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Untold Play

The Art of Game Design: How a masterclass in videogame design applies to all

The Art of Game Design: How a masterclass in videogame design applies to all

by Terry Pearce

A year ago

Sometimes you read a good book about what you do. Other times you read a book so staggeringly comprehensive, well-sourced and well-written that you marvel you could’ve been successful in your field before you read it. 

I’m very happy to have corrected my error by reading Jesse Schell’s The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses. To be fair to me, it’s an easy mistake to make. Jesse Schell is, first and foremost, a videogame designer. Will what he says be relevant to learning games? But in his intro, he promises ‘much of what you read here will work equally well no matter what kind of game you are designing’. 

And he delivers on that promise. Fully 90% of the book was extremely relevant to learning game design. Now, the book is almost 600 pages long. So I’m not going to thoroughly list or review everything it has to say about learning game design.

But my goal here – if you have anything to do with designing or adapting learning games – is to convince you that you should read this book. So, here’s five reasons to read this book if you want to improve your learning game design.

It shows how a dizzying variety of disciplines bear on game design

Architecture. Psychology. Anthropology. Project management. Creative writing. Economics. Engineering. History. Mathematics. Visual arts. Ethics. Philosophy. This is very far from a comprehensive list of the disciplines he pulls into the book. And it never feels like it’s for the sake of it.

He shows how architecture can help us think about game spaces, literal and metaphorical. He shows repeatedly how psychology bears on the player experience. He digs into how maths and engineering can support your game design. Each of these and more in practical ways that show you things you can do.

And the list of book recommendations from all these fields – and plenty more from within game design itself – is going to take me a long time to get through. You get the sense that Schell has spent a lifetime reading roundly and thoroughly, all the time asking what every new thing reveals about game design. 

It’s comprehensive, covering all steps of the design journey

The chapter structure goes something like this:

  • The designer creates an experience
  • The experience takes place in a venue
  • The experience rises out of a game
  • The game consists of elements
  • The elements support a theme

And so on, all the way through refining and testing your idea, considering players, drawing in best practice in technical design, balancing the game, including puzzles and story, and a host of other things.

At each turn, he explains what we’re talking about, why it’s important, and how to do it well. You can look at it as a guidebook to follow, or a reference book to check if you’re having trouble at any stage of your journey. If there’s something he left out, I don’t know what it is.

It’s endlessly practical, with a focus on steps you can take

He writes in the first and second person. I did this. You can do this. Nothing feels theoretical for its own sake (although he does take in – and make easy – some complex theory along the way). Despite its 600 pages, it doesn’t feel like a manual or a textbook. It feels like a practical toolkit.

Having this in my brain (and, in a way we’ll come to, in my back pocket), makes me feel like I have more options. More possible directions. More tools to bring out when I’m presented with a design challenge.

Take puzzles. He covers using puzzles in games by taking you through a set of ten principles to apply. Make the goal easily understood. Make it easy to get started. Give a sense of progress. In each case, he breaks it down to make it usable, with copious examples. 

The way it’s written makes 600 pages seem a breeze

As well as the first/second person approach, the style is endlessly conversational. He’s not here to sound clever. This is the opposite of academic writing. The sense you get is of somebody sitting down to share what they’ve experienced, and what it all means.

I’ve worked on plenty of projects involving Plain English. Plain English makes it easier to grasp ideas. It makes things less tiring to read. The reader can focus their effort on understanding and fitting the new ideas into their worldview, instead of working out what the writer is trying to say.

You’ll take time over this, but only because it deserves it, not because you have to re-read and re-read. If more experts wrote like this, readers would get more out of their writing.

The lens-based approach means you’ll actually use what you learn

Many great books are great while you read them, but hard to retain and apply. How do you take in and use 600 pages’ worth of material? This is a serious challenge that designers and authors in the learning space will be very familiar with.

Schell solves it by using lenses. Throughout the book he distils key tips and takeaways into lenses. In this context, a lens is a way of looking at game design – specifically the design of your game. So, there’s the Lens of Balance, The Lens of Goals, The Lens of Skill vs. Chance.

So when you’re done reading the book (or any section of it), you can use the deck of lenses – physical, browser-based or app-based – as a practical tool. Pull out lenses at random, or sift and search for lenses for your current stage or challenge. The lens cards themselves summarise key questions to help look with the lens, but you can also go back to the section of the book for deeper reminders.

I started using the early lenses before I’d finished the book. So I can tell you already that, where some other very good books recede in my memory and gather dust, this one will go on giving to my game design.