesse Schell in 2008. Though Schell’s stated goal in writing the book is “primarily to teach you [the reader] how to be a better videogame designer” (xxiv), the principles he explores in the book may be (and are intended to be) applied to any type of game. He organizes the book around the somewhat abstract principles and rules of thumb he and other game designers have come to rely on in their practice, perspectives he calls lenses. He puts forth one hundred lenses throughout the course of the book, supplemented by personal experience and thorough yet colloquial explanations of major concepts. To Schell, game design is more of an art than a science, but ought to be approached with both subjects in mind.

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Chapter 1: In the Beginning, There is the DesignerEdit

The first chapter serves as an introduction which focuses on what a game designer does. It begins with personal self-affirmation (“Just say these magic words: I am a game designer,” 1) before going into some of the skills any game designer needs, including a basic grasp on diverse subjects such as animation, business, and technical writing. However, the skill most important to Schell is listening – the empathy and attention any good game designer needs to give to their design team, their audience, their games, their clients, and themselves (5-6). 

Chapter 2: The Designer Creates an ExperienceEdit

Chapter two sets out to examine what Schell believes to be the end goal of games: the experiences they create (10). Game designers, like artists or writers, are concerned with creating artifacts that in turn give people a specific experience. However, as games tend to be non-linear experiences, the gap between the object and the experience is much more pronounced (12). These experiences can be examined through practical approaches (such as anthropology, psychology, and general design principles) and careful and objective introspection (which goes back to the concept of “listening” from the last chapter). Finding an essential experience for the game to try to emulate is thus one of the most important aspects of game design, and becomes his first lens.

Chapter 3: The Experience Rises Out of a GameEdit

Having established the link between the designer and essential experience, Schell begins to pick apart the connection between them: the game itself. In the process of looking at possible definitions of the term, (drawing from multiple theorists, designers, and popular conceptions), Schell touches upon the subjects of toys, fun, and play before finally coming to the conclusion that “a game is a problem solving activity, approached with a playful attitude” (37). Schell emphasizes that the definitions he comes up with are to be taken as guidelines, more practical rules of thumb than ontologies.

Chapter 4: The Game Consists of ElementsEdit

Chapter four breaks down “game” into its four major constituent elements: Mechanics, Story, Aesthetics, and Technology. Schell calls this the Elemental Tetrad (41), and holds that all four elements are equally important to a good game, supporting each other as they work to achieve a common goal (43). To illustrate this, Schell examines the classic arcade game Space Invaders from all four perspectives: the technology, for example, sets the parameters for the game, while the aesthetics of the sounds in the game made it much more intense than many of its predecessors (44-45). Schell ends the chapter by emphasizing how a designer needs to have “holographic vision” while designing, so that they can see not only these four perspectives and how they interact behind the scenes in a game, but also what the player experiences directly.

Chapter 5: The Elements Support a ThemeEdit

Next, Schell explores the ideas of theme and resonance and how they can strengthen the essential experience behind any game. The first half of the chapter is devoted to two simple steps: “Figuring out a theme and using every means to support that theme” (49). "Every means" includes every element in Schell's Elemental Tetrad: technology, mechanics, story, and aesthetics. To illustrate how these steps may be implemented, Schell explains the early development of a virtual experience he worked on for Disneyland called “Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for Buccaneer Gold,” a project he continues to bring up throughout the book. The best themes have what Schell calls “resonance,” ideas that touch players deeply by fulfilling their fantasies (experience based theme) or affirming a powerful idea the player holds to be universally true, like “love conquers all” (truth based theme) (53). In the end, finding a resonant theme that holds meaning for an audience will make any designer’s game more successful and impactful.

Chapter 6: The Game Begins with an IdeaEdit

Chapter six outlines the process of inspiration and idea formulation in general, providing tips on how to manage one’s creative subconscious (“Your Silent Partner,” 63) and how to brainstorm effectively (68-74). Again, Schell puts emphasis on practice over theory.

Chapter 7: The Game Improves Through IterationEdit

After accumulating ideas using techniques from the last chapter, Schell’s next step in the process is how to choose an idea worth implementing as a game. According to Schell, the most effective way of making a game better is through building a rough prototype and actually testing it out. He outlines a couple of methods for judging these iterations, especially his eight filters of design (76-78), examples of risk assessment, and software engineer Barry Boehm’s spiral model of software development (82-83). All of the methods revolve around the principle Schell calls “The Rule of the Loop: The more times you test and improve your design, the better your game will be” (80). To Schell, a gradual approach is key to any successful design, games or otherwise (95).

Chapter 8: The Game is Made for a PlayerEdit

With the production side of the process roughly outlined, Schell moves on to focus on the games audience: the player. The chapter begins with a primer on demographics, primarily focusing on interests associated with age and gender. He takes a very pragmatic approach to these issues, basing his lists of masculine and feminine interests in games on sales statistics and general psychological studies. The second half of the section is about game psychographics – what types of people play what types of games. Schell borrows ideas from game designers Marc LeBlanc and Richard Bartle to classify the different player types designers should be aware of in order for their game to have the right amount of impact. “Knowing your players more intimately,” Schell concludes, “is the key to giving them a game they will enjoy,” a topic he expands on in the next chapter (112).

Chapter 9: The Experience is in the Player's MindEdit

Drawing heavily on psychology, Schell spends chapter nine focusing on how a player’s mind works in the context of a game. The first section, "Modelling", points out how the brain processes the complexities of reality through essentializing images and information, cutting them down to their most basic elements in order to understand them. Games provide “pre-digested models that are easy to absorb and manipulate,” so the designer has a lot of power over what the player sees as “reality” (117). The second part, "Focus", draws upon Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow as a model for finding the right balance between challenge and player skill in any given game, assuring the players do not quit out of boredom or frustration (121).

Next, Schell spends time discussing empathy and imagination as ways of players immersing themselves in a game experience, and how designers can encourage these mental traits in their games. An interesting discussion on motivation follows this, in which Schell maps gaming’s tendencies to connect people, boost self-esteem, and allow for creativity onto to third through fifth levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, elevating the fulfilling function of games in general (126-127). Finally, Schell ends the chapter with a brief emphasis on the fourth level of Maslow’s hierarchy – self-esteem – and how games provide areas for safe and fair judgment that fulfill this innate human need (128).

Chapter 10: Some Elements are Game MechanicsEdit

Schell returns to games themselves in this chapter, breaking them down into the game mechanics at their core. According to Schell, there are six categories of game mechanics: space, objects, actions, rules, skill, and chance. This leads to a brief discussion of emergence – how simple actions can combine to make complex phenomena – and how to foster emergence in a given game. Included within this section is a list of tips for understanding mathematical probability, a useful reference for game designers.

Chapter 11: Game Mechanics Must be in BalanceEdit

Chapter Eleven is devoted to promoting game balance, a nuanced practice Schell describes as “the most artful part of game design” (172). As a way to focus the act of game balance, Schell begins by listing the Twelve Most Common Types of Game Balance and how to implement them effectively, peppering the list with examples and concepts to support these types. A list of general balancing methodologies follows, including how to improve one’s intuitive sense by practiced guesswork and planning balancing ahead of time. He also touches on the idea of game economies, and the issues to consider when deciding on currencies and resources for any given game. Finally, he ends with a statement on how balancing is more about a game’s “feel” than any formulaic assessment, a theme he returns to throughout the book (205).

Chapter 12: Game Mechanics Support PuzzlesEdit

As they are a key part of many games, Schell devotes a chapter to defining and examining puzzles. He defines a puzzle as “a game with a dominant strategy” early on in the chapter (209), emphasizing how puzzles are solvable and lose their appeal after they are solved (unlike most games.) Schell goes onto provide a short history of puzzles and video games before listing out ten principles for making good puzzles that enhance rather than interrupt a game’s experience.

Chapter 13: Players Play Games Through an InterfaceEdit

One of the most technical parts of the book, chapter thirteen revolves around the interaction between the player, the game world, and the real world. All video games have a physical interface (a control scheme/set of physical inputs and outputs) and a virtual one (the display, the pause screen, the visual aspects, etc.). Both of these interfaces work together with the goal of being transparent and intuitive enough that the player can immerse themselves in the game world without having to worry about fidgeting with clunky controls or bad display. To Schell, a good interface provides good feedback, gives the player a lot of satisfying control (he calls this “juiciness”), and communicates all the information necessary to play the game. In general, Schell encourages making the interface with the player in mind so that it does not detract from their experience of the game.

Chapter 14: Experiences Can be Judged by Their Interest CurvesEdit

This chapter focuses on interest curves, graphical representations of player interest over time. A good game (or any good experience) has a dynamic interest curve, with peaks and valleys of interest leading to a climactic end, similar to the rising action/falling action construction of many books, plays, or movies. After explaining the general gist of these curves, Schell goes on to break down “interest” into three constituent parts (inherent interest, poetry of presentation, and projection) showing how different entertainment experiences draw from these parts in different capacities to make equally engaging experiences. At the very end of the chapter, Schell problematizes the concept of game interest curves: since not all games are linear, how can a designer control a player’s interest (260)? He revisits this question in chapter sixteen, but first spends a chapter on one of the most traditional entertainment experiences: the story.

Chapter 15: One Kind of Experience is the StoryEdit

Schell’s chapter on story begins with a treatment of the story/game duality that has led to debate in the game industry. “Historically,” according to Schell, “stories have been single-threaded experiences that can be enjoyed by an individual, and games have been experiences with many possible outcomes enjoyed by a group” (262). This all changed with the advent of single player computer games, which married story and gameplay and sparked an ongoing debate between which ought to have precedence in game studies (game-centric ludology vs. story-centric narratology.) Schell puts the debate into perspective by reminding the reader that a game designer is really after experiences, which have been most effectively accomplished by a combination of both (263). With this in mind, he delves further into controversies surrounding the medium.

First, Schell attempts to dispel the idea of “passive entertainment” – that games, compared to literature or cinema, are “truly interactive” (263). While the player does interact in a game setting, any good piece of storytelling similarly fosters engagement with an experience and makes them question the outcome the story’s events. As such, both forms of storytelling (“traditional” and “new”) are more alike than different, and would do well to learn from each other.

Then, Schell moves into the particular challenges and realities of stories within games. “The Dream,” as he puts it, is to create a completely interactive world in which the player has complete freedom to live out a story (264). Though this has fostered many fascinating experiments, Schell sees it as unattainable, at least in the current state of things (264). Instead, there are two major story-telling methods that have worked for video games: the string of pearls method (moments of freedom interspersed through a constant storyline) and the story machine method (relatively open ended worlds which players ascribe meaning to) (264-266.)

The real problems with the dream of a completely interactive story, Schell explains, have appeared in minor forms within both of these effective story methods. For one thing, game stories often do not have unity, partly because games thrive on having multiple meaningful choices. Secondly, the amount of time, energy, and data required to make a completely interactive experience makes the idea unfeasible, and cutting corners by fusing together some plotlines defeats the purpose. Similarly, multiple endings are often disappointing to the player, who would have to spend time and energy replaying the game to find new meaning in it. Structurally speaking, Schell holds that games are focused around a particular set of engaging verbs – running, jumping, shooting – which make more subtle storytelling elements difficult to portray. Finally, unless a game is to end completely upon the death of the avatar, save games, check points and other “time travel” make certain stories (like tragedy) almost impossible to recreate in game form. This all being said, Schell does not believe the dream should be abandoned, just refocused on experiences over story (270).

The rest of the chapter details eight story tips for game designers to help design a story that supports the desired experience of their game.

Chapter 16: Story and Game Structures can be Artfully Merged with Indirect ControlEdit

Though Schell holds that freedom (or at least the illusion of it) is an important aspect of games in general, he holds that designers can manipulate a player’s experience through methods of indirect control. He spends the chapter detailing these methods, which include: limiting player choices with constraints; setting specific goals; designing an interface so it hints at a specific skill set; visual design choices; and music that fits a given mood. He spends a good deal of time on how to use non-player characters to lead players into specific situations in a method he calls “collusion.” Used correctly, these methods can give the designer some control over the player’s experience of the game, while still making the player feel as if they have a sense of freedom.

Chapter 17: Stories and Games Take Place in WorldsEdit

Worlds, the focus of the seventeenth chapter, refers to the entire fiction surrounding a particular work. Schell borrows from theorist Henry Jenkins when he says that worlds are transmedial: they extended outward beyond the medium they were originally composed for through the strength of their aesthetic and thematic draw (Schell 301).  Schell puts forth Star Wars and Pokemon as examples of transmedial worlds. When viewed from this perspective, games are doorways into a “magic place that exists only in the imaginations of [the player],” another aspect to consider when creating stories for games (307).

Chapter 18: Worlds Contain CharactersEdit

In this chapter, Schell examines the role and features of video game characters with an emphasis on how to make compelling characters. He begins with an analysis of major characters from three types of media (novels, films, and games) to determines what makes them unique. He concludes that, compared to the mental, realistic, and complex characters of novels and film, many game characters tend to be involved in more physical conflicts, tied to more fantastic worlds, and are often portrayed in more simple terms (311). However, Schell believes that game characters are not doomed to follow these models, and must be made more meaningful to appeal to a maturing audience (311). Schell then goes on to examine the role of the avatar, a character that is often most successfully portrayed as an idealized blank slate which the player can project themselves on (312-313).

The rest of the chapter is a list of tips for creating meaningful characters, which include defining their archetypical roles, giving them relationships with other characters, and making them face character-building challenges.

Chapter 19: Worlds Contain SpacesEdit

Drawing heavily upon architecture (a field which, to Schell, is also about “controlling a person’s experience,” 330), this chapter focuses on the use of space in games. Schell begins by listing the five main ways of organizing space in games: linear (Monopoly or platformers like Super Mario Brothers); grid (chess, Civilization); web (Trivial Pursuit, or games like Zork); points in space (bocce, or many large scale roleplaying games like Final Fantasy); and divided space (Risk, Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time).

            Schell then introduces readers to renowned architect Christopher Alexander’s approach to architecture: the search for a nameless quality of space that is among other things “free from inner contradictions” (334). He then applies Christopher’s fifteen properties of living structures to game design, emphasizing the same search for that nameless quality. The rest of the chapter is about the differences between virtual architecture and real architecture. In a general, designers have more freedom to create in a virtual world, but run into troubles that come from working with non-real materials such as inconsistent unit sizes and making things look realistic in a third person or top down perspective.

Chapter 20: The Look and Feel of a World Is Defined by Its AestheticsEdit

Having spent a good deal of time on technical aspects of design, Schell turns to game aesthetics in his twentieth chapter. Schell holds that aesthetics are important to game design for multiple reasons, including providing a hook, increasing immersion, and just providing pleasure to the player (347). From a design standpoint, Schell advises the concept artist be active from the very early stages of the game’s production in order to create a product that looks unified. That being said, unlike in many other mediums, technical limitations must be taken into account throughout the process and often the final aesthetic arises from quirks in the technology.

Chapter 21: Some Games are Played with Other PlayersEdit

In this short chapter, Schell explores multiplayer games and why people like to play them. He provides five main reasons, all which may be designed for: competition, collaboration, meeting up, exploring our friends, and exploring ourselves. Though multiplayer experiences can fulfill many innate social needs through any of these methods, Schell cautions that adding multiplayer features make any game project significantly more complicated, and should be approached with care.

Chapter 22: Other Players Sometimes Form CommunitiesEdit

Because the gaming industry is becoming more attached to the internet, community management is becoming an increasingly important aspect of game design. Schell explores this topic in this chapter, drawing from social psychology and his experience with the massively multiplayer game ToonTown Online.

Schell uses designer Amy Jo Kim’s succinct definition of community: “a group of people with a shared interest, purpose, or goal who get to know each other better over time” (358). To Schell, a strong community is beneficial to a game because it fulfills a social need for players and keeps more people interested in the world for a longer amount of time. He then goes on to list tips for creating a good gaming community, with a particular focus on integrating different player types into the community and preventing bad behavior among players (mainly through methods of indirect control.)

Chapter 23: The Designer Usually Works with a TeamEdit

The rest of Schell’s book focuses on the production cycle, beginning with how to work in teams. This chapter is useful for designers interested in keeping their team cohesive, productive, and in communication, with tips on how to achieve those ends.

Chapter 24: The Team Sometimes Communicates Through DocumentsEdit

Chapter Twenty-Four is a primer on the technical writing that goes along with game design, from story overviews to concept art reviews to budgeting documents. Schell explains to the reader that there is no single format for a master game design document, so it is up to each designer to ensure that the team receives documentation that keeps records in a clear and concise manner.

Chapter 25: Good Games Are Created Through PlaytestingEdit

Following from the philosophy that the best games are tested through multiple iterations, chapter twenty five gets into the specific considerations of playtesting – that is, watching others play a game in order to see if it achieves the desired experience. Schell goes over tips on when and where a playtest should be held, whom it should be done by, and how to effectively evaluate testers without interrupting the experience.

Chapter 26: The Team Builds a Game with TechnologyEdit

The last part of the Elemental Tetrad to be treated, Schell spends this chapter exploring the issues that arise from Technology. There are two types of technology: foundational technology (which make new kinds of experiences possible) and decorational technology (which just make existing experiences better) (Schell 405). Schell gives multiple examples of games in order to distinguish the two before addressing the issues that come with trying to predict upcoming technologies. In general, Schell advocated for determining what technology is needed to create a given game experience before trying to integrate a new system surrounded by hype (i.e. motion controls), as this will ultimately lead to a more unified experience.

Chapter 27: Your Game Will Probably Have a ClientEdit

This chapter explains the relationship between a game designer and the clients they will almost certainly have to work for at some point. In it, Schell provides tips for positive communication with those who may not understand the ins and outs of game design. Generally, it is good to make the client feel as though they are part of the creative process in some capacity, even if their ideas do not end up getting implemented.

Chapter 28: The Designer Gives the Client a PitchEdit

Like the chapters immediately before it, this chapter provides tips for the business side of game design, namely refining a short, interesting pitch about the game to win over clients. Schell’s general piece of advice it getting to know the audience and tailoring the information to their needs and interests. 

Chapter 29: The Designer and the Client Want the Game to Make a ProfitEdit

In the last purely marketing chapter, Schell explains the economics of game design: who is involved with game production, what proportion of the proceeds go to each producer, and how to approach business situations. The chapter includes a list of financial jargon to help would-be designers seem more capable in the boardroom (437-438).

Chapter 30: Games Transform Their PlayersEdit

One of the final chapters focuses around the transformative power of games, especially in a psychological and educational context. It begins with a discussion of the positive effects of games, which include emotional maintenance, social connection, and (for some games) reason to exercise (442-443). He spends a great deal of time writing about the possible educational uses of games, especially for conveying facts in an interesting way, fostering problem solving, providing hands-on opportunities, and encouraging curiosity as students attempt to explore the system itself.

 He also spends time discussing potentially harmful aspects of games, namely the debates about games’ violent content and their potentially addicting natures. Schell indicates that games, taken independently, almost certainly do not encourage these behaviors, but that does not mean a designer ought to disregard these concerns. Instead, a designer needs to act responsibly and be aware of what impact they could be making. This responsibility is the subject of the final chapter.

Chapter 31: Designers Have Certain ResponsibilitiesEdit

The second to last chapter is a call to all would-be game designers to take their intended profession seriously. Though games may not cause harm on their own, there is always the potential that any medium will be dangerous in some capacity. Part of being a game designer, to Schell, is trying to find the “hidden agenda” lurking within each game (456). This is not an attempt to dodge controversy, but an understanding that “games are not just trivial amusements” (456). They are impactful, and a designer is responsible for much of this impact.

Chapter 32: Each Designer has a MotivationEdit

This final chapter is a personal send-off which encourages the reader to find their own motivation for making games and stick by it in order to reach their true potential as a game designer.

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