The Art of Game Design

I’ve never really discussed much about books on this blog. I love the fact that there are some fantastic books around about games, design, art and programming, and I myself own many – even some out of left field, such as “The Elements of Style”. Textbooks for most subjects tend to be fairly pricey, and generally universities don’t even recommend the best, or the most up-to-date titles for their subjects. At Swinburne, many subjects didn’t even had a recommended text. I’ve generally tried to work outside the box of most subjects, and do my own research and find relevant books that can help me better understand or learn the subject content.
Books often get negative views from some people. And this is understandable – there are alot of horrible books around. Many of the good technical books are aimed fairly low-level (GPU Gems, for instance), and thus are much less relevant for any designers, or programmers who use existing engines or frameworks. But there are a few gems that I can’t recommend highly enough to anyone, and I’d like to discuss one such gem in this post.
I recently purchased “The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses” by Jesse Schell. Surprisingly, this book was first published back in 2008, and I didn’t hear about it until this year. The most surprising thing is that The Art of Game Design is, in my opinion, the closest thing the industry has to a seminal book on design. And yet I never heard this book discussed at university, or in any design communities. Many books have tried to be “the reference” and failed, and while I can’t pass judgement after reading just 80 of over 450 pages, these 80 pages have been better than most lectures or articles I’ve read on game design.
As a designer, there are alot of processes you engage in subconciously, and alot of knowledge that is acquired simply through designing and making games. What The Art of Game Design manages to do is put these processes, thoughts, techniques and knowledge on paper. At the heart of the book are 100 “Lenses”, which are views that designers can look at their game through to ensure they are really achieving what they really want. The very first Lens in the book – “The Lens of Essential Experience” – is a great example of something that good designers do subconciously. The lens states
“To use this lens, you stop thinking about your game and start thinking about the experience of the player. Ask yourself these questions:
-What experience do I want the player to have?
-What is essential to that experience?
-How can my game capture that essence?”
This lens stems from Schell’s assertion that the goal of a designer is to create experiences. The goal of a game designer is to create experiences using games as the medium. This is one fundamental thing that seems to come to designers so naturally, and yet often fails to get put into words. The use of Lenses helps you look at a game very objectively and ensure that you stay focused on exactly what you’re trying to create. In all of the discussions and lectures I’ve had (or given) on games, in all the design documents I’ve written or read, I don’t think this is an aspect thats ever been discussed. Many documents or discussions will mention the mechanisms used to convey the experience, but alot of these come purely out of common sense or suggestions from people outside of the game. Most designs don’t capture the essence of the experience – the essential elements that help define the experience. This is where designers can draw on real life experiences and let their creative juices flow, in order to create mechanisms that can capture the essense of the experience.
For instance, not many of us have been chased by a dinosaur. However, most of us have had scary experiences, and we can draw on these scary experiences and how we felt during them to create some meaningful mechanisms to help the player feel scared.
This might seem obvious to people who have played alot of games. But doing it as a designer is being over the other side of the fence, and you can’t continually draw reference from other games in order to create your experience, especially if the goal of one of your designs is to break some new ground. To natural designers, they probably do this subconciously, but how many have sat back and thought about why or how they do it? The cynic in me says “You don’t need to reflect on how or why you do something in order to do it well”, but I strongly believe that this can not only help someone become a better designer, but it can help us teach the next generation of designers how to improve their games.
Over the coming weeks as I read more of The Art of Game Design, I’ll no doubt be writing more posts about the book and my thoughts on various parts. Until then, I strongly recommend that you purchase this book.

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