Thursday, February 19, 2009

Review of "The Art of Game Design" by Jesse Schell

Recently I wrote a review for Jesse Schell's new game design book. You can read it up on Gamasutra.

Here's a brief except:
Though the elements of game design are well described, practicing designers won't find a lot of new insights that haven't been covered elsewhere. Luckily, the book also includes some more utilitarian tools in the form of 100 "lenses", or questions that help you iterate on your current design.

A designer's job often consists of asking questions. Almost as soon as you start building a game, you need to ask "what should be improved?" There are nearly an infinite number of questions one could ask and often finding the right question to ask is key to coming up with the right solution.

The 100 Lenses are a set of time-tested questions that you can ask about your game. Are you using your elements elegantly? Could your pacing be made a bit more interesting by using interest curves? What is the balance of long term and short term goals for the player? One of my favorites is Lens #69, The Lens of the Weirdest Thing:

"Having weird things in your story can help give meaning to unusual game mechanics -- it can capture the interest of the player, and it can make your world seem special. Too many things that are too weird, though, will render your story puzzling and inaccessible. To make sure your story is the good kind of weird, ask yourself these questions:

What's the weirdest thing in my story?
  • How can I make sure that the weirdest thing doesn't confuse or alienate the player?
  • If there are multiple weird things, should I maybe get rid of, or coalesce some of them?
  • If there is nothing weird in my story, is the story still interesting?"
  • These are the sort of questions that get me looking at my game designs from a new perspective and can really jolt the creative juices. Not all of the questions will be useful.
However, somewhere in the list are at least two or three questions that even the most experienced designer wished they had asked sooner. By having the questions at your fingertips, you can ask them earlier.
Thoughtful writing on game design always get my brain churning in interesting new directions. With Jesse's book, I was reminded what a broad ranges of disciplines that game design ultimately includes. I have taken a narrower route and spent the last couple of years focused on a rather specific set of tools related to rapid iteration and skill atoms. Yet there are dozens of fascinating nooks and crevices in our evolving craft that one could profitably invest their life exploring.

take care


  1. I'm impressed enough with the review, as well it's notable write-up and award-receipt in the GD Magazine Front Line Awards, to go ahead and pick up a copy from Amazon.

    I would also suggest that people who are into this book read up on Andy Hunt's Pragmatc Thinking & Learning. A great book regarding cognitive science and improving your R-mode to L-mode flow, it ties in somewhat with your comment in the review on distributed cognition.

    No matter how much we increase our capabilities and utilize our brain power, we are still limited with respect to our capacity for multiple, simultaneous thought processes; however, I agree that having the ability to keep increasing our mental capacities while offloading less intrinsic or intuitive "details" to our environment helps our efficiency and ability as developers.

    As always, an avid reader,

  2. Yeah, uh, thanks danc. Like I need yet another book to read in the already too long list.

    Of course, I'm going to have to pick this one up. Thankfully I just got a 40% off coupon from Borders in the e-mail today. :)

  3. This book seems really interesting.

    However, it doesn't seem to offer much take away knowledge, though it does make you think.

    Do you have a recommendation for a book on game design that appeals to laymen?

  4. I own a game startup and this image/article/review had me on "Hello" World.

    I had my MC out at Amazon faster than you can say "Bob".

    I have about half of the chart in production and am entering the creative art asset/player creation phase.

    That said...
    This blog has taught me more than any other game blog or book.

    Oh, gotta run. Fedex guy's here:)

    Thanx DANC

  5. I just got this book, and I have to say, I am totally floored. I'd liken it more to one of my other favorite books, "The Art of Happiness" by the Dalai Lama, rather than to any other books about 'game design' I've read. Dan C, your blog has been like a constant voice of reason in my life. Thank you for turning my attention to this wonderful piece of literature. Keep up the good work!

  6. I think that Danc has been a voice of reason for many, myself included, it's really a great book and a very good review.