CIRCA:The Art of Game Design - Jesse Schell


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Schell, J. (2008). The art of game design : a book of lenses. Amsterdam ;;Boston: Elsevier/Morgan Kaufmann.

  • Goes through game design starting at the very beginning, “Game design is the act of deciding what a game should be. That’s it. On the surface, it sounds too simple.” (p. xxiv)
  • Uses 100 different lenses to look at game design
  • Notes that all decisions are game design so everyone working on a game should be familiar
  • Works towards a map of game design one element at a time and starting with a blank slate


In the Beginning, There Is the Designer

Design games to be a game designer. The magic words “I am a game designer” make you one.

Also goes through useful skills for a designer


Throughout the books different lenses are presented to cause the designer to consider aspects of his game. They are reproduced here with select examples having Schell’s accompanying questions for consideration.

Lens #1: The Lens of Experience

To use this lens, you stop thinking about your game and start thinking about the experience of the player.

Lens #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

Lens #3: The Lens of Fun

Fun is desirable in nearly every game, although sometimes fun defies analysis.

Lens #4: The Lens of Curiosity

To use this lens, 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.

Lens #5: The Lens of Endogenous Value

To use this lens, think about your players’ feelings about items, objects, and scoring in your game.

Lens #6: The Lens of Problem Solving

To use this lens, think about the problems your players must solve to succeed at your game, for every game has problems to solve.

Lens #7: The Lens of the Elemental Tetrad

To use this lens, take stock of what your game is truly made of. Consider each element separately, and then all of them together as a whole.

Lens #8: The Lens of Holographic Design

To use this lens, 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.

Lens #9: The Lens of Unification

To use this lens, consider the reason behind it all.

Lens #10: The Lens of Resonance

To use the Lens of Resonance, you must look for hidden power.

Lens #11: The Lens of Infinite Inspiration

To you use this lens, stop looking at your game, and stop looking at games like it. Instead, look everywhere else.

Lens #12: The Lens of the Problem Statement

To use this lens, think of your game as the solution to a problem.

Lens # 13: The Lens of the Eight Filters

To use this lens, 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.

Ask yourself the eight key questions:

  • Does this game feel right?
  • Will the intended audience like this game enough?
  • Is this a well-designed game?
  • Is this game novel enough?
  • Will this game sell?
  • Is it technically possible to build this game?
  • Does this game meet our social and community goals?
  • Do the playtesters enjoy this game enough?

Lens # 14: The Lens of Risk Mitigation

To use this lens, stop thinking positively, and start seriously considering the things that could go horribly wrong with your game.

Lens # 15: The Lens of the Toy

To use this lens, stop thinking about whether your game is fun to play, and start thinking about whether it is fun to play with.

Lens #16: The Lens of the Player

To use this lens, stop thinking about your game, and start thinking about your player.

Lens #17: The Lens of Pleasure

To use this lens, think about the kinds of pleasure your game does and does not provide.

Lens #18: The Lens of Flow

To use this lens, consider what is holding your player’s focus.

Lens #19: The Lens of Needs

To use this lens, stop thinking about your game, and start thinking about what basic human needs it fulfills.

Lens #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?

Lens #21: The Lens of Functional Space

To use this lens, think about the space in which your game really takes place when all surface elements are stripped away.

Lens #22: The Lens of Dynamic State

To use this lens, think about what information changes during your game, and who is aware of it.

Lens #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?

Lens #24: The Lens of Action

To use this lens, think about what your players can do and what they can’t, and why.

Lens #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?

Lens #26: The Lens of Rules

To use this lens, look deep into your game, until you can make out its most basic structure.

Lens #27: The Lens of Skill

To use this lens, stop looking at your game, and start looking at the skills you are asking of your players.

Lens #28: The Lens of Expected Value

To use this lens, think about the chance of different events occurring in your game, and what those mean to your player.

Lens #29: The Lens of Chance

To use this lens focus on the parts of your game that involve randomness and risk, keeping in mind that those two things are not the same.

Lens #30: The Lens of Fairness

To use the Lens of Fairness, think carefully about the game from each player’s point of view. Taking into account each player’s skill level, find a way to give each player a chance of winning that each will consider to be fair.

Lens #31: The Lens of Challenge

Challenge is at the core of almost all gameplay. You could even say that a game is defined by its goals and its challenges.

Lens #32: The Lens of Meaningful Choice s

When we make meaningful choices, it lets us feel like the things we do matter. To use this lens, ask yourself these questions:

  • What choices am I asking the player to make?
  • Are they meaningful? How?
  • Am I giving the player the right number of choices? Would more make them feel more powerful? Would less make the game clearer?
  • Are there any dominant strategies in my game?

Lens #33: The Lens of Triangularity

Giving a player the choice to play it safe for a low reward, or to take a risk for a big reward is a great way to make your game interesting and exciting.

Lens #34: The Lens of Skill vs. Chance

To help determine how to balance skill and chance in your game, ask yourself these questions:

  • Are my players here to be judged (skill), or to take risks (chance)?
  • Skill tends to be more serious than chance: Is my game serious or casual?
  • Are parts of my game tedious? If so, will adding elements of chance enliven them?
  • Do parts of my game feel too random? If so, will replacing elements of chance with elements of skill or strategy make the players feel more in control?

Lens #35: The Lens of Head and Hands

Yogi Berra once said “Baseball is 90% mental. The other half is physical. ” To make sure your game has a more realistic balance of mental and physical elements, use the Lens of Head and Hands.

Lens #36: The Lens of Competition

Determining who is most skilled at something is a basic human urge. Games of competition can satisfy that urge. Use this lens to be sure your competitive game makes people want to win it.

Lens #37: The Lens of Cooperation

Collaborating and succeeding as a team is a special pleasure that can create lasting social bonds. Use this lens to study the cooperative aspects of your game.

Lens #38: The Lens of Competition vs. Cooperation

Balancing competition and cooperation can be done in many interesting ways. Use this lens to decide whether they are balanced properly in your game.

Lens #39: The Lens of Time

It is said that “timing is everything.” Our goal as designers is to create experiences, and experiences are easily spoiled when they are too short or too long.

Lens #40: The Lens of Reward

Everyone likes to be told they are doing a good job. Ask questions to determine if your game is giving out the right rewards in the right amounts at the right times.

Lens #41: The Lens of Punishment

Punishment must be used delicately, since after all, players are in a game of their own free will. Balanced appropriately, it will give everything in your game more meaning, and players will have a real sense of pride when they succeed at your game.

Lens #42: The Lens of Simplicity/Complexity

Striking the right balance between simplicity and complexity is difficult and must be done for the right reasons. Use this lens to help your game become one in which meaningful complexity arises out of a simple system.

Lens #43: The Lens of Elegance

Most “classic games” are considered to be masterpieces of elegance. Use this lens to make your game as elegant as possible.

Lens #44: The Lens of Character

Elegance and character are opposites. They are like miniature versions of simplicity and complexity, and must be kept in balance.

Lens #45: The Lens of Imagination

All games have some element of imagination and some element of connection to reality. Use this lens to help find the balance between detail and imagination.

Lens #46: The Lens of Economy

Giving a game an economy can give it surprising depth and a life all its own. But like all living things, it can be difficult to control.

Lens #47: The Lens of Balance

There are many types of game balance, and each is important. However, it is easy to get lost in the details and forget the big picture. Use this simple lens to get out of the mire, and ask yourself the only important question:

  • Does my game feel right? Why or why not?

Lens #48: The Lens of Accessibility

When you present a puzzle to players (or a game of any kind), they should be able to clearly visualize what their first few steps would be.

Lens #49: The Lens of Visible Progress

Players need to see that they are making progress when solving a difficult problem.

Lens #50: The Lens of Parallelism

Parallelism in your puzzle brings parallel benefits to the player’s experience.

Lens #51: The Lens of the Pyramid

Pyramids fascinate us because they have a singular highest point.

Lens #52: The Lens of the Puzzle

Puzzles make the player stop and think.

Lens #53: The Lens of Control

This lens has uses beyond just examining your interface, since meaningful control is essential for immersive interactivity.

Lens #54: The Lens of Physical Interface

Somehow, the player has a physical interaction with your game. Copying existing physical interfaces is an easy trap to fall into.

Lens #55: The Lens of Virtual Interface

Designing virtual interfaces can be very tricky. Done poorly, they become a wall between the player and the game world. Done well, they amplify the power and control a player has in the game world.

Lens #56: The Lens of Transparency

The ideal interface becomes invisible to the player letting the player’s imagination be completely immersed in the game world.

Lens #57: The Lens of Feedback

The feedback a player gets from the game is many things: judgment, reward, instruction, encouragement, and challenge.

Lens #58: The Lens of Juiciness

To call an interface “juicy” might seem kind of silly — although it is very common to hear an interface with very little feedback described as “ dry. ” Juicy interfaces are fun the moment you pick them up.

Lens #59: The Lens of Channels and Dimensions

Choosing how to map game information to channels and dimensions is the heart of designing your game interface. Use this lens to make sure you do it thoughtfully and well.

Lens #60: The Lens of Modes

An interface of any complexity is going to require modes. Make sure your modes make the player feel powerful and in control and does not confuse or overwhelm

Lens #61: The Lens of the Interest Curve

Exactly what captivates the human mind often seems different for every person, but the most pleasurable patterns of that captivation are remarkably similar for everyone.

Lens #62: The Lens of Inherent Interest

Some things are just interesting.

Lens #63: The Lens of Beauty

We love to experience things of great beauty.

Lens #64: The Lens of Projection

One key indicator that someone is enjoying an experience is that they have projected their imaginations into it. When they do this, their enjoyment of the experience increases significantly, in a sort of virtuous circle.

Lens #65: The Lens of the Story Machine

A good game is a machine that generates stories when people play it.

Lens #66: The Lens of the Obstacle

A goal with no obstacles is not worth pursuing.

Lens #67: The Lens of Simplicity and Transcendence

Make sure you have the right mix of simplicity and transcendence.

Lens #68: The Lens of the Hero’s Journey

Many heroic stories have similar structure. Use this lens to make sure you haven’t missed out on any elements that might improve your story.

Lens #69: The Lens of the Weirdest Thing

Having weird things in your story can help give meaning to unusual game mechanics — it can capture the interest of the player, and it can make your world seem special. Too many things that are too weird, though, will render your story puzzling and inaccessible.

Lens #70: The Lens of Story

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Does my game really need a story? Why?
  • Why will players be interested in this story?
  • How does the story support the other parts of the tetrad (aesthetics, technology, gameplay)? Can it do a better job?
  • How do the other parts of the tetrad support the story? Can they do a better job?
  • How can my story be better?

Lens #71: The Lens of Freedom

A feeling of freedom is one of the things that separates games from other forms of entertainment.

Lens #72: The Lens of Indirect Control

Every designer has a vision of what they would like the players to do to have an ideal play experience.

Lens #73: The Lens of Collusion

Characters should fulfill their roles in the game world, but when possible, also serve as the many minions of the game designer, working toward the designer’s ultimate aim, which is to ensure an engaging experience for the player.

Lens #74: The Lens of the World

The world of your game is a thing that exists apart. Your game is a doorway to this magic place that exists only in the imagination of your players.

Lens #75: The Lens of the Avatar

The avatar is a player’s gateway into the world of the game.

Lens #76: The Lens of Character Function

To make sure your characters are doing everything your game needs them to do, ask yourself these questions:

  • What are the roles I need the characters to fill?
  • What characters have I already imagined?
  • Which characters map well to which roles?
  • Can any characters fill more than one role?
  • Do I need to change the characters to better fit the roles?
  • Do I need any new characters?

Lens #77: The Lens of Character Traits

To ensure that the traits of a character show in what they say and do, ask yourself these questions:

  • What traits define my character?
  • How do these traits manifest themselves in the words, actions, and appearance of my character?

Lens #78: The Lens of the Interpersonal Circumplex

Understanding the relationships between your characters is crucial. One way to do this is to create a graph with one axis labeled hostile/friendly, and the other labeled submissive/dominant. Pick a character to analyze, and put them in the middle.

Lens #79: The Lens of the Character Web

To flesh out your characters’ relationships better, make a list of all your characters, and ask yourself these questions:

  • How, specifically, does each character feel about each of the others?
  • Are there any connections unaccounted for? How can I use those?
  • Are there too many similar connections? How can they be more different?

Lens #80: The Lens of Status

When people interact, they take on different behaviors depending on their status levels.

Lens #81: The Lens of Character Transformation

Powerful stories are able to change their characters.

Lens #82: The Lens of Inner Contradiction

A good game cannot contain properties that defeat the game’s very purpose.

Lens #83: The Lens of The Nameless Quality

Certain things feel special and wonderful because of their natural, organic design.

Lens #84: The Lens of Friendship

People love to play games with friends.

Lens #85: The Lens of Expression

When players get a chance to express themselves, it makes them feel alive, proud, important, and connected.

Lens #86: The Lens of Community

To make sure your game fosters strong community, ask yourself these questions:

  • What conflict is at the heart of my community?
  • How does architecture shape my community?
  • Does my game support three levels of experience?
  • Are there community events?
  • Why do players need each other?

Lens #87: The Lens of Griefing

To make sure griefing in your game is minimized, ask yourself these questions:

  • What systems in my game are easy to grief?
  • How can I make my game boring to grief?
  • Am I ignoring any loopholes?

Lens #88: The Lens of Love

To use this lens, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I love my project? If not, how can I change that?
  • Does everyone on the team love the project? If not, how can that be changed?

Lens #89: The Lens of the Team

To make sure your team is operating like a well-oiled machine, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is this the right team for this project? Why?
  • Is the team communicating objectively?
  • Is the team communicating clearly?
  • Is the team comfortable with each other?
  • Is there an air of trust and respect among the team?
  • Is the team ultimately able to unify around decisions?

Lens #90: The Lens of Documentation

To ensure you are writing the documents you need, and skipping the ones you don’t, ask yourself these questions:

  • What do we need to remember while making this game?
  • What needs to be communicated while making this game?

Lens #91: The Lens of Playtesting

Playtesting is your chance to see your game in action. To ensure your playtests are as good as they can be, ask yourself these questions:

  • Why are we doing a playtest?
  • Who should be there?
  • Where should we hold it?
  • What will we look for?
  • How will we get the information we need?

Lens #92: The Lens of Technology

To make sure you are using the right technologies in the right way, ask yourself these questions:

  • What technologies will help deliver the experience I want to create?
  • Am I using these technologies in ways that are foundational or
  • decorational?
  • If I’m not using them foundationally, should I be using them at all?
  • Is this technology as cool as I think it is?
  • Is there a “disruptive technology” I should consider instead?

Lens #93: The Lens of the Crystal Ball

If you would like to know the future of a particular game technology, ask yourself these questions, and make your answers as concrete as possible:

  • What will ____ be like two years from now? Why?
  • What will ____ be like four years from now? Why?
  • What will ____ be like ten years from now? Why?

Lens #94: The Lens of the Client

If you are making a game for someone else, you should probably know what they want. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What does the client say he wants?

Lens #95: The Lens of the Pitch

To ensure your pitch is as good as it can be, ask yourself these questions:

  • Why are you pitching this game to this client?
  • What will you consider “a successful pitch”?
  • What’s in it for the people you are pitching to?
  • What do the people you are pitching to need to know about your game?

Lens #96: The Lens of Profit

Profits keep the game industry alive.

Lens #97: The Lens of Transformation

Games create experiences, and experiences change people. To make sure only the best changes happen to your players, ask yourself these questions:

  • How can my game change players for the better?
  • How can my game change players for the worse?

Lens #98: The Lens of Responsibility

To live up to your obligations as a game designer, ask yourself this question:

  • Does my game help people? How?

Lens #99: The Lens of the Raven

To remember to only work on what is important, ask yourself this question:

  • Is making this game worth my time?

Lens #100: The Lens of Your Secret Purpose

To make sure you are working toward your one true purpose, ask yourself the only question that matters:

  • Why am I doing this?
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