Review: The Art of Game Design by Jesse Schell

Book: The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses
Author: Jesse Schell, game designer, VR enthusiast, and professor at Carnegie Mellon
Year: 2011 – 1st Ed. (2nd Ed. came out in 2014)

Summary: A really excellent, comprehensive introductory textbook to the field of game design. There’s a supplemental card deck of “lenses” that are nice for early prototyping or smaller indie projects.

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There are many books touted as introductions to game design for students or aspiring designers and I’m often skeptical of their claims, having run across so much bad advice. When doing the initial research for this game design library series, I’ve found dozens of books that seem to paint an incomplete picture, or whose lessons quickly become outdated with new technology. The Art of Game Design has none of these flaws: it’s comprehensive, covers design irrespective of technology (but does not ignore it), and contains concepts and examples that have me nodding along in agreement from experience.

The Art of Game Design is a Game Design 101 textbook: it reads to me like a full semester college curriculum on game design, from theory to practical concerns, that has everything you need for self-study except for a list of assignments. If I ever taught a game design course, I would design my curriculum right from this textbook – so while I definitely recommend it for students, it should also be necessary reading for teachers of (practical) game studies courses. (Schell himself teaches at Carnegie Mellon and I’ve been told the book is based off of his teaching materials, which is a good recommendation for that program).

The book itself is split into 33 chapters, each one tackling an important concept that builds upon previous ones. Schell starts at the beginning with basic ideas and definitions – designers, games, players, ideas, iteration – continues into the heart of game design – mechanics, balancing, puzzles, interface, story, spaces – and even dives into the necessary logistics – documentation, playtesting, publishers, and profit. It is extremely comprehensive in that he covers all the major topics of game design, familiarizing students with important concepts and giving them the language to describe and analyze them. It clocks in at 489 pages with large pages packed with text and plenty of diagrams.

Schell’s approach to game design differs from my own in many ways, and has its own quirks or proposed ways to model complex ideas. For example, he offers his own alternative to the MDA (Mechanics-Dynamics-Aesthetics) framework that specifically incorporates story and technology. He analyzes and compares a number of different definitions of “game” and offers his own admittedly incomplete but highly practical definition: that a game is an experience. I can get behind these mental models and add them sparingly to my toolbox, though I didn’t find anything really revolutionary within its pages (nor did I expect to).

As a working designer reading this, it retreads a lot of familiar ground. If someone has never really put any thought into what it takes to balance a game, this book will give you not one but twelve different axis to think about (physical vs. mental, easy vs. hard, short vs. long, and so on). Most of this is already second nature to me, so at times the reading felt a bit of a slog. It’s only when Schell dove into subjects I know very little about – such as his chapter on transmedia storytelling – that I found myself fully engrossed in the text. I appreciated the book, personally, as a tool to fill in holes in my knowledge I didn’t realize I had. I can’t honestly think of any subjects he failed to cover, and all the usual “rules of thumb” or lessons taken from other media (from the hero’s journey to the Big Five in psychology) are all mentioned.

One of the strengths of The Art of Game Design lies in its personal anecdotes and examples used throughout to illustrate every idea, concept, piece of vocabulary, and step along the way of making games. Sometimes this feels a bit wordy and long-winded – long paragraphs describing a real or hypothetical game can feel redundant if you already grasp the idea. But since I consider the prime audience for this book to be students, the repeated information presented in a variety of ways means that almost everyone will come away with a good understanding of any given concept.

Schell’s playful enthusiasm for games (which you’ll know if you’ve ever heard him speak) shines everywhere. It’s written personably – the author has a distinct, friendly voice and uses his previous experiences in games and other careers (like juggling) to tell anecdotes and explain his process. Some chapters interested me more than others but, to be honest, the tone and quality of information was really even throughout the entire book. A few sections I could have skipped (interface, brainstorming) because the topics did not interest me as much, not because they weren’t well-written.

I read The Art of Game Design at the same time as I began design for a side project. I found myself wishing there was a workbook or checklist companion for the textbook – but this is where his Deck of Lenses comes in.

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Art of Game Design: A Deck of Lenses – not my image, but rather from the Amazon.com’s customer reviews

“Lenses” are different discrete concepts – such as the Lens of Flow or the Lens of Fairness or the Lens of Story – that give you unique points of view on your game. These concepts are the core of the textbook, where any chapter may have a half a dozen different lenses called out in its own box summarizing and repeating the information written within the text. Each lens has a number of questions to ask yourself about your game when evaluating it.

A Deck of Lenses is a companion to the Book of Lenses: it is a deck of 100 cards, each one containing a different lens (you can see some examples with a quick google search). The deck is also available as a free app for iOS and Android – I didn’t install it since I have my own hardcopy, but I encourage readers to check them out. [iOS link] [Android link]

The lenses he chooses are all excellent, asking important questions to help you reflect on your game. They act like a condensed version of the textbook: if you have already internalized the concepts, these are your snapshots to remind you and act as a direct tool for evaluating your game.

If you’re deep in mid development of a AAA-sized game then I’m not sure you’ll find much use for A Deck of Lenses. But I think they could be a tool for indies or people making small games by themselves judging by how I used them on my own small project this month. It will vary based on whether you, personally, find a use for them or add them to your habits. I suspect mine will soon end up back on the shelf gathering dust again like they had for the last two years.

There is a second edition out now and I briefly looked at it – it has some new content, new lenses, and recommendations for further reading at the end of each chapter. I don’t think the changes are substantial enough to warrant getting a second copy, but if you can’t decide between the two then pick up the second.

Personally? I found The Art of Game Design kind of boring since it spent most of its time introducing me to concepts I am already familiar with. For this reason, I hesitate to recommend it to experienced designers but, as they say, your mileage may vary. So far this looks like the most comprehensive (encyclopedic even) book on common design concepts. I think most students and aspiring designers (as well as those that feel they have gaps in their knowledge) would be better off armed with the information in these pages.