Review: ‘The Art of Game Design’

So, finally finished ”The Art of Game Design” last week, and all things being equal it pretty much measured up to those early, heady, expectations. Looking back near enough a couple of months, I said it was

“probably the most important book on practical videogame design I’ve read and should be on the reading list of all Designers, Producers, and indeed anyone working in videogame creation”

and I stick by those words. Got to love rhetoric. As I tend to wax lyrical about Schell’s work on occasion, general debates about the relative merits of books on videogame design have sprung up over the past few weeks, both in and out of the office. No surprise really when you look at their chequered history – after all, even now when we have a few really solid volumes to draw down from, the most quoted works often come from outside, rather than inside, our industry. Point in case, the books designers almost always cite when discussing level design are about architectural design and town-planning. Is there even a book specifically about the art of level design? Couldn’t tell you – and it is an art before that debate springs a leak. To be absolutely clear up-front, Schell’s book won’t change that. There is a chapter on level design, sure, but it’s not the strongest moment – covering the specifics across all genres would be well beyond the scope of his book, after all. No, Schell’s value really becomes clear when it covers ground common to all game design – ideating and scoping; searching for innovative mechanics; examining existing design detail and challenging its resonance and relevance. In short, putting under the microscope all those other elements that make up an electronic entertainment experience. The key tool Schell uses is the lens – a way to view your game through one or multiple perspectives to give fresh insight into, and perspective on, a game in any stage of development. Ok, so you may have used similar techniques: ‘Frames’; ‘perspectives’; simple adjectival descriptions of the qualities your game needs to be embody once it’s complete – you may have used a vision statement or pillars to establish the framework of an experience, and then used a spread of those tools to review the content as it’s being completed. Most of us have never written them down, however, nor attempted to use one common vernacular to describe and catalogue them. It’s a process myself and the team started at the back-end of our last project and is an on-going work, but it’s hard to get to when there are games that need attention. Schell’s lenses are presented in chapters covering a lot of ground – far more ground than is covered in any of the lenses or the associated deck of cards – which makes the book worthwhile in-spite of the lenses, not because of them. He presents it as a primer for students of design which, at least to some extent, is where it is strongest. Interestingly, Schell actually spoke at GDC this year about how to use the book to drive a design course. This being the case and as you might suspect, there probably aren’t many earth shattering revelations for experienced working creatives. Nevertheless, it does remain an incredibly worthwhile collection in as much as it sharpens your mind and clarifies ideas you’ve probably used many, many times but have never captured in quite such a succinct way. Like a collection of top class Gamasutra articles, it both reinforces your current thinking and refreshes areas you may not have considered in while. A couple of chapters should receive special mention, being those on transmedia worlds (p300) and pitching games (p423). Both essential for very different reasons. So, obviously, I think you should read it no matter what area of design or indeed games creation you work in. It’s a great book that’s quintessentially accessible and, despite presenting itself as a students guide more often than I think necessary, has a lot to offer seasoned creatives and developers. I’ll certainly be interested to see how many aspirant designers come through the doors for interview citing this as resource – to my mind, this would be a very positive thing indeed. Seriously, go and enjoy.

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