Chapter 4 - The Game Consists of Elements
Chapter 4 formally introduces the four elements of a game that were hinted at in the last chapter:
This leads to the discussion of the Lens of the Elemental Tetrad, our seventh lens. Any game can be analyzed in terms this set of four elements (a tetrad):
Examine your game from the perspective of this lens. Remember, as the text states, that these elements are equally important, that a mistake in any one of them can ruin the game. The text illustrates the four elements by using them to discuss the classic video game, Space Invaders. Follow the link in the last sentence to see a gamer's strategy analysis of the Atari 2600 version of the game.
The chapter ends with a proposal that you can experience a game while being aware of the four elements, and noticing which elements are adding to the experience at any moment. Looking at the experience of the game while you evaluate it in terms of the four elements is the eighth lens, the Lens of Holographic Design:
An example may help. The last time I was in Disneyworld, I experienced the Mission Space ride. As I went through the line to the ride, I enjoyed the technology (sound system, video screens) used to make the wait more pleasant to the prospective rider. The aesthetics (music, colors, clean environment) interested me, and the wait was not boring. The story I was told about what the ride would be added to my anticipation of it. As I boarded the ride, I was ready for it to impress me. Unfortunately, that's where the experience stalled. There was a problem. The ride had to be serviced by a mechanic, giving me a distraction from the intended experience. After a short wait in the ride pod itself, the ride began. From there it was as described in the linked material from Disney.
Chapter 5 - The Elements Support a Theme
In chapter 5, the author turns to another aspect of a game, the theme that its experience supports. What is a theme? It can be the experience that you are trying to give the players. It can be a single idea that you want to build to in the game, although there had better be more to the game than just the one idea/climax.
Mr. Schell tells us to find the theme for our game, and to make sure that all the elements of the game support it. This can be difficult if you have not established a theme before beginning the project, or if you are working on team that has split up the work without establishing a theme to support. The text tells us about Mr. Schell's experience making an attraction for a Disney park that did not have a theme at the beginning. It was up to the project team to find a theme and then make all the elements of the attraction work toward that theme.
Another way of identifying your theme is to ask yourself what idea or experience the elements of your game are for. This takes us to the ninth lens, the Lens of Unification:
The text tells us to use this lens with the Lens of the Elemental Tetrad, making sure we are using each of the four elements to best effect.
Having sold you on having a theme for the game, Mr. Schell turns to a larger concept: resonance. A theme that is resonant with a player touches on something personal to the player. This kind of theme makes a connection to some belief or emotion that lies deep within the player. It gives the experience depth and truth in a way that a lesser theme cannot.
I am trying to find a way to explain this to you. If you have not had such an experience, it is unlikely that I can tell you about it until you have. Mr. Schell writes about the movie Titanic as having such a theme, one that touches the hearts of many viewers. This did not work for me, since I am one of the few viewers who did not fall in love with that film. (Why did they keep going back into the ship each time they had already escaped it?)
I will offer a different thought. A favorite TV series of mine was/is Star Trek: The Next Generation. The episode I will draw your attention to is called The Inner Light. Spoilers follow this sentence.
Captain Picard encounters a probe that gives him an experience. It forces him to mentally live a lifetime in the last years that life existed on the planet that launched the probe. He experiences life there for over 30 years, subjectively, including having a family, learning to care about them and their world... and learning to play a flute. He receives the experiences stored in the probe, and he is released from its grasp, having spent only a few minutes of real time being controlled by it. At the end of the episode, the probe is inert. Picard is the only one who will ever experience its game. Stored inside a compartment of the probe was a flute, identical to the one Picard learned to play in the probe experience. Picard takes the flute, and hugs it to himself tenderly. He lifts it to his lips and begins to play as the episode ends. It is a beautiful moment that defines the word resonance.
I wondered for a long time about the significance of that scene. I think that it displays the gray area where a simulation stops being just a simulation, and becomes a real experience. It is not just that Picard learned to play the flute that makes the experience stand out. It is that the experience touched him, that it made him care about it. The probe's "game" used technology, aesthetics, mechanics (it made him play), and story most of all. The flute remains as a symbol of everything he loved and lost in that game, hence his reaction to it. A game is more than a game (or a book, or a movie, or anything else) when you care enough about the experience that it changes you. It resonates with whatever is inside you that recognizes its message.
I recently attended a traveling exhibition of props from various Star Trek series. One exhibit was a recreation of Picard's quarters on the Enterprise. As I looked over the familiar scene, I stopped at Picard's desk. On it was the flute. My wife does not understand why it took me so long to walk away from that spot. Part of me is still there. The montage behind this link shows a selection of scenes from the episode, and plays an orchestral arrangement of the song Picard learns to play in the simulation.
Mr. Schell tells us on page 55 that "Resonant themes elevate your work form craft to art." This takes us to the tenth lens, the Lens of Resonance:
Use this lens to identify the resonant theme, that either is or could be in your game. It is an opportunity not to be missed.
Chapter 6 - The Game Begins with an Idea
Chapter 6 begins with the advice that we must find an idea for our game. The author offers a story about meeting a juggler who performed tricks that the other jugglers watching him could not copy. Mr. Schell watched in admiration, and the unusual juggler revealed that his tricks were not learned by watching other jugglers, but by watching the world around him. This leads to lens 11, the Lens of Infinite Inspiration. Look at everything around you for inspiration, since it can come from anywhere:
The point that the author makes here is not to look at other games as your only inspiration sources. Copying another will not generate new and unique content. Like the juggler in the story, you should look outside your discipline for inspiration. If you see something that makes you think of something new to put in a game, that makes the time it took to find that thing worthwhile.
The text moves on to a standard tool in software design: stating the problem you are trying to solve. In this case, the general problem is applying an inspiration to your game. Stating a specific problem, or a series of them, will let you focus on what has to be done to create your design.
Mr. Schell recommends stating a design problem in terms of the tetrad of game elements (story, technology, aesthetics, and mechanics). This makes sense for a problem statement, because it leads to clearer statements and gives us a focus on how to resolve the problem.
In terms of the Star Trek example I used earlier, what is the problem the probe designer had to solve? Is it to make Picard (or someone like him) play a flute? Is it to take control of an alien species? No, it is neither of those, although both of those things became elements of that designer's solution. Think about it for a moment. (We'll come back to it.)
Lens 12, the Lens of the Problem Statement, asks us to think of our game as a solution to a problem which we must state.
The text moves on to discuss using your subconscious mind to solve problems more creatively. Most people I have asked have had the experience of trying to solve a problem unsuccessfully, only to have a solution occur to them immediately after they stopped trying to solve it. Mr. Schell explains that this may be due to letting the subconscious mind have a try at it. Letting go of the problem can allow the subconscious to consider the problem, and can also allow the subconscious to communicate its solution to our conscious mind.
To enable better communication with your subconscious, Mr. Schell offers a list of tips:
The text discusses brainstorming tips that apply as well to brainstorming with others as they do to brainstorming with yourself. In fact, that is another tip that should have been in the set above: don't expect your creative subconscious to solve all the problems. Sometimes you need the help of someone else's creativity.
In the list of brainstorming tips below, consider that each is an approach to address gathering new ideas. You might use any or all of them, but don't feel that you have to use every one every time. Also, consider whether a tip applies to your situation. If not, try another one.
Chapter 7 - The Game Improves through Iteration
Chapter 7 assumes that you have done the idea generating in chapter 6, and now you are ready to examine and select ideas to use. Oddly, Mr. Schell does not give you any advice on making the selection. Instead, he advises you to make a selection, make a plan based on your selection, and to proceed with a design based on that selection. He also advises you to show some common sense, and to be ready to give up the selected idea if it turns out to be unworkable in any of the eight filters he describes. This makes very good sense: you have to pick a direction to go anywhere, but you have to be willing to change direction if it turns out you were wrong.
An aphorism that has always comforted me is "no plan of battle ever survived first contact with the enemy". Be willing to change when you see that the plan is not working.
The eight filters promised above are eight ways to test whether your design works. The filters are the basis for lens 13, the Lens of the Eight Filters:
The chapter turns to what it calls the Rule of the Loop. The idea Mr. Schell is promoting is that you develop games in iterative steps. Most software is designed in an iterative cycle like this. It may be easier to consider it in terms of Quality Improvement, since one of their cycle models has nice, short names:
Mr. Schell describes a similar cycle on page 82, although it does not look like a cycle. His steps include figuring out the risks of a design. Your design has not been produced at this point. Your risk evaluation consists of a listing all the things that could go wrong, based on your design choices. Your risk mitigation plan is a list of what you plan to do to correct the anticipated problems, if they come up. This takes us to lens 14, the Lens of Risk Mitigation:
One of the things you do to prevent or correct things going wrong is to create a series of prototypes, working models, of the game. Each successive prototype should contain improvements based on problems that have been eliminated from previous prototypes. As such, you need to produce and test your prototypes as quickly as you can, adding quality in each cycle. Mr. Schell offers some advice about making prototypes:
The last bullet above has its own lens. Lens 15 is the Lens of the Toy. We must think of pieces of the game as toys, and ask whether they are good toys:
Chapter 7 ends with an example of looping through a design process with the completed looping model. Read through it to get an idea how this design loop went.