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The art of game design: A book of lenses

Page: DesignBook.Book200907300530PM - Last Modified : Tue, 29 Mar 11 - 8597 Visits

Schell, Jesse

The art of game design: A book of lenses / Jeese Schell.- Burlington: Morgan Kaufmann, c2008.

489 p.:ill.

Endnotes: p.465-475
Bibliogr.: p. 477-479
Index: p. 481-489
Morgan Kaufmann Publishers is an imprint of Elsevier.
ISBN 978-0-12-369496-6

I just want to note that some examples have been added by myself to illustrate some concepts of the author while other examples comes from the author.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: In the Beginning, There Is the Designer
Chapter 2: The Designer Creates an Experience
Chapter 3: The Experience Rises Out of a Game
Chapter 4: The Game Consists of Elements
Chapter 5: The Elements Support a Theme
Chapter 6: The Game Begins with an Idea
Chapter 7: The Game Improves Through Iteration
Chapter 8: The Game is Made for a Player
Chapter 9: The Experience is in the Player’s Mind
Chapter 10: Some Elements are Game Mechanics
Chapter 11: Game Mechanics Must be in Balance
Chapter 12: Game Mechanics Support Puzzles
Chapter 13: Players Play Games Through an Interface
Chapter 14: Experiences Can be Judged by their interest curves
Chapter 15: One Kind of Experience Is the Story
Chapter 16: Story and Game Structures can be Artfully Merged with Indirect Control
Chapter 17: Stories and Games Take Place in worlds
Chapter 18: Worlds Contain Characters
Chapter 29: Worlds Contain Spaces
Chapter 20: The Look and Feel of a World Is Defined by Its Aesthetics
Chapter 21: Some Games are Played with Other Players
Chapter 22: Other Players Sometimes Form Communities
Chapter 23: The Designer Usually Works with a Team
Chapter 24: The Team Sometimes Communicates Through Documents
Chapter 25: Good Games Are Created Through Playtesting
Chapter 26: The Team Builds a Game with Technology
Chapter 27: Your Game Will Probably Have a Client
Chapter 28: The Designer Gives the Client a Pitch
Chapter 29: The Designer and Client Want the Game to Make a Profit
Chapter 30: Games Transform Their Players
Chapter 31: Designers Have Certain Responsabilities
Chapter 32: Each Designer has a Motivation
Chapter 33: Goodbye


Chapter 1: In the Beginning, There Is the Designer

To be a game designer you just need to call yourself a game designer since you only need to make a game to be called a game designer. Anybody can design a game and most of the time they will face a lots of failures, but practice can eventually make you a good game designer.

To design a game you might need certain skills. The author is listing quite and exhaustive list but the most important skill is "Listening". You will be listening to the team you work with, to the audience you game is targetting, to how your game is behaving, to your client which is paying you to make the game and to yourself.

Chapter 2: The Designer Creates an Experience

The goal of a game designer is not to design a game, but rather an experience. But the game itself is not an experience. The designer creates a game that will generate an experience when it gets played.

A tool that can be used to understand human experience is introspection. But you must consider the following deduction errors:

  • You can make false conclusions about reality.
  • What is true about your experiences might not be the same for other people.

You must clearly detail your introspection, for example, if you don't like something, find the reasons why. To know how to create an experience you need to analyse your own experience. This can be achieved in various ways:

  • Analysing your memories of theses experiences.
  • Doing twice the same experience: you feel it first and then you analyse it.
  • You can make "Sneak Glance" at an experience which consist in taking a short amount of time to analyse what you are experiencing and repeating these glances multiple times.
  • You can observe other people or even yourself having an experience.

When designing a game, define the multiple elements that creates an experience and try to select the most important elements that will be used in your game to recreate that experience.

Chapter 3: The Experience Rises Out of a Game

The author takes a whole chapter to try to give a definition of what is a game. I'll jump directly to the conlusion which is:

A game is a problem-solving activity, approached with a playful attitude.

The meanning of the definition is that a game always consist in solving a puzzle or a problem. This problem is solved because the player want to solve it and not because he is forced to solve it else it would be called "work" instead of "play".

Other interesting elements in this chapter are:

  • Players like to be surprised (so random elements can be interesting).
  • Players are curious (uncovering hidden things is interesting).
  • Endogenous Value: A bit hard to define, it like the value of an object inside a game. Examples given: Monopoly money has no value outside the game. Casino games are more compelling when using real money.
  • Solving a problem is fun and rewarding

Chapter 4: The Game Consists of Elements

All games are composed of 4 elements:

  • Mechanics: Determine how the game works.
  • Story: Setup the context behind the game.
  • Aesthetics: Represents the look and feel of the game.
  • Technology: This is the various technique and material used by your game.

All these elements are connected to each other and no element is more important than the others. Still the way the elements are shown on the diagram:

  • Visibility: Aesthetics is much more visible than technology
  • Brain side: Mechanics and technology are left brain side elements while story and aesthetics are right side elements.

All 4 elements always needs to be there but they don't need to be exhaustive all the time. A board game with a short back ground story and very low technology components still have all the elements.

The elements of the game should represent the skeleton while the experience given by a game should be the skin of the game. Both are essential to make the game work.

Chapter 5: The Elements Support a Theme

Every game requires a theme but here the notion of theme is a bit different from what is known on the board game market. Since for him a theme seem to be a combination of a theme and experience. For example, in his pirate game where the theme was not "pirates" but rather "the fantasy of being a pirate".

When you selected your theme, you need to find things that will reinforce your theme. Include these elements into your game and discard any other elements that does not reinforce the theme.

Some themes try to fulfill needs that are hidden into the peoples mind. For example: "Being a pirate" express the need of "freedom". The author say that these themes have a resonance and are generally much more powerful and addictive.

Chapter 6: The Game Begins with an Idea

Inspiration is the primary source of ideas. You should not look at other games for ideas but rather at everything else.

Since game design consist in solving a problem, you must clearly make the problem statement that will indicate both your goals and your constraints. The author gives the following example:

"How can I make a Web-based game that teenagers will really like?"

He also gives other examples related to the 4 elements of design previously explained:

  • How can I make a board game that uses the properties of magnets in an interesting way? (Technology)
  • How can I make a videogame that tells the story of Hansel and Gretel? (Story)
  • How can I make a game that feels like a surrealist painting? (Aesthetics)
  • How can I improve on Tetris? (Mechanics)

The advantages of making a statement gives you more time and space to creativity instead of jumping rapidly on solutions, You have an idea of how well does the solution found really solve your problem and if you are designing with a team, it makes the communication easier.

Most people who need creativity (ex: writers, musicians) needs to rely on their subconscious to receive ideas. There are various ways to stimulate this subconscious: Write down your ideas to make sure you don't forget them, Free your mind of any trouble in your life, Don't push your self to think about something since your subconscious will do the job, etc.

The author also gives some brainstorming ideas: Draw the things you want to design, Use toys to play with to get new idea, Write your ideas on a wall and place your ideas visually, Write everything, make numbered lists, make categories, etc.

Chapter 7: The Game Improves Through Iteration

Game design consist in making many test and errors but the problem is that in some part of the industry (ex: video game) making many errors mean raising the money spent on development. So first the author propose 8 filters, which are expressed as key question, that your ideas should pass through before starting to do anything.

  1. Artistic Impulse: Does this game feel right?
  2. Demographics: Will the intended audience like this game enough?
  3. Experience Design: Is this a well-designed game?
  4. Innovation: Is this game novel enough?
  5. Business and marketing: Will this game sell?
  6. Engineering: Is it technically possible to build this game?
  7. Social/Community: Does this game meet our social and community goals?
  8. Playtesting: Do the playtesters enjoy the game enough?

The procedure to design a game consist in looping through different series of activities. For example: Design, Prototype, Playtest and then go back to design. You continue looping until the product is complete. Now since every loop is worth time and money, you want to reduce the amount of loops, minimize the amount of effort on each loop and make each loop as much important as possible.

For each loop, you must determine the risks. You need determine what are the things that can go wrong with your game. Then you must make a prototype, according to these risks, to see if these problems actually shows up. When it's done, you start another loop and think a the new problems that your game can have with the new changes to your game and prototype again to solve these risks.

The author gives a few prototyping tips, here are a few of them that could apply to board games:

  • Every prototype should try to answer a question which is generally a risk or a problem.
  • Make your prototype as cheap as possible in order to save time.
  • Don't mind throwing things you did away and starting from scratch.
  • Put some priorities on the risk you want to test.

Chapter 8: The Game is Made for a Player

You need to understand how your players think in order to make games for them. There are various ways to classify players. The easier way would be by age and sex. Here are some difference between men and women when playing games:


  • Mastery: they like challenging stuff.
  • Competition: they want to prove that they are the best.
  • Destruction: they like destroying stuff.
  • Spatial Puzzles: they are better at the kind of puzzle including 3D space navigation.
  • Trial and error: this is the way they like to learn.


  • Emotion: they like experience that has emotions.
  • Real world: they like to play with things that are in relation with the real world.
  • Nurturing: they like taking care of something.
  • Dialog and Verbal Puzzles: they prefer solving that kind of puzzle.
  • Leaning by example: they learn by watching others or reading tutorials.

The next model explained is the "LeBlanc’s Taxonomy of Game Pleasures" which consist to be the 8 most important pleasures found in a game.

  1. Sensation: Stimulating any of the 5 senses.
  2. Fantasy: imagining to being something that does not exist.
  3. Narrative: The curiosity of seeing how a sequence of events will happen.
  4. Fellowship: Anything related to friendship.
  5. Discovery: The curiosity and surprise of discovering new things through the game.
  6. Expression: Expressing yourself and creating things.
  7. Submission: similar to immersion, the idea of entering a new world with new rules and forget about reality.

Another model is the "Bartle’s Taxonomy of Player Types".

  • Achievers: They like to accomplish things and likes challenges. (They are acting on the world)
  • Explorers: They want to find everything and loves discovery. (They are interacting with the world)
  • Socializers: They want to have relationships with peoples. (They are interacting with players)
  • Killers: they like to compete and defeat others. (They are acting on the players)

Chapter 9: The Experience is in the Player’s Mind

The experiences players receives are in their mind. The mind can recreate reality by only giving it an incomplete set of details. It will imagine all the missing elements. For example, if you tell a story to somebody, he will imagine and see many things that you simply did not describe in your story.

People can focus on some things and block all other things they consider as noise. This has the effect of creating the "Flow" which hook up totally the player and makes him ignore everything else. To keep the flow active, you need to consider these elements:

  • Clear Goals: The player must know where he is going and what he has to do.
  • No Distraction: The player must not be distracted to keep the focus.
  • Direct Feedback: The game must give the user feedback inside a reasonable amount of time when he is doing something.
  • Continuously challenging: The game challenge must evolve at a steady rate without being too hard or too easy.

The flow channel is a concept that could certainly be better used in video game. It consist of defining a path where we want the player to stay in for the whole game to keep him in the flow. On one side you have anxiety which happens when the game is too hard and the player's skills is not good enough. And on the other side you have boredom when the game is too easy and the player's skill level is too good.

Abraham Maslow states that people are motivated at doing things in a certain priority of needs: Physiological, Safety, Belonging-love, Self-Esteem and Self-actualization. Games are located in the self-esteem area because the reason why people want o play games is because they want to be judged fairly.

Chapter 10: Some Elements are Game Mechanics

This is one of the most important chapter for board game designer. The author classify mechanics in 6 broad groups that includes almost all mechanics that a game can have.


This is the area than can contain objects. In board games, most of the space is represented by the game board. Space have the following properties:

  • A space is discrete or Continuous: Could be also expressed like Analog VS Numeric, Most miniature games are continuous, each space on a chess board is discrete since how you place the piece inside a square has no impact on the gameplay.
  • A space can have multiple dimensions: Chess is 2 dimensions, monopoly board is 1 dimension (can move forward or backward only)
  • Spaces are connected to each other: most of the time by space adjacent to each other. In chess, spaces are adjacent octogonally and diagonally allowing pieces to move between each space.

Some spaces can also be nested within each other and some spaces can have zero dimensions.

2-Objects, attributes and states

Objects are the stuff which will generally be placed somewhere in the space. The attributes are the variables that this object possess and the states are the values that the attributes can take. Objects are the nouns of game mechanics.

Attributes can be static or dynamic. Static attributes never changes during the course of a game. Computer programmers might call this a constant while dynamic attributes are variables.

States can be a simple value, but in video game artificial intelligence, it can be used to determine how an object will now behave from now on. The author gives the pac-man example where by default, the ghost are in chase mode, but when the player pick's up a power pellet, the ghost switch in evade mode until the time exceed. In each of these modes the ghost behave differently.

States of an object can be public or private, which mean that the information can be seen by everybody or only a few people.


Actions determine what the players can do. They are the verbs of game mechanics. There are various kind of actions:

  • Operative actions: This is all the actions a player can do. For example, in a chess game, moving a piece from one square to another is an operative action.
  • Resulting actions: These are some kind of goals which are derived from the operative action. For example in chess: capture the enemy queen is a resulting action that might take multiple operative actions to accomplish. So resulting actions are similar to strategies.

Here are some things you can do in your game to increase the number of resulting actions:

  • Add more actions: adding more actions will make the actions interact with each other.
  • Actions that can act on many objects: Or an action that can be used for many different things.
  • Multiple goals: Make sure that you can win in various ways to make sure players will use all the actions available to them and giving players a chance to use different strategies.
  • Many Subjects: Increasing the amount of objects in a game will increase the interaction between theses objects.
  • Side effects that change constraints: Each action should have the effect of imposing a new constraints on you or your opponent. Else it create a solitaire multi-player game.


Rules are what binds everything together. David Parlett analysed the different kinds of rules in games and identified them as follow:

  • Operational rules: Is is basically what the player can do in a game.
  • Fondational rules: These are the maths behind the rules. The rule "roll 1D6" is stated in fondational rules as "select a random number from 1 to 6".
  • Behavioral rules: These are unwritten rules setup by the players according to some ethics. For example in chess, do not take 5 hours to make a move.
  • Written Rules: This is the rule book of the game.
  • Laws: Game setup rules which could be considered as tournament rules. For example in chess, you could setup an 1 hour timer.
  • Official rules: When the games is played enough, the players will merge the laws and the written rules to create the official rules. So they are like evolved written rules.
  • Advisory rules: This is some strategic rule which are tips to play better. For example, in settlers of catan you could say "never set a settlement near a 2 or a 12".
  • House rules: (not in Parlett diagram) Are the changes that the player wants to make to the game to improve the game. In other words they are game variants.

Modes are some sort of variant game where the idea is to play the game in a different way without necessarily replacing the original game. The goal of the mode is not to correct bugs of the original games like some variants are doing.

Rules need to be Enforced by somebody to make sure the rules are applied. In a board game, the players enforce the rules. In a video game the game enforce the rules.

A game must have a clear goal. The goal of the game must follow these 3 important qualities:

  • Concrete: Players must clearly know what they have to do.
  • Achievable: The goal must be achievable enought for the player to think that they have a chance to accomplish it.
  • Rewarding: You much reward the player proportionally to the efforts they have made.


Skills is the player's expertise to play a game. There are various kind of skills a player can have:

  • Physical skills: Includes the strength and dexterity of a player.
  • Mental Skills: Includes memory, observation, deduction, etc.
  • Social Skills: Includes bluffing. negotiation, teamwork, etc.

You must make a clear distinction between Virtual and real skill. A virtual skill be for example like in dungeon and dragons: your character has +3 in tumbling. This tumbling still is the expertise of the character played by the player. But it does not mean that the player actually have the same tumbling skills.

It can be a good idea to list the skills that will be required to play your game.


In this section, the author talks a lot about how to calculate probabilities. Still, I strongly suggest you read a probability math book instead. (I will also eventually publish on this site a probability math document). So I will skip the math section.

Chance is related to all the other mechanics of the game and it is essential to the fun of the game because it brings uncertainty and surprises.

It could be interesting to know the Expected value of a random event. For example, if you roll 1D6, the average value is 3.5. If in a game people need to pay 4$, roll 1D6 and get a number of $ equal to the value of the roll. You know that in average, they will get 3.5$ which mean in long term, people are losing money.

The players will not always select the decision with the best expected value. Sometimes an action will little chances to succeed with an high payout will be preferable is some situation while not in others. Also some people likes to take risk while other play defensively. So even if an action is not balanced and has a lower expected value than another action it does not mean it will not be taken. Players also does not always no precisely the expected value of a choice and can evaluate it wrongly.

Skills and chance are somewhat related. The player gives various situation where it happens:

  • Estimating chance is a skill
  • Skills have a probability of success
  • estimating an opponent's skill is a skill
  • Predicting pure chance is an imagined skill
  • Controlling pure chance is an imagined skill

Chapter 11: Game Mechanics Must be in Balance

This is another interesting chapter that explains how to balance a game. There is a lot of talking about video games but many things are transferable to board games. The author starts by saying that there are 12 different aspects to check when balancing a game:


Players wants the game to be fair, they don't want the game to give an advantage to player. There are 2 ways to make the game fair:

  • Symmetrical games: This is a game where each player start with the same stuff and are allowed to do the same things. For example, chess is a symmetrical game.
  • Asymmetrical games: This is a game where each player does not have access to the same things. A good example is Starcraft where each race have access to different buildings and units which are played totally differently. Asymmetrical games are much harder to balance.

There are various ways to balance asymmetrical games. First you can give a value to each variable of an object and make sure the sum is the same for every object. For example, if in Starcraft you want a marine to be balanced with a zergling, you could sum up the attack defense and movement values and make sure they are equal.

The other way is using a rock paper scissor relationship. Starcraft also have this, certain units are better against some units and weak vs other units.

2-Challenge VS Success

To keep the player in the flow you must make sure that the game is not too easy or too hard. There are various ways to make sure the game stay challenging all the time: 1) Increase the difficulty with success 2) let the player skip the easy parts 3) give the player additional challenge without forcing to complete them to progress 4) Let players choose the difficulty level 5) playtest with a variety of players.

3-Meaningful choices

You must give the players a reasonable amount of choices which has an impact on the game. You must also make sure that there is no dominant strategy that will works every time you use it.

The number of choices a player have should be proportional the number of desires they have or things they want to do. So too much and not enough choices are both bad.

Triangularity: This is a concept defined by the author that consist between choosing a "low risk-low reward" choice vs an "high risk-high reward" choice. Most choices that the players have to make should have this triangularity in it.

4-Skills VS Chance

A game should have a balance between the amount of randomness involve in the game versus the skill required by a player. It is not a good idea to make games that only rely on skill or only rely on chance.

5-Head VS Hands

This is the balance with the amount of physical activity required by the game (for example: dexterity games) VS the amount of mental activity that must be done during the game. This strongly depends on your target audience and the kind of games you want to make.

6-Competition VS cooperation

Try to see where in your game, the player needs to cooperate and where do they need to compete. You can have mixes of competition and cooperation in the same game.

7-Short VS Long

If the game is too short, the players will not have the time to deploy their strategies, if the game is too long, the players will get bored. Again, the target audience influence how much time they are willing to play.


Players play game to get rewards. There are various kinds of rewards, here are the ones that applies more to board games: Gain Points, gain new powers, gain resources, etc.

With time, people get acclimated to rewards so that they easily forget the rewards they received. So increasing the value of rewards with time is a good way to solve this problem. Variable rewards is also a way to prevent players from getting acclimated to rewards.


Punishments are the opposite of rewards. It's the idea of removing something to the player due to a bad play. Punishment makes risk taking more exciting and it increase the challenge of the game.

Players don't like being punished. So you must give punishment on something that they player could eventually try to prevent. Do not put too much punishments and balance the impact of the punishment (light vs heavy punishments).

10-Freedom VS Controlled experience

This is the difference between where the players can do many things and have control over the game versus a game that tells the player what they have to do and gives them no other choice.

11-Simple VS Complex

There are 2 kinds of complexity in a game:

  • Innate complexity: This is the complexity created by the rules. The more rules and exceptions there is the more complex the game is. Most people prefer simple games, but sometimes complexity is required for better simulations (ex: historical war games).
  • Emergent Complexity: This is a complexity that arise when playing the game. The author gives the example of "Go" where the rules are really simple but the possible strategies offered by the game makes it really complex.

Natural balancing VS Artificial Balancing: Artificial balancing consist in adjusting a game by adding rules while natural balancing makes the game adjust itself through interactions within the game.

Elegance: is a concept where a simple elements can create a lot of complexity.

Hollywood rule of thumb: If a line in a script doesn’t serve at least two purposes,it should be cut.

Character: This is the opposite of elegance. It's an element that is totally useless, but adding this to the game gives it a style that makes it unique.

12-Details VS Imagination

Players have a certain imagination, this is why you do not need to include every details of reality in your game. So a game must give a limited set of details that the player can use to imagine the rest.

Balancing Methodologies

There are many ways to balance a game:

  • Problem Statement: Clearly state the problem before jumping on solutions
  • Doubling and halving: When changing values to adjust a game, make serious changes like doubling and having a value to know what are the extremes and then find the right value that fits between theses extremes.
  • Train your intuition to guess: With game design experience you will able to guess the right value right from the start, or at least a value close to it.
  • Document model: Write down the relationship between the various elements of the game and change this model as the balancing continue.
  • Plan in advance: plan ahead what you will need to balance in your game.
  • Let the players do it: Let the player balance the game while they play. This is generally a bad technique but in some cases it could be considered useful.

Balancing Game Economies

Game economies are applied to to many other aspect than money. Spending points to acquire things is an economic system. The most important things you have to ask your self is: How does player spend money and how does players acquire money. So you know that if players receive more money than they spend, they will get richer. If they receive less than they spend, the will get poorer.

Dynamic Balancing

It consist in balancing the game while the player is playing (making the game easier or harder while playing). It has been proven to give bad results because 1) It spoils the reality of the world 2) User can exploit it 3) Players cannot practice to master a level.

Chapter 12: Game Mechanics Support Puzzles

Puzzles are games which only have one solution or which have a dominant strategy ( a strategy that works every time). Here are the guidelines to make good puzzles:

  • Make the goal easily understood: The objectives should be clear to the players.
  • Make it easy to get started: Give an example or start the puzzle for the player.
  • Give a sense of progress: Give some feedback to the player to make it feel that he progress in the puzzle.
  • Give a sense of solvability: Make the player believe that the solution can be found
  • Increase the difficulty gradually: While the player progress, increase the difficulty of the puzzle.
  • Parallelism lets the player rest: Give multiple puzzle at once so that if players get stuck they can think about something else and get back later to the original puzzle.
  • Pyramid structure increase interest: You can have small puzzles within a puzzle where each of them give a part of the solution to the final puzzle.
  • Hints extend interest: Hints can help to keep the player's interest when they get stuck.
  • Give the answer: Players can get as much pleasure by getting the answer as if they found it by themselves.
  • Perceptual Shifts are double-edged sword: To solve these puzzle you need to perceive things in a certain way to solve it. But it does not mean that everybody will be able to see it.

Chapter 13: Players Play Games Through an Interface

The players needs to interact with the game through an interface. The concept of interface is more important in a video game but it still exist in a board game.

The players try to communicate with the game world through an interface. In a board game, the interface are tokens, charts, pawns, etc.

Interaction loop: There is a loop of interaction between the player and the game world. The world gives feedback, the player place input which makes the game give feedback again and the cycle continue. Which means that it is important that the game give good feedback to the player so that the cycle can continue.

channels of information: In order to give feedback, the game must give information to the player in order for him to take decisions. Here are a couple of steps to help determine the best way to present information:

  • List and prioritize information: You must sort the information to show to the players from the most to the less important.
  • List channels: You should make a list of all the areas and components that will contain information.
  • Map information to channel: Select in which channel where each information will be contained.
  • Review use of dimension: There are different ways to cummunicate information. For example, a number could be of a certain color and be surrounded by a certain shape where each of them could give informations.

Changing modes: This apply mostly to video game. It's the idea that pressing or holding a button can change the functionalities of other input which already had a function. Here are some tips when designing modes:

  • Use as few modes as possible: Too much mode can confuse the players.
  • Avoid overlapping modes: There could be conflict for the same input where players what to do 2 things at once but it use the same input.
  • 'Make Different Modes Look as Different as Possible: Give some feedback to indicate in which mode the players are in.

Other interface tips: Here are other general tips that can make you design a good interface.

  • Steal: also called the "top down approach", it consist in looking at already existing interfaces and borrow material from it.
  • Customize: This is the "bottom up approach" which consist of designing and interface from scratch.
  • Theme your interface: Reinforce you theme by integrating it to the interface.
  • Sound maps to touch: Add sounds in your interface as feedback (video game only)
  • Balance options and simplicity layer: This is the conflict between making an interface with as much option possible and make the interface as simple as possible.
  • Use Metaphors: Make the interface look like something players have used before.
  • Test, Test, Test: More practice makes you design better interface.
  • Break the rules to help your player: Break rules and assumption that all games similar to the one you have designed has established. It could allow you to come with something innovative.

An example out of the book: Just to give you an example, in Battlemist, players accumulated 3 types of resources: iron, wood, and wheat. In the basic game, you needed 3 kinds of tokens with different denominations on each of them that could be used as money. It made it very hard to manage and there was a lot of movements of tokens. In the expansion, they included a track labeled from 1 to 99 and you simply needed 3 tokens, one for each resource that you move along the track when the resource increase or reduces. Not only it reduce required components but also makes it faster to use.

Chapter 14: Experiences Can be Judged by their interest curves

Interest curves are more common in video games generally because the game follow a story, but this concept could still be somewhat applied to board games.

An interest curve looks like a mountain scape, it measures how interesting is the game through the time of the play. A good interesting curve has these elements:

  • Mountain Shape: The interest curve should always raise and drop like a mountain scape.
  • Hook: At the start of the curve, they should be an high pike. This is the elements that will hook the players into the game. Introduction movies of video games have this purpose. Many movies has a special introduction scene to hook the watchers.
  • Slope: Even if the curve has a mountain shape, as the time progress, it will always raise. So the curve is lower at the beginning and higher at the end.
  • Climax: This is the finally, it is the final pike before the game ends.

Now even if you know how the interest curve should fluctuate, you should be able to determine what makes something interesting. There are 3 elements which can create interest:

  • Inherent Interest: This is the idea of using something completely new that nobody has seen before.
  • Poetry of Presentation: This is how beautiful something can be.
  • Projection: This represent the possibility for the player to place themselves in the experience.

Here are some example:

Violin Concert: If you hear a violin concert and the music is very beautiful, there is no inherent interest because playing violin is pretty common. But there is a lot of poetry because the music is beautiful. There is no projection because playing the violin is pretty complicated and people don't see themselves playing it.

Violin Concert with feets: If people play violin with there feets, that is pretty odd, so it brings a lot of inherent interest, but the music might not be as beautiful so it drops the poetry level.

Finally, you can combine 2 concepts above by making an interest curve for each of the 3 elements. So the interest elements can vary with the passage of time.

Chapter 15: One Kind of Experience Is the Story

All games, even abstract games, has some sort of story in it. The author explain two types of story structure.

  • The string of pearls: This is a linear story where all the elements has been planned in advance. Sometimes the player have a certain amount of freedom between each check points in the story.
  • The Story Machine: This is totally the opposite. This is the idea that games are machines that will generate story by themselves. So you do not have to plan anything, players will make a story around the events that happens in the game.

Personal example: There are always some game stories that I remember. Like the civilization game where I had to make a nuclear war which created pollution and melted the ice caps. There is this PTO 2 game where I built an Airport in Montreal to bombard New york to capture washington. All these things were never planned for the player during the game design.

Now some people say that today, with technologies, stories are much more different, much more interactive and give different outcome. The author objects to this idea in many ways and he list the problems that could arise from multiple path stories.

  • Good stories have unity: If a story has many possibilities, some combination would be less interesting than other which makes it harder to control the interest curve.
  • The combinatorial explosion: If each choices lead to many other choices, each choice you take will increase the amount of combination and it will get to a point where you have millions of combination and it would be impossible to program them all.
  • Multiple Ending Disappoint: Games that have multiple endings can be frustrating because players are always wondering if this is the real ending or if they have to play the whole game again to see a different ending.
  • Not enough Verbs: Compared to other medium, video games characters are much more limited in the actions they can do compared to a movie character.
  • Time travel makes tragedy obsolete: Video games will never make you cry because tragic moment of a story can always be undone and changed since you are somewhat in control of the story.

The author give some tips to build a good story what ever is the medium:

  • Goal, obstacle and conflicts: Characters should have goals and there should be obstacles to prevent them from reaching their goal.
  • Provide simplicity and transcendence: The game world should be simpler than the real world and the player should feel more powerful in the game world than in the real world.
  • Consider the hero's journey: This is a theory made by Joseph Campbell which explains the skeleton of almost every story. You should take a look at this skeleton.
  • Put your story to work: Sometimes game play elements can force you to change some aspect of your story to explain stuff.
  • Keep your Story world consistent: You should make sure that there is not a single paradoxal element in your story that can screw up the whole story.
  • Make your story world accessible: Don't force yourself to have a realistic story, you need to make the story accessible to your public. For example, probably most of the stuff in Star wars are not scientific at all but people likes it anyways.
  • Use cliche Judiciously: It does not matter to use a few cliches but do not over abuse it.
  • Sometimes a map brings a story to life: If you are drawing a map of the world your want to make a story about, story ideas will naturally come to your mind.

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

Players want freedom and likes to be able to do anything. The problem is that is impossible to give the player absolute control over a world, so you must give him the illusion of control which mean give him enough freedom so that he feels like he can do anything he wants. Here are some medthod to indirectly control the actions of player:

  • Contraints: Give the player a certain amount of choice so that you could expect the answers and do not overwhelm the player with choice.
  • Goals: Give the player goals to amke sure they go where you want and do not get distracted by other things.
  • Interface: The interface and tools to play the game will make the player focus on some aspect of the game. For example, in guitar hero, when you give a guitar to the player they expect to play the guitar and nothing else.
  • Visual Design: The visual design of interface and components can force the player to look at what you want. You can uncounciously force the player to look somewhere with visual design.
  • Character: In a story, characters can incite the players to go somewhere instead of somewhere else.
  • Music: Music can also change the player's behavior during a game.

Collusion: This is the concept where the game or some characters in the game are working with the designer to give to the player an optimal experience. It's like if the game was cheating according to the designer's desire.

Chapter 17: Stories and Games Take Place in worlds

The author use Star Wars as an example to explain the concept of transmedia worlds. After the release of the movies, there was a series of derived Star Wars products that was released, especially toys. The goal of these products is not to reacreate the movies but rather to have another access to the World of Star Wars. These products are called gateways which allows to access a world.

Here are some properties of transmedia worlds:

  • Transmedia Worlds are powerful: Their effects on the fans are even move powerful.
  • Transmedia Worlds are long lived: These worlds are more likely to live a long time.
  • Transmedia Worlds evolves over time: As the time passes, these worlds will change. People will decide what changes get accepted or rejected from the world.

Here are the elements that transmedia worlds seems to have in common:

  • They tend to be rooted to a single medium: Even if there are multiple gateways to a world, there must be one primary gateway more important than the others.
  • They are intuitive: They use elements with are assumed by the common people to work and exist.
  • They have a creative individual at their core: The majority of the world is created by 1 person, not a group of people.
  • They facilitate the telling of many stories: They set up some roots to make if possible to create many stories out of it.
  • They make sense through any of the gateways: All game ways must give you access to all the features of the same world because you don't know which gateway people are going to use first.
  • They are about wish fulfillment: People will not like a world if they do not dream of visiting the world by themselves.

Chapter 18: Worlds Contain Characters

Characters in a video game are much more limited than in a novel for example because the actions of the player and the level of interaction between the characters are more limited. This is why video games tends to make simple fantasy characters which perform a lot of physical activities rather than complex realistic characters which perform a lot of mental activities.


This is a character that a player wants to incarnate and it can sometimes reach a point where players does not make any difference between themselves and the character. Most of the time, players want to project themselves in a powerful character that they cannot be in real life. A character does not have to be realistic for players to attach themselves to it.

Creating compelling game characters

Here are some tips to create good characters:

  • List character functions: Make a list functions that should be fulfilled by characters: ex: Bad Guy, Mentor, Hero, etc. It will make it easier to match the right character with the right function
  • Define and use character traits: Setup a list of positive and negative traits each character has and keep them in mind when writing dialogue.
  • Use interpersonal circumflex: This is a graph used by social psychologist which allows to define relation with other characters according to 2 axes: Friendly VS Hostile and Dominant VS Submissive.
  • Make a character web: Define what are the relation between the characters. Do they like or hate about each other.
  • Use Status: This is a social relation concept where in a discussion, a character will adopt an higher status which gives him more control over the other character that will adopt a lower status.
  • Use the power of voice: The voice is a powerful tool that can affect players at the subconscious level.
  • Use the power of face: Facial expression can help the character express their feelings.
  • Powerful stories transform characters: Various events in the game can make the personality of a character change through the course of the game.
  • Avoid the uncanny valley: A theory made by Masahiro Mori that could be sumarized as: People does not like things which looks almost human. There is a certain gap that the people cannot accept when making characters closer to a human being.

Chapter 19: Worlds Contain Spaces

Organization of game space

There are various ways to organize the space in a game:

  • Linear: Space are aligned along a line allowing you to move forward and backward only.
  • Grid: Grids allow you to move in multiple directions. Grids can be of any shape: triangle, squares, hexagon, etc.
  • Web: This is s series of spaces connected with lines. Objects could move from a space to another following the connection lines.
  • Points in Space: Could be visualized as a series of islands in the middle of a sea. These islands are more important than the rest of the map but you can move on the whole map.
  • Divided Space: This is the idea of taking a shape and dividing it in various sectors. Most of the time, objects can move from a sector to another if they are adjacent.

Christopher Alexander's theory

This is an architect which tries to define how something can have the quality of being "well designed". He explains that through various attempt, you can refine your design until it get the quality he cannot name. Alexander defines 15 properties that design should have because they are in common with some qualities that living things have.

  • Levels of Scale: For example, a player can achieve short term goals to reach mid-term goals which will eventually allow to fulfill long term goals.
  • Strong Centers: There should be a strong center element in the game.
  • Boundaries: Game should have boundaries which could be expressed by space or rules.
  • Alternating Repetition: You should alternate between elements that are repetitive instead of only repeating the same element.
  • Positive space: A bit hard to explain, it the concept where there should be complementary elements which are both beautiful. The Yin and the Yang is an example.
  • Good Shape: Again hard to explain, I think a snail spiral shell will fit here: It's shape makes it beautiful.
  • Local Symmetries: Some elements inside the game should be symmetrical but not necessarily the whole game.
  • Deep interlock and Ambiguity: This is the concept where an element is meaningless if it is not placed in relation with another element. Go is an example where the piece placement is meaningless if you don't know where are the opponent's pieces.
  • Contrast: There should be strong contrast between certain elements to make the game feel more meaningful and powerful.
  • Gradients: This refer to elements and values that changes gradually.
  • Roughness: A game must not be completely perfect in order to have some character.
  • Echoes: Repetitive elements which are related to each other. For example: A level full of spiders with the mother spider as a boss at the end of the level.
  • The void: Ok, this one, I cannot understand it. Here is Alexander's citation "In the most profound centers which have perfect wholeness, there is at the heart a void which is like water, infinite in depth, surrounded by and contrasted with the clutter of the stuff and fabric all around it."
  • Simplicity and inner calm: A simple design is more likely to achieve the inner calm.
  • Not-Separateness: Each element of the game should be a part of the whole game. Each element should be connected with the rest of the elements in order for the game to feel alive.

Virtual Architecture

This is a more technical section that explains for example when you design levels some object could not be proportional with other objects. It is also possible that level design would be totally different than what we would build in real life since we perceive space differently. Finally, the author talks about the third person distortion where level designer must make object a bit bigger than the characters and place more space between object for the level design to look good.

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

The Aesthetics of a game is as much important than the game itself since it can incite players to play your game and it can hide the imperfections of your game design.

It is important to get artists involved right at the beginning of the design because they can create sketches that can help to:

  • share the view of the game with everybody.
  • let people imagine entering your world.
  • Make people excited to play or work on your game.
  • Secure funding or resources to develop your game.

You do not need very detailed art, sketches would do fine. Music and sounds also have a good impact on the aesthetics of a game.

Chapter 21: Some Games are Played with Other Players

Most of the time, games are going to be played with other players, some video games are an exception because they can be played alone, but with today's technology most video games support multiplayer gameplay. There are various reasons why people want to play with other people:

  • Competition: People want to know who is the best.
  • Collaboration: People enjoy working together toward a goal.
  • Meeting up: People want to see and talk to each other.
  • Exploring our friends: You learn more about your friend when they play than when they talk.
  • Exploring ourselves: Learn what are our limits and how we behave in certain situations.

Chapter 22: Other Players Sometimes Form Communities

Communities can extend the life of a game and allow to bring new players into the game after it's released. The author gives 10 tips on how to create and maintain communities.

  • Foster Friendship: Allow players to communicate with each other in order to make friends.
  • Put conflict at the heart: In order to form a community, there should be a conflict at the heart so that the players can try to perform better than the rest of the community.
  • Architecture to shape your community: You should have places in your game where your players can meet and talk.
  • Create community property: You can create objects in your game that can be owned by a community instead of individual players.
  • Let players express themselves: For example, allowing player's to design their characters is a way to express themselves.
  • Support three levels: You game should have the necessary elements to give challenge and interest to the 3 different level of players: Newbie, Player and Elder.
  • Force players to depend on each other: Players should have a chance to work together to solve a conflict in the game.
  • Manage your community: You need to manage and maintain your community, you can't just leave it there.
  • Obligation to others is powerful: Make players depend on other players or give responsibilities to elder players that normal players will depend on.
  • Create community events: Create events that will give players something to do, allow them to build relations with others and give them something they will remember.

Some "evil minded" player can do some damage or trouble to a community. Here are the areas that the players can take advantage which makes it not fun especially for the new players:

  • Player vs player combat: This can lead to betrayal opportunities.
  • Stealing: Players can loot other players.
  • Trading: Can lead to unfair trades.
  • Obscenities: Players could have an obscene language.
  • Blocking the way: Prevent other players to get somewhere.
  • Loopholes: They can take advantage of any bug or bad design of the game.

Chapter 23: The Designer Usually Works with a Team

The key to have a team that works efficiently is that everybody must love the game they are working on. The following "love problems" can occur in a team:

  • Team members incapable of loving the game: These are people which has no love for games or for the people that play's them. You should try to get these people out of the team.
  • Team members in love with a different game than the one you are making: These are people who could like another style of game (ex: RPG vs action) or a certain media (ex: Console VS PC). You should try to let them find something in you game that they could love.
  • Team members in love with a different vision of the same game: Everybody has a different way of seeing and loving the game. In this case you must communicate with each other and agree on the design elements of the game.

If you don't love the game you are designing, or if you cannot even find an element in the game that you will love, you can love your audience and think about how can you make them happy by playing your game. Else pretend to love your game and eventually love will come afterward.

A game designer cannot plan and do everything. This is why the game designer needs to plan the great lines of the game and some design details must be left to other members of the teams which can also come up with good ideas. So you should allow other members of the team to take initiatives, but just make sure that you have a good communication within your team to make sure every body goes in the same direction.

Here are some communication tips:

  • Objectivity: Do not associate an idea to a member of the team to avoid bad judgment of theses people.
  • Clarity: Avoid confusion during communications.
  • Persistence: Write things down.
  • Comfort: The physical area where the meeting takes place should be appropriate for communication.
  • Respect: People should listen to what other members of the team has to say.
  • Trust: People should know each other more to eventually trust each other.
  • Honesty: People should not hide things from each other.
  • Privacy: Some communications are easier achieved in private.
  • Unity: At the end of a discussion, you must select a decision that everybody must agree on.

Chapter 24: The Team Sometimes Communicates Through Documents

There is no magic template to create documents since each game is unique. You should use documents to keep in memory the decisions that where taken and to facilitate communication within your team. Here are some example of documents that could be written ( which mostly applies to video games)

  • 1. Game design overview: General high-level documentation about your game.
  • 2. Detailed design Document: Contains all the mechanics and the interface of the game.
  • 3. Story overview: Give an idea of the story without giving any details.
  • 4. Technical design documents: Technical documentation about how the technology will work.
  • 5. Pipeline overview: The "do's and don'ts" that the artists must consider.
  • 6. System Limitation: Description of the limits of the system they are working on.
  • 7. Art Bible: Guidelines to follow for the creation of art in the game.
  • 8. Concept art overview: Artwork samples to illustrate how it will look.
  • 9. Game budget: Estimation of the amount of work, the cost of the work and the amount of money left for the game development.
  • 10. Project Schedule: Planning of the tasks to do and the time it will take to do them.
  • 11. Story Bible: These are guidelines that indicates what is possible or not in the story to make sure it is consistent.
  • 12. Script: This is all the text the characters are going to say.
  • 13. Game tutorial and Manual: The text that will explain how the game works to the new players.
  • 14. Game Walk through: Created mostly by players when the game is finished, they explain some strategies of the game and how to finish the game.

Chapter 25: Good Games Are Created Through Playtesting

The author explains that there are 4 types of testing: Focus groups, Quality Assurance, Usability, and playtesting.

Every playtest is defined by 5 key questions:

1.Why?: The reason to playtest is to answer some questions. You should create a series of question that you would like to be answered by your players after the setup. 2.Who?: Then you should decide with who should you playtest your game: Developers, Friends, Gamers, newbies, etc. 3.Where?: Where are you going to test your game? In your studio, in a playtest lab, in a public place, at home, on the internet, etc. 4.What?: What you are looking for in your playtest? There are things you are expected to see but there are things that will surprise you. It is important to listen carefully to how people react to your game. 5.How?: How the playtest is going to be done? There are various things to consider:

  • Should you be there?: The designer must stay objective for the whole playtest.
  • What do you tell the players?: If the game has a tutorial, saying too much can spoil the playtest.
  • Where do you look?: You should take a look at what they do in the game and how they react to the game.
  • What other data should I collect during play?: Keeping logs of important or unusual events in the game.
  • Will I disturb players in mid-game?: It is recommanded that you do not disturb the players. But asking to think aloud can help you understand what your player is thinking.
  • What data will I collect after a play session?: You can use surveys and interviews to collect data which each has their pro and cons.

Chapter 26: The Team Builds a Game with Technology

Technology does not necessarily mean electronics, it mean physical material that you are going work with to play your game.

The author makes a distinction between Foundational technologies which makes new experience possible and decorational technologies which makes experiences look better.

New technology follow a pattern called the hype cycle. This pattern is a curve that evolves with the passage of time. It has 5 different phases:

1. Technology trigger: Announcing a new technology. 2. Peak of inflated expectation: When people talks about the technology, it makes them believe that the technology is more wonderful than it actually is. 3. Trough of Disillusionment: People comes back to reality to find that the technology does less that what was expected. 4. Slope of enlightenment: People starts to figure out how this technology could be useful. 5. Plateau of productivity: The benefits of the technology are now accepted and understood.

Understanding this hype cycle can make you immune to it's negative effects, it allows you to calm down people around you by teaching them how the hype works and you can try to make your client see the realistic part of the technology when raising funds.

A new technology will replace an older technology if it is "good enough". Else people will prefer to refine an older technology until the new technology exceeds the old one.

Chapter 27: Your Game Will Probably Have a Client

Clients does not necessarily know anything about game design and sometimes they don't even care. But they are essential to the development of games because they are the ones who gives the money.

Out of the book example: One of my teacher said once "You must always do what the client wants ... because he is the one which has the money".

When a client makes a bad suggestion you should first agree with him and try to explain to him why his suggestion is bad and then try to understand why he made that suggestions. Client sometimes makes suggestion to feel like if they were part of the game design.

The author gives another situation where the client never likes what he sees but he never tell what he would like to see. So asking question to find what they really wants can help.

Another out of book example: As a library technician, I always receive unclear demands from users. They are searching about subject X, but most of the time, that is not what they are looking for. So you must ask question and to try to find what they are actually searching for.

People have 3 level of desires which are not always the same. What people say, is not the same than what people think or than what they truly feel. Again you need to ask questions to identify what the client really wants.

Chapter 28: The Designer Gives the Client a Pitch

Designers will eventually have to expose their game ideas to the other people for various reasons, most of the time is to get it published. The author gives a few tips to follow when attempting to pitch.

  • Get in the door: It is very hard to get an audience with game publisher. You need most of the time to have contacts or an insider in the company that can plug you in.
  • Show you are serious: You must be serious about your game. Not only you must have material to show and be ready to answer questions, you must be confident that your game will work.
  • Be organized: Prepare your self in advance and make sure everything is working for your presentation.
  • Be passionate: You must be excited about the game you are showing but do not over do it because it can be easily detected.
  • Assume their point of view: Listen to what the people you are pitching to have to say.
  • Design the pitch: A pitch is like a game, it needs to be designed and it needs an interest curve.
  • Know all the details: Be prepared to answer any question you might be asked.
  • Exude Confidence: Be confident in all your answers and don't leave any doubt to the people you are pitching to.
  • Be Flexible: It is possible you will not be able to pitch the way you expected to. Try to adapt your pitch to the situation.
  • Rehearse: Try your pitch with other people first.
  • Get them to own it: Try to integrate the ideas of your client in your game while pitching.
  • Follow up: Try to ask what they think about it many weeks later afterward to remind them of your pitch. It is not uncommon to get news 6 months later.

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

The author tries to give knowledge about financial terms and concepts so that you and your client could speak the same language.

Business Model: This is the idea where in any sold product, there are multiple persons who takes part of it. Each of these person takes a share of the product's price. For example, in the book industry, most authors get 10% of the final price. So a book sold 20$ gives 2$ to the author. Where does the other money go? To the publisher, the distributor, the printer, the retailer, etc. The less people there is in the chain, the more profit each person takes. For example, in the Print and play Business model (games sold as PDF on the web), since there is no retailers, no printing and storage to do, the publishing web site gets around 25% and the author around 75%.

Units Sold: The amount of items that has been sold. This is important because most of the time, your game is going to be compared to other published games.

Breakeven: This is the number of units that must be sold before you get back the money you invested. When you reached the break even you start making money.

Know the top sellers: See what are the best selling games and try to learn why.

Terms you should learn

  • SKU (Stock Keeping unit): I means a unique inventory item. Each language and console version is an SKU.
  • COGS (Cost of good sold): How does it cost to produce each unit. For example, in the food industry, there is a concept called the "food cost" which is generally around 33% of the plate you are playing. So a 15$ meal at a restaurant have 5$ of food.
  • Burn Rate: How much does it cost per month to keep your business open.
  • Sold in VS sold through: "Sold in" is the amount of games sold to the retailer while the "sold through" is the amount of games sold to the players.
  • NPV (Net Present Value): Money in the future will worth less than what it is worth now because of the inflation. Each year, the money lose it's value according to a discount rate. This information is important to calculate long term profit for a game.
  • Christmas: Fact: In the united states, 75% of all games are sold during the Christmas period.

Chapter 30: Games Transform Their Players

Games create experience that can have long term positive or negative effects on the players.

Games can be good for you

  • Emotional Maintenance: Games help control emotions. They can remove anger and frustration, cheer up depressed people, give a new point of view to solve real life problems, make people more confident and also help them to relax.
  • Connections: Games gives a reason to have social interactions with others.
  • Exercise: Games allow players to perform physical and mental exercise.
  • Education: Games allow players to learn something. In fact the whole education system is based around a game structure. They allow you to remember, solve problems, learn by making errors and stimulate curiosity.

Games can be bad for you

  • Violence: Most adults can make the difference between the game and real life unless you have psychotic problems. Else hiding violence to the kid should be the most important thing because they are not old enough to make the difference.
  • Addictions: It become important when it is actually hindering the player's life. You cannot blame the designer for making a good game, the problem is the player and there can be many different reasons behind these addictions.

Chapter 31: Designers Have Certain Responsibilities

Like explained in the previous chapter, games will change players. So it important that the designer takes the responsibility of these changes. Companies does not care about ethics and responsibility unless it is written in the law. The only thing they think about is making profit. So it is the designer's job to think about the ethics of his game. Many designer believes that games can improve people's life and they should make it some sort of obligation.

Chapter 32: Each Designer has a Motivation

Every designer should have a reason to design games. They should know why they are doing this. Once you figure it out it will make your conscious and subconscious work together. We each have little time in our lives so when you design a game, you should ask your self if it is worth spending time on it.

Chapter 33: Goodbye

Just some good bye text.

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