Introduction and Chapter 1 - In the Beginning... the Designer
In the introduction to the text, the author tells us something about his job history and begins describing the process of designing a game:
A theme is introduced that will be repeated: the designer's goal is to give the player an experience. It is not enough to have a plot, rules for play, goals to meet, and an impressive look. The designer should also consider the experience that a player will have, or he is ignoring the thing that will make the game a success or a failure.
The player is looking for an experience that makes them want to play the game. So, what is the magic ingredient? The author admits that there is no concrete answer to that question. There are many answers that the text will consider, that are each part of the designer's quest for creating the next game. Each perspective that the text applies to the design process will be thought of as a lens, a different way of looking at the game design that tells us whether or not it is good.
The act of creating a game can be like other kinds of artistic creation. A game may contain many kinds of creation. For this reason the author tells us to consider the creative processes used in many artforms: music, film, painting, animation, writing, and more can be part of a game design. It is not necessary for one person to be able to do it all, because most games are created by teams, not by individuals. It is, however, better for a designer to learn something about each of these fields to be a better designer.
This leads to the idea that we should use design concepts from various arts, some of which we will have to learn along the way, to make our product better than it would be without that effort.
The first lesson in chapter 1 is to start being a game designer by deciding that you are a game designer. This is not a new idea. William James wrote:
“If you want a quality, act as if you already had it.”
Kurt Vonnegut wrote:
"We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."
Both ideas fit with the author's idea that you have to accept the role and responsibility of being a game designer to become a game designer. What was that? You didn't get the idea that there was responsibility involved? Take a look a the list of skills a game designer needs. (It begins on page 2 and runs to page 4.) Nineteen different disciplines are named, and you could pursue a college degree in most of them. As I noted above, you have the responsibility to learn what you don't already know, or work with someone who knows (or will learn) the necessary skills for each aspect of a game that will be developed. Not all game designs will use all of these skills, but complex games may.
The chapter turns to the twentieth skill: listening. The author means active listening, thinking about what you hear and asking questions for clarification. The discussion turns to five entities you should "listen" to when designing a game.
Chapter 2 - The Designer Creates an Experience
Chapter 2 begins by placing our eyes on the goal: the gamer's experience is what we care about. Everything we use to get to create that experience is a tool, a method, an artistic expression, but it is not the goal.
The author makes a good point, that a game player's experience will be a bit different for each player. He observes that this is less true for more linear experiences like books and films, in which the order of presentation is the same for each viewer/reader. This is true, but it is not absolute. I can only read a book or see a film for the first time once, but I can see the film again, or read the book again, and have a different experience each time. This can be because I know how the book or film flows and ends, but it is also because time goes by and I am not the same person I was before. I have experienced more and will experience the book or film differently.
In the same way, each reader, viewer, or player will have their own experience of a book, a film, or a game. So, we can't control all the variables that go into a person's previous experience. We can partly control what happens in their experience of a game, but only partly if the game is non-linear or has non-linear elements. A gamer designer can put random events into a game. Even if the player is unaware of the random addition, this makes their experience different from another players experience. This is a good thing for some games, in that it allows new experiences when re-playing it.
The author turns to some tools that can help us think about the player's experience of a game:
So, if we can't give each player the same experience, what do we do? We can accept and cherish that fact, but still try to give the players the same essential experience. Let's warm up to that with a couple of more ideas from the text.
A danger of only thinking about science instead of experimenting with it is that you can begin to believe things that are not true. The author uses the example of Socrates, who argued that since when we learn something new it often feels that we are actually remembering something we already knew, this means that we are actually remembering things we learned in past lives. From my experience, Socrates might have done better to consider that we typically learn new things by creating connections in our minds to things we already know. We learn multiplication after we learn addition, because we can understand multiplication as a more powerful form of addition. We learn many things as metaphors: x is like y in that they both have the quality z. This might have seemed as logical to Socrates if he had considered it.
In a similar manner, (see, metaphors and similes help) we can assume that something is true about a gamer's experience of a game simply because we experienced it when designing or testing that part of the game. That won't always be true. It can be true, and it can help a designer make a better experience, but we should still be aware that it can be false. We must listen to ourselves, our players, our team, our game, and our client, as stated in the first chapter.
In addition to listening, we must learn to be descriptive and analytic. The author gives us an example of a friend who would often tell him that an experience was bad, but would be unable to explain what made it bad. To make a change in our game, we need to know not just that the player was unhappy, but why the player did not like what aspect of the game. You can't fix what you don't know. A designer must play his own game to get some of the experiential data, and must make observations that others on the team can address.
The first players of a game are always the developers. However, there is a problem with playing your own game and trying to analyze the experience. The author refers to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which means in this case that the act of observing your experience of a game will alter that experience. This seems likely, even if you have not studied physics or heard of the idea before. (Or are we remembering the idea from a past life?) The author offers some techniques to work around the problem:
I may have told you that I once took a film criticism class, in which a student asked the instructor about the loss of innocence he was feeling, leaving the audience and joining the ranks of critics. The instructor replied that it was a necessary aspect of becoming more aware of the craft of filmmaking. He hoped that, in the long run, what we gained by learning more about our experiences would more than replace what we would lose. In the same way, examining our experiences can make our appreciation of them greater, and enhance the chance of our creating a greater experience for those who experience our work.
This leads to the discussion of the Essential Experience, our first lens. If we want to provide an experience to a player, we need to describe it:
Chapter 3 - The Experience Rises out of a Game
Chapter 3 continues the discussion from chapter 2. The tool we will use to provide an experience will be our game. The author then spends some time building and building on definitions of key terms in game design:
This leads to the Lens of Surprise, our second lens. The point is that there must be some surprises in a game for it to be fun. If you don't think so, think about why we avoid spoilers in game reviews, in movie and book reviews, and in other things that are supposed to be fun. Why are spoilers called spoilers? Obviously, because they spoil a part of the experience.
I have been playing a computer game for a few weeks. I have recently allowed my grandson to play it as well, while watching over his shoulder to monitor content and to advise as needed. I will note that the portions of his game that are the most fun for me are the surprises, when he finds something I did not find, or when he reacts to something in an interesting way. So, if we understand one definition of fun (and there are others) we can have a Lens of Fun, our third lens.
Mr. Schell discusses several definitions of play, to accommodate the idea that we play games. I like the quotes from George Santayana the best:
Play is whatever is done spontaneously and for its own sake. - The Sense of Beauty
Work and play... become equivalent to servitude and freedom. - The Sense of Beauty
I would add one from Mark Twain:
The point is that play, in addition to being fun, must be something that a person chooses to do. The discussion takes a turn here and adds another aspect, that a game frequently has an element of uncertainty about its outcome. The game should answer a question for the player, if only the question of who will win. The player should be curious while playing the game. What will happen? Can I beat the old score? Will there be something new this time? These natural questions lead to the fourth lens, the Lens of Curiosity:
The author builds to a point related to playing a game for its own sake. A formal phrase is introduced: a game has endogenous meaning. The word "endogenous" just means that something originates in the game. The author adds more meaning to the phrase: there must be things in the game that the user cares about, which have no special meaning outside the game. The quests in an adventure game have no meaning to one's real life, but they are very important to the player of that game, in the game. This gives us the fifth lens, the Lens of Endogenous Value:
The text builds to a list of ten qualities that a game should have, admitting that there are others we may discover as well.
The text moves on to make a point that games are often problem-solving activities. (page 36) Some games, like sudoku, have this and not much else. You could say that sudoku has no story, needs no technology, does have rules, and can be pretty or not. (Why did I pick those four things? More foreshadowing...) To summarize the ten qualities, the author offers a statement: "A game is a problem-solving activity, approached with a playful attitude." (page 37)
The sixth lens, the Lens of Problem Solving: