(by Jesse Schell (Morgan-Kaufman, 2008 ISBN 978-0-12-369496-6))

Art of Game Design mind map

In the Beginning, There Is the Designer

What skills does a game designer need?

The most important skill: Listening. The Five Kinds of Listening: to your team, to your audience, to your game, to your client, and to your self.

The Designer Creates an Experience

The game is not the experience; the game enables the experience, but it is not the experience itself. "If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" If "sound" is the experience of hearing a noise, then the answer is no, it doesn't. Game designers only care about what seems to exist.

Three practical approaches to chasing rainbows: psychology, anthropology, design (musicians, architects, authors, filmmakers, industrial designers, Web designers, choreographers, visual designers, and more).

Introspection: Powers, Perils, and Practice

Lens #1: The Lens of Essential Experience

The Experience Rises Out of a Game

How do we define a "game"?

Lens #2: The Lens of Surprise

Lens #3: The Lens of Fun

Lens #4: The Lens of Curiosity

Key qualities of games:

  1. Games are entered willfully.
  2. Games have goals.
  3. Games have conflict.
  4. Games have rules.
  5. Games can be won and lost.
  6. Games are interactive.
  7. Games have challenge.
  8. Games can create their own internal value.
  9. Games engage players.
  10. Games are closed, formal systems.

Lens #5: The Lens of Endogenous Value

Lens #6: The Lens of Problem Solving

The Fruits of our Labors (defining a game):

The Game Consists of Elements

The Four Basic Elements:

Elemental Tetrad

Lens #7: The Lens of the Elemental Tetrad

Lens #8: The Lens of Holographic Design

The Elements Support a Theme

Unifying themes; step 1, figure out what your theme is; step 2, use every means possible to reinforce that theme.

Lens #9: The Lens of Unification

Some themes are better than others because they resonate with people more closely.

Lens #10: The Lens of Resonance

The Game Begins with an Idea

Inspiration: don't look to the others around you, look everywhere else.

Lens #11: The Lens of Infinite Inspiration

State the Problem. Get the problem statement right. This creates three advantages:

Lens #12: The Lens of the Problem Statement

Your Subconscious

Fifteen Nitty-Gritty Brainstorming Tips

  1. The Write Answer: write them (all) down.
  2. Write or Type?: whatever works best.
  3. Sketch
  4. Toys
  5. Change Your Perspective
  6. Immerse Yourself
  7. Crack Jokes
  8. Spare No Expense
  9. The Writing on the Wall
  10. The Space Remembers
  11. Write Everything
  12. Number Your Lists
  13. Mix and Match Categories
    * Technology Ideas: Cell-phone platform; Handheld game; PC; Integrated with SMS; Game console; ...
    * Mechanics Ideas: Sims-like game; Interactive fiction game; The winner makes the most friends; Try to spread rumors about the other players; Try to help as many people as possible; Tetris-like game; ...
    * Story Ideas: High-school drama; College-themed; You play cupid; You're a TV star; Hospital theme; Music theme--you're a rock star, you're a dancer; ...
    * Aesthetic Ideas: Cel shaded; Anime style; All characters are animals; R&B music defines the game; Edgy rock/punk music defines the feel
  14. Talk To Yourself
  15. Find a Partner

The Game Improves Through Iteration

The Eight Filters; only when your idea passes through each of these is it "good enough":

  1. Artistic Impulse. Ask yourself if the game "feels right" to you. Does this game feel right?
  2. Demographics. Consider whether the design is right for the demographic you are targeting. Will the intended audience like this game well enough?
  3. Experience Design. Take into account everything you know about creating a good experience, including aesthetics, interest curves, resonant theme, game balancing, and many more. Is this a well-designed game?
  4. Innovation. There needs to be something new about it. Is this game novel enough?
  5. Business and Marketing. Will this game sell?
  6. Engineering. How are we going to build this? 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?

Lens #13: The Lens of the Eight Filters

The Rule of the Loop: The more times you test and improve your design, the better your game will be.

Lens #14: The Lens of Risk Mitigation

Eight Tips for Productive Prototyping:
1. Answer a Question.
2. Forget Quality
3. Don't Get Attached
4. Prioritize Your Prototypes
5. Parallelize Prototypes Productively
6. It Doesn't Have to be Digital
7. Pick a "Fast Loop" Game Engine
8. Build the Toy First

Lens #15: The Lens of the Toy

How much is enough? The Method makes an interesting distinction between what (game designer) Mark Cerny calls "pre-production " and "production" (terms borrowed from Hollywood). He argues that you are in pre-production until you have finished two publishable levels of your game, complete with all necessary features. In other words, until you have two completely finished levels, you are still figuring out the fundamental design of your game. Once you reach this magic point, you are now in production. This means that you know enough about what your game really is that you can safely schedule the rest of development. Cerny states that usually this point is generally reached when 30% of the necessary budget has been spent.

The Game is Made for a Player

You must know what your audience will and will not like.


Five Things Males Like to See in Games:

  1. Mastery. It doesn't have to be useful, only challenging.
  2. Competition.
  3. Destruction.
  4. Spatial Puzzles. Puzzles that involve navigating 3D spaces are often quite intriguing.
  5. Trial and Error. Males tend to have a preference for learning things through trial and error.

Five Things Females Like to See in Games:

  1. Emotion. Experiences that explore the richness of human emotion.
  2. Real World. Entertainment that connects meaningfully to the real world.
  3. Nurturing.
  4. Dialog and Verbal Puzzles.
  5. Learning by Example.

Lens #16: The Lens of the Player


Leblanc's Taxonomy of Game Pleasures

  1. Sensation.
  2. Fantasy.
  3. Narrative.
  4. Challenge.
  5. Fellowship.
  6. Discovery.
  7. Expression.
  8. Submission.

Bartle's Taxonomy of Player Types

A few more pleasures to be considered (beyond the two taxonomies):

Lens #17: The Lens of Pleasure

The Experience is in the Player's Mind

Psychology: understanding an opaque system that we are intrinsically immersed in.


The only way our minds are able to get by at all is by simplifying reality so that we can make some sense of it. Correspondingly, our minds do not deal with reality itself, but instead with models of reality. [Philosophy: the map is not the terrain.] Reality is full of aspects that aren’t at all part of our day-to-day modeling. Consider Charlie Brown [or any other cartoon character], there's nothing "real" about him.


One crucial technique our brains use to make sense of the world is the ability to focus its attention selectively, ignoring some things, and devoting more mental power to others. What we focus on at any given moment is determined through a blend of our unconscious desires and our conscious will. When we create games, our goal is to create an experience interesting enough that it holds the player’s focus as long and as intensely as possible. When something captures our complete attention and imagination for a long period, we enter an interesting mental state. This state of sustained focus, pleasure, and enjoyment is referred to as "flow". Some of the key components necessary to create an activity that puts a player into a flow state are:

Flow activities must manage to stay in the narrow margin of challenge that lies between boredom and frustration, for both of these unpleasant extremes cause our mind to change its focus to a new activity. Csikszentmihalyi calls this margin the "flow channel."

Lens #18: The Lens of Flow


As human beings, we have an amazing ability to project ourselves into the place of others. When we do this, we think the other person’s thoughts and feel their feelings, to the best of our ability. It is one of the hallmarks of our ability to understand one another that we can do this, and it is an integral part of gameplay. Of course, the brain does all this using mental models — in truth, we are empathizing not with real people or animals, but with our mental models of them — which means we are easily tricked. We can feel emotion when there is none. A photo, a drawing, or a videogame character can just as easily capture our empathy. As game designers, we will make use of empathy in the same ways that novelists, graphic artists, and filmmakers do, but we also have our own set of new empathic interactions. Games are about problem solving, and empathic projection is a useful method of problem solving.


Imagination puts the player into the game by putting the game into the player.

For example, if I tell you a short story: "The mailman stole my car yesterday," I have actually told you very little, but already you have a picture of what happened. Weirdly, your picture is full of details that I didn’t include in my story. Take a look at the mental image that formed, and answer these questions:

Now, I didn’t tell you any of those things, but your amazing imagination just made up a bunch of these details so that you could more easily think about what I was telling you. Now, if I suddenly give you more information, like, "It wasn’t a real car, but an expensive model toy car," you quickly reformulate your imaginary image to fit what you have heard, and your answers to the above questions might change correspondingly.


[Maslow's Pyramid]

Lens #19: The Lens of Needs


The fourth level of Maslow’s hierarchy, self-esteem, is the one most intimately connected to games. But why? One deep need common to everyone is the need to be judged. (People don't hate being judged--they hate being judged unfairly.)

Lens #20: The Lens of Judgment

Some Elements are Game Mechanics

On one level, game mechanics are very objective, clearly stated sets of rules. On another level, though, they involve something more mysterious. Earlier, we discussed how the mind breaks down all games into mental models that it can easily manipulate. Part of game mechanics necessarily involves describing the structure of these mental models. Since these exist largely in the darkness of the subconscious mind, it is hard for us come up with a well-defined analytical taxonomy of how they work.

Mechanic 1: Space

As a game mechanic, space is a mathematical construct. We need to strip away all visuals, all aesthetics, and simply look at the abstract construction of a game’s space. There are no hard and fast rules for describing these abstract, stripped-down game spaces. Generally, though, game spaces:

  1. Are either discrete or continuous
  2. Have some number of dimensions
  3. Have bounded areas which may or may not be connected

Nested Spaces

Many game spaces are more complex than the examples we have looked at here. Often they feature "spaces within spaces." Computer-based fantasy role-playing games are a good example of this. Most of them feature an "outdoor space" that is continuous and two-dimensional. A player traveling this space sometimes encounters little icons representing towns, or caves, or castles. Players can enter these as completely separate spaces, not really connected in any way to the "outdoor space" but through the gateway icon.

Zero Dimensions

Does every game take place in a space? Consider a game like "Twenty Questions," where one player thinks of an object, and the other player asks "yes or no" questions trying to guess what it is. There is no game board and nothing moves — the game is just two people talking. You might argue that this game has no space. On the other hand, you might find it useful to think of the game happening in a space containing three nodes on a line: the mind of the questioner, the conversation space, and the mind of the answerer. The mind of the answerer contains the secret object. The mind of the questioner is where all the weighing of the previous answers is going on, and the conversation space between them is how they exchange information. Every game has some kind of information or "state" (as we’ll see later in Mechanic 2), and this has to exist somewhere. So, even if a game takes place in a single point of zero dimensions, it can be useful to think of it as a space. You may find that figuring out an abstract model for a game whose space seems to be trivial may lead you to insights about it that surprise you.

Lens #21: The Lens of Functional Space

Mechanic 2: Objects, Attributes, and States

A space without anything in it is, well, just a space. Your game space will surely have objects in it. Characters, props, tokens, scoreboards, anything that can be seen or manipulated in your game falls into this category. Objects are the "nouns" of game mechanics. Technically, there are times you might consider the space itself an object, but usually the space of your game is different enough from other objects that it stands apart. Objects generally have one or more attributes, one of which is often the current position in the game space.

Attributes are categories of information about an object. For example, in a racing game, a car might have maximum speed and current speed as attributes. Each attribute has a current state. The state of the "maximum speed" attribute might be 150 mph, while the state of the "current speed" attribute might be 75 mph if that is how fast the car is going. Maximum speed is not a state that will change much, unless perhaps you upgrade the engine in your car. Current speed, on the other hand, changes constantly as you play.

If objects are the nouns of game mechanics, attributes and their states are the adjectives.

Attributes can be static (such as the color of a checker), never changing throughout the game, or dynamic (the checker has a "movement mode" attribute with three possible states: "normal," "king," and "captured"). Primarily, we are interested in dynamic attributes.


A very important decision about game attributes and their states is who is aware of which ones.

Lens #22: The Lens of Dynamic State

Mechanic #3: Actions

The next important game mechanic is the action. Actions are the "verbs" of game mechanics. There are two perspectives on actions, or put another way, two ways to answer the question "What can the players do?"

The first kind of actions are the operative actions. These are simply the base actions a player can take. For example, in checkers a player can perform only three basic operations:

  1. Move a checker forward
    1. Jump an opponent’s checker
    2. Move a checker backwards (kings only)

The second kind of actions are resultant actions. These are actions that are only meaningful in the larger picture of the game — they have to do with how the player is using operational actions to achieve a goal. The list of resultant actions is generally longer than the list of operational actions. Consider the possible resultant actions in checkers:

The resultant actions often involve subtle interactions within the game, and are often very strategic moves. These actions are mostly not part of the rules, per se, but rather actions and strategies that emerge naturally as the game is played. Most game designers agree that interesting emergent actions are the hallmark of a good game. Consequently, the ratio of meaningful resultant actions to operation-oriented actions is a good measure of how much emergent behavior your game features. It is an elegant game indeed that allows a player a small number of operation-oriented actions, but a large number of effect-oriented actions. It should be noted that this is a somewhat subjective measure, since the number of " meaningful"resultant actions
is a matter of opinion.

Trying to create "emergent gameplay," that is, interesting resultant actions, has been likened to tending a garden, since what emerges has a life of its own, but at the same time, it is fragile and easily destroyed. When you notice some interesting effect-oriented actions showing up in your game, you must be able to recognize them, and then do what you can to nurture them and give them a chance to flourish. But what makes these things spring up in the first place? It is not just luck — there are things you can do to increase the chances of interesting effect-oriented actions appearing. Here are five tips for preparing the soil of your game and planting seeds of emergence.

  1. Add more verbs.
  2. Verbs that can act on many objects.
  3. Goals that can be achieved more than one way.
  4. Many subjects.
  5. Side effects that change constraints.

Lens #23: The Lens of Emergence

Lens #24: The Lens of Action

Mechanic #4: Rules

The rules are really the most fundamental mechanic. They define the space, the objects, the actions, the consequences of the actions, the constraints on the actions, and the goals. In other words, they make possible all the mechanics we have seen so far and add the crucial thing that makes a game a game — goals.

Parlett's Rule Analysis

  1. Operational Rules: These are the easiest to understand. These are basically, "What the players do to play the game." When players understand the operational rules, they can play a game.
  2. Foundational Rules: The foundational rules are the underlying formal structure of the game. The operational rules might say "The player should roll a six-sided die, and collect that many power chips." The foundational rules would be more abstract: "The player’s power value is increased by a random number from 1 to 6." Foundational rules are a mathematical representation of game state and how and when it changes. Boards, dice, chips, health meters, etc., are all just operational ways of keeping track of the foundational game state. As Parlett’s diagram shows, foundational rules inform operational rules. There is not yet any standard notation for representing these rules, and there is some question about whether a complete notation is even possible. In real life, game designers learn to see the foundational rules on an as-needed basis, but seldom do they have any need to formally document the entire set of foundational rules in a completely abstract way.
  3. Behavioral Rules: These are rules that are implicit to gameplay, which most people naturally understand as part of "good sportsmanship." For example, during a game of chess, one should not tickle the other player while they are trying to think, or take five hours to make a move. These are seldom stated explicitly — mostly, everyone knows them. The fact that they exist underlines the point that a game is a kind of social contract between players. These, too, inform the operational rules. Steven Sniderman has written an excellent essay about behavioral rules called "Unwritten Rules."
  4. Written Rules: These are the "rules that come with the game," the document that players have to read to gain an understanding of the operational rules. Of course, in reality, only a small number of people read this document — most people learn a game by having someone else explain how to play. Why? It is very hard to encode the non-linear intricacies of how to play a game into a document, and similarly hard to decode such a document. Modern videogames have gradually been doing away with written rules in favor of having the game itself teach players how to play through interactive tutorials. This hands-on approach is far more effective, though it can be challenging and time-consuming to design and implement as it involves many iterations that cannot be completed until the game is in its final state. Every game designer must have a ready answer to the question: "How will players learn to play my game?" Because if someone can’t figure out your game, they will not play it.
  5. Laws: These only form when games are played in serious, competitive settings, where the stakes are high enough that a need is felt to explicitly record the rules of good sportsmanship, or where there is need to clarify or modify the official written rules. These are often called "tournament rules," since during a serious tournament is when there is the most need for this kind of official clarification.
  6. Official Rules: These are created when a game is played seriously enough that a group of players feels a need to merge the written rules with the laws. Over time, these official rules later become the written rules. In chess, when a player makes a move that puts the opponent’s king in danger of checkmate, that player is obligated to warn the opponent by saying "check."At one time, this was a " law,"not a written rule, but now it is part of the " official rules."
  7. Advisory Rules: Often called "rules of strategy," these are just tips to help you play better, and not really " rules"at all from a game mechanics standpoint.
  8. House Rules: These rules are not explicitly described by Parlett, but he does point out that as players play a game, they may find they want to tune the operational rules to make the game more fun. This is the " feedback"on his diagram, since house rules are usually created by players in response to a deficiency perceived after a few rounds of play.


When your game changes modes in a dramatic way like this, it is very important that you let your players know which mode you are in. Too many modes and the players can get confused. Very often, there is one main mode, with several sub-modes, which is a good hierarchical way to organize the different modes. Game designer Sid Meier proposes an excellent rule of thumb: players should never spend so much time in a sub-game that they forget what they were doing in the main game.

The Enforcer

How the rules are enforced.

The Most Important Rule

Games have a lot of rules — how to move and what you can and cannot do — but there is one rule at the foundation of all the others: The Object of the Game. Games are about achieving goals — you must be able to state your game’s goal, and state it clearly. Good game goals have three important qualities:
1. Concrete. Players understand and can clearly state what they are supposed to achieve.
2. Achievable. Players need to think that they have a chance of achieving the goal. If it seems impossible to them, they will quickly give up.
3. Rewarding. A lot goes into making an achieved goal rewarding. If the goal has the right level of challenge, just achieving it at all is a reward in itself. But why not go further? You can make your goal even more rewarding by giving the player something valuable upon reaching the goal — use the Lens of Pleasure to find different ways to reward the player, and really make them proud of their achievement. And while it is important to reward players that achieve a goal, it is equally (or more) important that players appreciate that the goal is rewarding before they have achieved it, so that they are inspired to attempt to achieve it. Don’t overinflate their expectations, though, for if they are disappointed with the reward for achieving a goal, they will not play again!

Lens #25: The Lens of Goals

Lens #26: The Lens of Rules

Mechanic #5: Skill

The mechanic of skill shifts the focus away from the game and onto the player. Every game requires players to exercise certain skills. If the player’s skill level is a good match to the game’s difficulty, the player will feel challenged and stay in the flow channel. When you design a game, it is a worthwhile exercise to make a list of the skills that your game requires from the player. Even though there are thousands of possible skills that can go into a game, skills can generally be divided into three main categories:
1. Physical Skills. These include skills involving strength, dexterity, coordination, and physical endurance. Physical skills are an important part of most sports. Effectively manipulating a game controller is a kind of physical skill, but many videogames (such as Dance Dance Revolution and the Sony Eyetoy) require a broader range of physical skills from players.
2. Mental Skills. These include the skills of memory, observation, and puzzle solving. Although some people shy away from games that require too much in the way of mental skills, it is the rare game that doesn’t involve some mental skills, because games are interesting when there are interesting decisions to make, and decision making is a mental skill.
3. Social Skills. These include, among other things, reading an opponent (guessing what he is thinking), fooling an opponent, and coordinating with teammates. Typically we think of social skills in terms of your ability to make friends and influence people, but the range of social and communication skills in games is much wider. Poker is largely a social game, because so much of it rests on concealing your thoughts and guessing the thoughts of others. Sports are very social, as well, with their focus on teamwork and on "psyching out" your opponents.

Enumerating Skills

Making a list of all the skills required in your game can be a very useful exercise. You might make a general list: "my game requires memory, problem solving, and pattern matching skills." Or you might make it very specific: "my game requires players to quickly identify and mentally rotate specific two-dimensional shapes in their heads, while solving a grid-based packing problem."

Lens #27: The Lens of Skill

Mechanic #6: Chance

Chance is an essential part of a fun game because chance means uncertainty, and uncertainty means surprises.

Ten Rules of Probability Every Game Designer Should Know

  1. Fractions are Decimals are Percents
  2. Zero to One — and That’s It!
  3. "Looked For" Divided By "Possible Outcomes" Equals Probability
  4. Enumerate!
  5. In Certain Cases, OR Means Add
  6. In Certain Cases, AND Means Multiply
  7. One Minus "Does" = "Doesn’t"
  8. The Sum of Multiple Linear Random Selections is NOT a Linear Random Selection!
  9. Roll the Dice
  10. Geeks Love Showing Off (Gombauld’s Law)

Expected Value

The expected value of a transaction in a game is the average of all the possible values that could result. And consider values carefully; take care to measure the real values of actions in the game. If something gives a benefit that a player can't use, or contains a hidden penalty, you must capture it in your calculations.

The Human Element

You must also keep in mind that expected value calculations do not perfectly predict human behavior. (Behavioral economics, loss aversion, etc)

Lens #28: The Lens of Expected Value

Skill and Chance Get Tangled

As much as we like to think that chance and skill are completely separate mechanics, there are important interactions between them that we cannot ignore. Here are five of the most important skill/chance interactions for a game designer to consider.

  1. Estimating chance is a skill.
  2. Skills have a probability of success.
  3. Estimating an opponent’s skill is a skill
  4. Predicting pure chance is an imagined skill.
  5. Controlling pure chance is an imagined skill.

Lens #29: The Lens of Chance

Game Mechanics Must be in Balance

Game Mechanics Support Puzzles

Players Play Games Through an Interface

Experiences can be Judged by their Interest Curves

One Kind of Experience is Story

Story and Game Structures can be Arfully Merged with Indirect Control

Stories and Games Take Place in Worlds

Worlds Contain Characters

Worlds Contain Spaces

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

Some Games are Played with Other Players

Other Players Sometimes Form Communities

The Designer Usually Works with a Team

The Team Sometimes Communicates Through Documents

Good Games Are Created Through Playtesting

The Team Builds a Game with Technology

Your Game Will Probably Have a Client

The Designer Gives the CLient a Pitch

The Designer and Client Want the Game to Make a Profit

Games Transform Their Players

Designers Have Certain Responsibilities

Each Designer has a Motivation

The Lenses

  1. The Lens of Essential Experience: To use this lens, you stop thinking about your game and start thinking about the experience of the player. What experience do I want the player to have? What is essential to that experience? How can my game capture that essence? If there is a big different between the experience you want to create and the one you are actually creating, your game needs to change: You need to clearly state the essential experience you desire, and find as many ways as possible to instill this essence into your game.

  2. The Lens of Surprise: Surprise is so basic that we can easily forget about it. Use this lens to remind yourself to fill your game with interesting surprises. What will surprise players when they play my game? Does the story in my game have surprises? Do the game rules? Does the artwork? The technology?

  3. The Lens of Fun: Fun in desirable in nearly every game, although sometimes fun defeats analysis. What parts of my game are fun? Why? What parts need to be more fun?

  4. The Lens of Curiosity: Think about the player's true motivations*not just the goals your game has set forth, but the reason the player wants to achieve those goals. What questions does my game put into the player's mind? What am I doing to make them care about these questions? What can I do to make them invent even more questions? For example, a maze-finding video game might have a time-limit goal such that at each level, players are trying to answer the question "Can I find my way through this maze in 30 seconds?" A way to make them care more would be to play interesting animations when they solve each maze, so players might also ask the question, "I wonder what the next animation will be?"

  5. The Lens of Endogenous Value: Think about your players' feelings about items, objects, and scoring in your game. What is valuable to the players in my game? How can I make it more valuable to them? What is the relationship between value in the game and the player's motivations? Remember, the value of items and score in the game is a direct reflection of how much players care about succeeding in your game. By thinking about what the players really care about and why, you can often get insights about how your game can improve.

  6. The Lens of Problem Solving: Think about the problems your players must solve to succeed at your game, for every game has problems to solve. What problems does my game ask the player to solve? Are there hidden problems to solve that arise as part of gameplay? How can my game generate new problems so that players keep coming back?

  7. The Lens of the Elemental Tetrad: Take stock of what your game is truly made of. Consider each element separately, and then all of them together as a whole. Is my game design using elements of all four types? Could my design be improved by enhancing elements in one or more of the categories? ARe the four elements in harmony, reinforcing each other, and working together toward a common theme?

  8. The Lens of Holographic Design: You must see everything in your game at once: the four elements and the player experience, as well as how they interrelate. It is acceptable to shift your focus from skin to skeleton and back again, but it is far better to view your game and experience holographically. What elements of the game make the experience enjoyable? What elements of the game detract from the experience? How can I change game elements to improve the experience?

  9. The Lens of Unification: Consider the reason behind it all. What is my theme? Am I using every means possible to reinforce the theme? This works very well with the Lens of the Elemental Tetrad. Use the tetrad to separate out the elements of your game, so you can more easily study them from the perspective of a unified theme.

  10. The Lens of Resonance: You must look for hidden power. What is it about my game that feels powerful and special? When I describe my game to people, what ideas get them really excited? If I had no constraints of any kind, what would this game be like? I have certain instincts about how this game should be. What is driving those instincts? This lens is a quiet, delicate instrument. It is a tool for listening to yourself and listening to others. We bury important things deep inside ourselves, and when something causes them to resonate, it shakes us to our very core. The fact that these things are hidden gives them power, but also makes them hard to find.

  11. The Lens of Infinite Inspiration: "When you know how to listen, everybody is the guru." (Ram Dass) Stop looking at your game, and stop looking at games like it. Instead, look everywhere else. What is an experience I have had in my life that I would want to share with others? In what small way can I capture the essence of that experience and put it into my game? Using this lens requires an open mind and a big imagination. You need to search your feelings and observe everything around you. You must be willing to try the impossible--for surely it is impossible for a roll of the dice to capture the excitement of a swordfight, or for a video game to make a player feel afraid of the dark--isn't it? Use this lens to find the non-game experiences that will inspire your game. Your choices in the different quadrants of the tetrad can each by united by a single inspiration, or each can build on different inspirations, blending them together to create something entirely new. When you have concrete visions based on real life that guide your decision making, your experience will acquire an undeniable power, strength and uniqueness. This lens works hand in hand with Essential Experience. Use the Infinite Inspiration to seek and find beautiful experiences, and the Essential Experience to bring them into your game.

  12. The Lens of the Problem Statement: Think of your game as the solution to a problem. What problem, or problems, am I really trying to solve? Have I been making assumptions about this game that really have nothing to do with its true purpose? Is a game really the best solution? Why? How will I be able to tell if the problem is solved? Defining the constraints and goals for your game as a problem statement can help move you to a clear game design much more quickly.

  13. The Lens of the Eight Filters: You must consider the many constraints your design must satisfy. You can only call your design finished when it can pass through all eight filters without requiring a change.

    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 play testers enjoy the game enough?
  14. The Lens of Risk Mitigation: Stop thinking positively, and start seriously considering the things that could go horribly wrong with your game. What could keep this game from being great? How can we stop that from happening? Risk management is hard. It means you have to face up to the problems you would most like to avoid, and solve them immediately. But if you discipline yourself to do it, you'll loop more times, and more usefully, and get a better game as a result. It is tempting to ignore potential problems and just work on the parts of your game you feel most confident about. You must resist this temptation and focus on the parts of your game that are in danger.

  15. The Lens of the Toy: Stop thinking about whether your game is fun to play, and start thinking about whether it is fun to play with. Ask yourself these questions:

    • If my game had no goal, would it be fun at all? If not, how can I change that?
    • When people see my game, do they want to start interacting with it, even before they know what to do? If not, how can I change that?

    There are two ways to use this lens. One way is to use it on an existing game, to figure out how to add more toy-like qualities to it--that is, how to make it more approachable, and more fun to manipulate. The second way (the braver way) is to use it to invent and create new toys before you even have any idea what games will be played with them. This is risky if you are on a schedule--but if you are not, it can be a great "divining rod" to help you find wonderful games you might not have discovered otherwise.

  16. The Lens of the Player: Stop thinking about your game, and start thinking about your player. Ask yourself these questions about the people who will play your game:

    • In general, what do they like?
    • What don't they like? Why?
    • What do they expect to see in a game?
    • If I were in their place, what would I want to see in a game?
    • What would they like or dislike about my game in particular?

    A good game designer should always be thinking of the player, and should be an advocate for the player. Skilled designers hold The Lens of the Player and the Lens of Holographic Design in the same hand, thinking about the player, the experience of the game, and the mechanics of the game all at the same time. THinking about hte player is useful, but evne more useful is watching them play your game. The more you observe them playing, the more easily you'll be able to predict what they are going to enjoy.

  17. The Lens of Pleasure: Think about the kinds of pleasure your game does and does not provide. Ask yourself these questions:

    • What pleasures does your game give to players? Can these be improved?
    • What pleasures are missing from your experience? Why? Can they be added?

    The job of a game is to give pleasure. Always be on the lookout for unique, unclassified pleasures not found in most games--for one of these might be what gives your game the unique quality it needs.

  18. The Lens of Flow: Consider what is holding your player’s focus. Ask yourself these questions:

    • Does my game have clear goals? If not, how can I fix that?
    • Are the goals of the player the same goals I intended?
    • Are there parts of the game that distract players to the point they forget their goal? If so, can these distractions be reduced, or tied into the game goals?
    • Does my game provide a steady stream of not-too-easy, not-too-hard challenges, taking into account the fact that the player’s skills may be gradually improving?
    • Are the player’s skills improving at the rate I had hoped? If not, how can I change that?
  19. The Lens of Needs: Stop thinking about your game, and start thinking about what basic human needs it fulfills. Ask yourself these questions:

    • On which levels of Maslow’s hierarchy is my game operating?
    • How can I make my game fulfill more basic needs than it already is?
    • On the levels my game is currently operating, how can it fulfill those needs even better?

    It sounds strange to talk about a game fulfilling basic human needs, but everything that people do is an attempt to fulfill these needs in some way. And keep in mind, some games fulfill needs better than others — your game can’t just promise the need, it must deliver fulfillment of the need. If a player imagines that playing your game is going to make them feel better about themselves, or get to know their friends better, and your game doesn’t deliver on these needs, your player will move on to a game that does.

  20. The Lens of Judgment: To decide if your game is a good judge of the players, ask yourself these questions:

    • What does your game judge about the players?
    • How does it communicate this judgment?
    • Do players feel the judgment is fair?
    • Do they care about the judgment?
    • Does the judgment make them want to improve?
  21. The Lens of Functional Space: Think about the space in which your game really takes place when all surface elements are stripped away. Ask yourself these questions:

    • Is the space of this game discrete or continuous?
    • How many dimensions does it have?
    • What are the boundaries of the space?
    • Are there sub-spaces? How are they connected?
    • Is there more than one useful way to abstractly model the space of this game?
  22. The Lens of Dynamic State: Think about what information changes during your game, and who is aware of it. Ask yourself these questions:

    • What are the objects in my game?
    • What are the attributes of the objects?
    • What are the possible states for each attribute? What triggers the state changes for each attribute?
    • What state is known by the game only?
    • What state is known by all players?
    • What state is known by some, or only one player?
    • Would changing who knows what state improve my game in some way?

    Game playing is decision making. Decisions are made based on information. Deciding the different attributes, their states, and who knows about them is core to the mechanics of your game. Small changes to who knows what information can radically change a game, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Who knows about what attributes can even change over the course of a game — a great way to create drama in your game is to make an important piece of private information suddenly become public.

  23. The Lens of Emergence: To make sure your game has interesting qualities of emergence, ask yourself these questions:

    • How many verbs do my players have?
    • How many objects can each verb act on?
    • How many ways can players achieve their goals?
    • How many subjects do the players control?
    • How do side effects change constraints?
  24. The Lens of Action: To use this lens, think about what your players can do and what they can’t, and why. Ask yourself these questions:

    • What are the operational actions in my game?
    • What are the resultant actions?
    • What resultant actions would I like to see? How can I change my game in order to make those possible?
    • Am I happy with the ratio of resultant to operational actions?
    • What actions do players wish they could do in my game that they cannot?

    Can I somehow enable these, either as operational or resultant actions? A game without actions is like a sentence without verbs — nothing happens. Deciding the actions in your game will be the most fundamental decision you can make as a game designer. Tiny changes to these actions will have tremendous ripple effects with the possibility of either creating marvelous emergent gameplay or making a game that is predictable and tedious. Choose your actions carefully, and learn to listen to your game and your players to learn what is made possible by your choices.

  25. The Lens of Goals: To ensure the goals of your game are appropriate and well-balanced, ask yourself these questions:

    • What is the ultimate goal of my game?
    • Is that goal clear to players?
    • If there is a series of goals, do the players understand that?
    • Are the different goals related to each other in a meaningful way?
    • Are my goals concrete, achievable, and rewarding?
    • Do I have a good balance of short- and long-term goals?
    • Do players have a chance to decide on their own goals?
  26. The Lens of Rules: Look deep into your game, until you can make out its most basic structure. Ask yourself these questions:

    • What are the foundational rules of my game? How do these differ from the operational rules?
    • Are there "laws" or "house rules" that are forming as the game develops? Should these be incorporated into my game directly?
    • Are there different modes in my game? Do these modes make things simpler, or more complex? Would the game be better with fewer modes? More modes?
    • Who enforces the rules?
    • Are the rules easy to understand, or is there confusion about them? If there is confusion, should I fix it by changing the rules or by explaining them more clearly?

    There is a common misconception that designers make games by sitting down and writing a set of rules. This usually isn’t how it happens at all. A game’s rules are arrived at gradually and experimentally. The designer’s mind generally works in the domain of "operational rules," occasionally switching to the perspective of "foundational rules" when thinking about how to change or improve the game. The "written rules" usually come toward the end, once the game is playable. Part of the designer’s job is to make sure there are rules that cover every circumstance. Be sure to take careful notes as you playtest, because it is during these tests that holes in your rules will appear — if you just patch them quickly and don’t make a note, the same hole will just show up again later. A game is its rules — give them the time and consideration that they deserve.

  27. The Lens of Skill: Stop looking at your game, and start looking at the skills you are asking of your players. Ask yourself these questions:

    • What skills does my game require from the player?
    • Are there categories of skill that this game is missing?
    • Which skills are dominant?
    • Are these skills creating the experience I want?
    • Are some players much better at these skills than others? Does this make the game feel unfair?
    • Can players improve their skills with practice?
    • Does this game demand the right level of skill?

    Exercising skills can be a joyful thing — it is one of the reasons that people love games. Of course, it is only joyful if the skills are interesting and rewarding, and if the challenge level strikes that ideal balance between “too easy ” and “too hard. ” Even dull skills (such as pushing buttons) can be made more interesting by dressing them up as virtual skills and providing the right level of challenge. Use this lens as a window into the experience the player is having. Because skills do so much to define experience, the Lens of Skill works quite well in conjunction with Lens #1: The Lens of Essential Experience.

  28. The Lens of Expected Value: Think about the chance of different events occurring in your game, and what those mean to your player. Ask yourself these questions:

    • What is the actual chance of a certain event occurring?
    • What is the perceived chance?
    • What value does the outcome of that event have? Can the value be quantified? Are there intangible aspects of value that I am not considering?
    • Each action a player can take has a different expected value when I add up all the possible outcomes. Am I happy with these values? Do they give the player interesting choices? Are they too rewarding, or too punishing?

    Expected value is one of your most valuable tools for analyzing game balance. The challenge of using it is finding a way to numerically represent everything that can happen to a player. Gaining and losing money is easy to represent. But what is the numerical value of “boots of speed ” that let you run faster, or a “warp gate ” that lets you skip two levels? These are difficult to quantify perfectly — but that doesn’t mean you can’t take a guess. As you go through multiple iterations of game testing, tweaking parameters and values in your game, you will also be tweaking your own estimations of the values of different outcomes. Quantifying these less tangible elements can be quite enlightening, because it makes you think concretely about what is valuable to the player and why — and this concrete knowledge will put you in control of the balance of your game.

  29. The Lens of Chance: Focus on the parts of your game that involve randomness and risk, keeping in mind that those two things are not the same. Ask yourself these questions:

    • What in my game is truly random? What parts just feel random?
    • Does the randomness give the players positive feelings of excitement and challenge, or does it give them negative feelings of hopelessness and lack of control?
    • Would changing my probability distribution curves improve my game?
    • Do players have the opportunity to take interesting risks in the game?
    • What is the relationship between chance and skill in my game? Are there ways I can make random elements feel more like the exercise of a skill? Are there ways I can make exercising skills feel more like risk-taking?

    Risk and randomness are like spices. A game without any hint of them can be completely bland, but put in too much and they overwhelm everything else. But get them just right, and they bring out the flavor of everything else in your game. Unfortunately, using them in your game is not as simple as sprinkling them on top. You must look into your game to see where elements of risk and randomness naturally arise, and then decide how you can best tame them to do your bidding. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that elements of chance only occur around die rolls or randomly generated numbers. On the contrary, you can find them wherever a player encounters the unknown.


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Last modified 20 December 2020