Authors in August: Game Designer Jesse Schell


Entrepreneur, author, and game designer Jesse Schell joins the podcast to talk about the art of design, the creation of experience, and the future of games.

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This video was recorded on Aug. 10, 2022.

David Gardner: How many books have you read on game design? For most of us, the answer is probably zero. But if I do a good job this week interviewing author, entrepreneur, and game designer Jesse Schell, I hope I might convince you to read at least one. And it is a masterpiece. The Art of Game Design, only on this week’s Rule Breaker Investing.


Welcome back to Rule Breaker Investing. If my audio quality in the intros this week is not up to snuff, it’s because I recorded it from Scotland. However, good news: It’s about to get a lot better as the rest of this interview comes from our normal environs in the good old U.S. of A. Jesse Schell is an American video game designer, author, CEO of Schell games, and a distinguished professor of the practice of entertainment technology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. After reading Jesse’s book The Art of Game Design more than a decade ago I reached out to him, as one of our kids was touring Carnegie Mellon. Had a wonderful chance than to connect with Jesse in his offices. Because in addition to being the superstar author of The Art of Game Design, Jesse is an entrepreneur. Having worked in partnership with some of the best brands in entertainment to design for them everything from mobile and VR games to amusement park rides. Jesse kicks off Authors in August this week with our wide ranging conversation from philosophy to practice. I hope, and trust there’s something in this for everyone. Without further ado. Let’s get started. Jesse Schell, great to have you on Rule Breaker Investing. How are you doing?

Jesse Schell: Hey, doing great, so glad to be here.

David Gardner: Thanks a lot. I said in my introduction, well, I’m an acknowledged fan of this book and it’s one of those books that stayed with me. I think I first read it, well, definitely more than a decade ago. I know it’s now out in a third edition. I may have missed the second edition, but I’m a huge fan of the first edition, which I assume mostly carries through. The comprehensive nature of looking at games from all angles, philosophically, technically, the stories, the elements — we’re going to get into that some. But Jesse, I know this is obviously in some ways an outgrowth of your work, your wonderful work over decades and probably continues to inform what you’re doing. I hope it continues making connections with you, or if I were a Carnegie Mellon student, I’d be like “I read that guy’s book. I want to make sure I get that class.” Thank you for a wonderful work of nonfiction which has enriched by life for 15 years and counting.

Jesse Schell: Yeah, I’m so glad to know that it was meaningful to you. Yeah, it was a special book where I was able to take a lot of different lessons from a lot of things i did and bring them together. It was great when it came out in 2008, it got up very positive reception and that was nice, and here we are 14 years later and it  could be continuously in prints and still continues to be popular and useful in ways that I never had imagined it might be.

David Gardner: That’s wonderful. Well, of course, when a lot of people think games, they start with childhood. That’s what I think about. I was a big gamer. I bet you were too, Jesse, but tell me a little bit about where you grew up and your early life at games.

Jesse Schell: Yeah, sure. Let’s see. I grew up I was in New Jersey, suburban New Jersey there. I definitely loved games of all kinds growing up. I was fascinated by board games and card games. Of course I’m of the age, and I was born in 1970, and so when I was really young, there weren’t no video games. Then slowly video games started to appear, and so it was exciting to see that world of games emerge. I’ve always loved games just across the spectrum. Party games and athletic games and board games, card games, video games, all of them and what was nice about writing Art of Game Design, it was an opportunity to show, let’s look at the principles that connect all of these kinds of games together.

David Gardner: Indeed you do. It starts really in the first chapter of the book. Really, you’re speaking to the designer, the artist in us all. Now not everybody, Jesse fancy’s themselves a world-famous game designer, as are you. But a lot of us might tinker, a lot of us might dream. I love how you start the book. You call it magic words, the first page of the book. What are the magic words?

Jesse Schell: Magic words are, “I am a game designer.” That was really important to me because Stephen King has an amazing book called On Writing, where he just gives advice about how to write good books. He talks a bit about imagining your ideal reader. I kept thinking, OK, when I’m writing this, who’s my ideal reader? I remembered myself back in high school. I started making video games and things when I was maybe 12 years old and started to get a little more serious about understanding it when I was in high school and I was trying to figure out, is there a way, is there a career in games and that thing? I kept imagining what would I have wanted someone to explain to me when I was at that age. That ended up being a lot of the focus of that was always an anchor for me. One thing that I knew was confidence was something people often don’t have when it comes to something like game design. There are some things where the path toward learning it is well charted. You want to learn to play the piano. Everyone understands about piano lessons and going to school for piano. This is well understood.

Game design. [laughs] Where do you go? What do you do? Where do you start? People often have this idea that you are either born to it or you’re not. It makes people think, “Well, since I don’t know what I’m doing I must not be a game designer.” They feel stuck and they feel foolish trying to do it because they’re like, “I must not supposed to be doing this” and they feel really weird about it. It was very important to give the reader permission. More than just permission, allow them to accept it into their identity. Because one of the things that we talk about sometimes is, what you pretend to be, you will become. I encourage the readers to say, “I am a game designer” out loud because it makes a difference. This was a thing I learned with my students because I saw when I would work with students that lack of confidence, they didn’t feel they had the right to try and design games. I would do a simple exercise where I’d ask people, “OK, hey, it’s first day of class raise your hand if you’re already a game designer?” [laughs] You’d see one or two hands go up and a lot of people just, “I don’t, I’m not, I’m not really sure.” Then I’d make them say it out loud. Then afterwards I’d say, OK, now raise your hand if you’re a game designer. And all the hands would go up. It seems something so simple of these little games of confidence can do a lot in order to change the way you approach something.

David Gardner: I really appreciate that, especially because most of us listening who’ve listened to one or more of these podcasts or might be a longtime Motley Fool investor and fan. No, that that’s exactly what we want everybody to say about their money. That “I am an investor.” How many times do I think I or my brother Tom, in front of a crowd of people who said raise your hand. If you’re an investor, and of course the wrong answer is not to be raising your hand because we’re all investing time all the time. Money, whether it’s a dollar for stick a chewing gum or a dollar toward your 401(k). Democratizing and including, these are just one of course, wonderful spirit, you said, because they feel foolish, because they’re not a game designer. But of course we would say yes, small f, Jesse, but capital F, we want you to feel Foolish by saying, I am an investor and it does challenge the conventional wisdom or what we would expect as kids, especially when we’re sitting in a classroom with again, a world-famous game designing professor asking who’s a game designer here [laughs] in the room. Just as you do for your students, so do you do for the book right up front. I thought it’d be fun as we talked through the art of game design. First of all, this is an incredibly engaging book. My addition comes to 450 pages. Now I’m a slow reader. I loved every page of this book. Some people will be listening right now. “I don’t know if I would read a 450-page book about game design,” and especially if they’re not a game designer, but each of the chapters is so engaged. Yeah, thought the first seven chapters tell a story with their title, gives us a flow for this conversation. If you’re OK with it, I wanted to start right there. Chapter 1 is entitled in the beginning, there is the designer. I am a game designer and then Chapter 2, Jesse goes onto to be called the designer creates an experience. Now a lot of people might think, wait, doesn’t the designer create a game? But you’ve pointed out it’s actually about the experience, not the components, not the rules, the experience of the imagination as we experienced anybody’s game: card game, video game, etc.

Jesse Schell: Yeah, I mean, that’s it’s something very important to understand. Novice designers often get caught up in the game itself. They’re thinking about the rules. They’re thinking about the characters. They’re thinking about the story elements. They’re thinking about these concrete things about the game. They think of themselves as designing those things and wanting those things to be great. But in truth, we don’t care about any of those things. Those things are just a means to an end. A game is a dead object. If you make a game and no one plays it. What have you done? Nothing has happened. That’s not what we care about. We don’t care about unplayed games. What we care about is when someone plays a game, they have a particular experience. It’s that experience, which is what we are trying to design. If we had some magic technology that let us, just create the experience directly. I could just like put this on your head and you would just have this interactive experience, that would be great. But we can’t do that. Instead we’re designing the game. It’s very important to keep that in mind. That the experience supersedes everything. It often makes a lot of sense to take on the approach of what do I want this experience to be like? Then figure out, well, what game is going to bring about that experience?

David Gardner: Love it. You mentioned in the book at one point, you said it here that if you could somehow get away without making components and having to print up rules and just give people that experience. I’m sure a lot of people would do an economic shortcut and just deliver that experience. Now some people think of that as the metaverse where I can just sort of be lying there, I guess in my meta chair, and just experience with my imagination some of these game without having to roll out supply chain logistics printed off in China, and all these kinds of things. Where are you right now in terms of your thinking around virtual reality, metaverse, sole experiences for gamers or game designers?

Jesse Schell: Well, virtual reality is something very near and dear to me. I’ve been doing virtual reality for about 30 years now. [laughs]. Back in the ’90s I was the creative director of the Disney Virtual Reality Studio. We created a place called DisneyQuest, which was Disney’s VR theme park that ran for about 20 years. And when VR started to come into the mainstream about seven years ago, my company Schell Games got very involved in it. Because again, I did that stuff at Disney. I’ve been teaching virtual reality classes at Carnegie Mellon.

David Gardner: How could you not?

Jesse Schell: Yeah, exactly. It was really hard to resist, and it’s worked out incredibly well for us. We’ve had great successes with games like I Expect You to Die and Until You Fall. We recently did a cooking game or lost recipe. Like the world of VR games has gone really well. Honestly, I think we’ve done 15 or 20 VR games at this point. We’re very much immersed in it. It’s a really exciting time because those technologies are really, they’re growing, they’re expanding, they’re allowing kinds of gameplay that simply wasn’t possible previously.

David Gardner: That’s great. You know, thinking back to how you’re speaking to the young game designer, and that person thinks they need to have their rules in place to have the game. Not thinking as much about the experience kind of reminds me of how I started with Dungeons & Dragons [D&D] back in the day.

Jesse Schell: Yeah.

David Gardner: You and I are very near the same age. Maybe you also have a first-edition [Gary] Gygax rulebooks or I’m not sure. But I know one thing about me as a Dungeon Master. I loved doing it and I was pretty technical about it. I think what I was missing a lot of the spirit of role-playing games. Having grown up with things like Strat-O-Matic baseball or very often sports game. Very rules-based. I was treating D&D, like “Let’s stop right now because I need to look up on Page 37 because I think you can’t do this or we need to add plus one.” It’s a reminder again about, it’s the experience.

Jesse Schell: Yeah.

David Gardner: Not so much the stuff that is the game, but especially you talked about the VR, the deep experience you have. Of course, when I read the book in 2008, VR wasn’t as much a thing. I definitely knew your background in VR, but really it has been emerging in recent years.

Jesse Schell: Yeah. I will say I’m absolutely with you. I was definitely of the time when Dungeons & Dragons was emerging and it was incredibly influential to me as a game designer. Being a Dungeon Master and learning to lead adventures. It teaches you so much about game design because not only are you crafting a world with rules and how it works, but you’re weaving a story into it. But more than that, as the players are enjoying it, not enjoying it, you have the opportunity to change anything you want in order to make it a better experience for them. You have this ability to iterate and change it on the fly. I found this such a meaningful and influential design experience, and when I teach classes and game design, I make the students do this. We went through a period where many students were not. Digital games have completely replaced tabletop games. Tabletop games are having a resurgence now. Now I’m seeing more and more students who have had that experience. Thank you, Stranger Things. [laughs] But it really is a very powerful way. Role-playing is an incredibly powerful way to get better as a game designer.

David Gardner: Chapter 3. After the designer creates an experience, which is what we just talked about, Chapter 2. Chapter 3, the experience rises out of a game. We do acknowledge that we’re back to games. But importantly in that chapter, and I’m wondering if this has changed over time. You define game. You challenge yourself, you sift through. It’s hard to put a definition on a word that means so many things to so many different people. Can you refresh my memory or redefine in 2022, what is a game?

Jesse Schell: Yeah, the definition I like to use for “game,” because you think, game, everyone knows what a game is, but when you’re trying to define it, it’s interesting that many people define it in many different ways. I looked at lots of different definitions that different philosophers and designers have put together. What I ended up arriving at is that a game is a problem-solving activity approached with a playful attitude. This is important. The idea that all games are problem-solving activities isn’t immediately obvious, but it’s definitely true. But not all problem-solving activities are games. This is why the playful-attitude part is very important because approaching things with a playful attitude with the spirit of curiosity is part of what makes games and play special. Play is the opposite of work. What distinguishes play from work is this level of freedom. It’s almost always a freedom where you are satisfying your own curiosity about something. Understanding what a game really is is important, and the thing I talked about in the book and hearing my specific definition isn’t especially important. But I definitely encourage people to explore like, well, what do you think a game is and why do you think that? That act of trying to define it yourself and looking at other people’s definitions: That’s where the real value is because that’s when you start to get insights.

David Gardner: Love it. Yes, games have been defined by, certainly it goes back to the Greeks. In fact, I think this has been attributed to either Aristotle or Plato, although a lot of quotes, I’m not sure either of those gentlemen ever said this. But have you heard this one before, Jesse? It’s something like, “You can learn more in one hour of gaming with a man than in a lifetime of conversation.”

Jesse Schell: Yeah, I will say often attributed to Plato. I have hunted and hunted. I’ve gone all the way through the works. I don’t think it’s there. [laughter] But at the same time, it’s something I bring up all the time. I would love to know the origin of that phrase. It certainly came from somewhere, but it’s definitely true. There’s something very important about the nature of play when it comes to getting to know a person. Because when we play, we open ourselves up in a way that we don’t in normal discourse. We make ourselves vulnerable in a way because when we talk, we might talk about what we might do. But when we play, we do things and we see how they end up. And again, we’re working on this right now. There’s a popular game called Among Us, and we’re making the virtual reality version, about Among Us. Among Us is a very interesting game because it’s a party game. A bunch of people get together and do this silly pretend situation. You’re pretending that you’re on a spaceship. One of you is the murderer. Everyone goes to do their spaceship jobs. One person is the murderer and is going to try and secretly murder somebody. If someone finds, “Oh, no, someone’s been murdered,” then they call an emergency meeting and a big discussion happens. Who did it? It ends up being a game, partly about being a detective, hey, who did it, partly about sneaking and lying. These elements end up being really powerful for people because they break the rules of normal discourse.

David Gardner: Yes, yes.

Jesse Schell: Normally we don’t lie and betray one another in our normal day-to-day interactions with our friends. But now we get to see our friends trying to do this. It stretches the bounds of our friendship. In doing so, in creating these extreme situations, it creates memorable things and we learn a lot about each other at the same time. I think that’s been part of why Among Us has been so successful. We’re very excited bringing the VR version into play because it gives you a way to connect with your friends in an even stronger way.

David Gardner: Yes. I’ve experienced games like that, I certainly know of Among Us looking forward to the VR version. I have friends who said, I don’t like to lie. I’m not comfortable doing that. We do learn a lot. I guess one thing we learned about that friend in an hour of play that we wouldn’t have learned in a year of conversations that they’ve never been lying to us because they won’t do in an hour of play, which I guess is good news. I did check one of my 20 favorite websites in the world, Quote Sure enough, you’re absolutely right, Jesse. It has been attributed to Plato, but Quote Investigator, its conclusion: no substantive evidence that Plato employed this saying. A precursor was published in 1670 by Richard Lingard. This early instance referred to gambling in a time period of seven years’ conversations instead of a year of conversation. Anyway, now it occurs to me, I think I encountered that line in your book, not that you are attributing it to Plato, but this is exactly the thing you have in The Art of Game Design. Timeless thoughts, fresh thoughts in terms what a game is and what we’re doing when we’re gaming. Well, thank you for speaking a little bit to what a game is. In Chapter 4, you talk about the game consists of elements and there are four. I love the analytical breakdown of this big shaggy-dog word game into these four elements, mechanics, story, aesthetics, technology.

David Gardner: Now, I think you mean technology. Even if I’m playing Parcheesi, there’s technology. There’s certainly aesthetics. Not sure there’s much story there. Admittedly, I haven’t played Parcheesi by choice for 30 years. But this modern view of mechanics, story, aesthetics, technology, that was really helpful for me. Like a lot of your work at stretches across from video games right through to social games that were just with each other. Would you like to speak to any of those elements?

Jesse Schell: Sure. It’s important. Once you start to design something, you’d be able to break it down into its component elements, it’s really important. Those four are ones that I evolved over time. They’re all important in their own ways because everything has technology, even if the technology is really simple, like sure, bits of paper and to use it to roll a die to get an answer, that’s a simple technology. Aesthetics, very important because that’s all about the look, the feel, the artwork, and how does that make you feel? Story is important. You look at a game like Parcheesi, and you’re like well, there’s really no story here, but there is because the thing about story is a little story goes a long way. You could say Parcheesi is a game about getting this little token onto this square. You could say that, but go look at the game board, it’s about going home.

David Gardner: Going home.

Jesse Schell: This is a game about going home. In Parcheesi, you don’t go home alone. You don’t just move one piece like you do in a lot of games, you have multiple different pieces. And then of course you have other people trying to stop you from going home. One of the things we’ve talked about with story a lot is not only is the explicit story that the designer might be trying to create. But then games are story machines. They produce stories. Every game does this, like baseball is a great example. Baseball is a story machine. It has no explicit story laid over it, but the stories that come out of it when people play it, they end up being stories that are worth telling. Those are the two sides of a story in games, and that ends up being really important. Then of course, the fourth element, mechanics. The game mechanics, the rules for how the game works is a huge part of what game designers have to deal with. But to be able to separate these things, to realize aesthetics, mechanics, story, and technology, each needs to be addressed in its own way. Then all four of those things need to work together to be harmonious. That’s what really makes a great game is, when those things work together in a harmonious way.

David Gardner: Really well put. I think in particular of aesthetics, I would actually truly say that in our lifetimes, we’re both in our 50s, all four of those elements have consistently gotten, I would say, way better. In many cases, more sophisticated, sometimes simpler, better. But wow, consistently, pretty. Let’s go to aesthetics briefly. The quality of wooden pieces or of the artwork that is common, or even Kickstarter’s unproven games popping out these days at a rate I’ve never seen before is so far ahead of the look and feel of games of my youth. I look at old Avalon Hill war games with counters that are tiny and thin, the iconography isn’t good. Or it’s hard to read the text. And these days, bigger, brighter, sometimes it’s overdone, but just the beauty, in particular, I would say, of tabletop games is shocking. If you were the proverbial person showing up from the 1950s saying, let’s play a game today, I think you’d be blown away.

Jesse Schell: We’re in an incredible renaissance when it comes to games. Both board games, card games, video games, and the aesthetics, in particular, all of these things have advanced to incredible levels. That probably has to do with the nature of economics, mass production technology, 3D printing has helped. I think you and I both remember when Trivial Pursuit was a new game, and that ended up being a huge breakthrough. You’d actually was headed economically. It was a huge breakthrough because previous to that, board games simply cost between $5 to $12, and that’s it. The idea of a board game that costs more than that was just seemed insane. There were a few rare examples. I think Strat-O-Matic might’ve been one of those you mentioned. But they’re very rare. We’d never had a mass-market one. Suddenly, Trivial Pursuit appears, a $20 game.

David Gardner: Sensational game.

Jesse Schell: No one had ever seen like, whoa, a $20 board gaming, you’re kidding. That’ll never succeed. It’s a huge hit and the whole board-game world all start to look at each other like, wait a minute. You can have a $20 board game and have it be a huge hit, what else is possible? [laughs] It blew open these doors. Anyway, so it is a really exciting time for the world of games without [inaudible ].

David Gardner: I do think back on just the frequency of game releases, this is my made-up view of history. Monopoly, 1933, I’m making up the year. You have to skip five years ahead before, I’m totally making this up. Parcheesi shows up, and then four years after that, let’s go with Othello and then which was Go, but then Sid Saxon shows up and Acquire pops up in 1961. But what I’m trying to make light of is, well, this is probably not a true view of history; it’s definitely not.

Jesse Schell: Definitely not.

David Gardner: There was only one new game every five years or so. War kids in the 1970s, Avalon Hill [inaudible 00:29:01] start popping up. Dungeons & Dragons and others start to effloresce. But leading up to that point, there was a real dearth of choices. Don’t you think a lot of abstracts?

Jesse Schell: Yeah. Nowadays we take it for granted that there are board games as an adult hobby. That’s the thing we know people who do that, it’s not for everybody. But board games as an adult hobby that exists — 50 years ago, if you were an adult playing board games, you were playing chess. That’s pretty much what you were planning. Other board games were fundamentally children’s games. That started to change. I don’t want to oversimplify, there always have been a few exceptions, but even the ones that were exceptions. Camelot is one that I think it was like a game from the ’20s, is really interesting board game for adults, but even it used to masquerade as a game for children when it really wasn’t. The thing that happened in the ’70s with this opening of like, oh, maybe these games can go broader and start to appeal to more people and it’s fascinating is we went through the world of war games and then the whole revolution of European and German board games being, just being so different from what was going on in America. And this is one thing that’s just fascinating is gaming culturally in different places has had a huge, huge influence. The way, the way games are played and flavored in Germany really ended up influencing the entire board-game world. It had to do with the way families saw games because the attitude there was games were not for children. Games were a thing for the family, that the family would play together. There became this notion of, well, how do you make a game that both, that’s simple enough for a child to play, but interesting enough for an adult to play, that they could play together? That really started to grow there, and that’s such a successful formula. It started to spread across the whole world.

David Gardner: To me it’s already getting very big, bigger every year. We’ll talk about the future, maybe near the end. But let’s, let’s go back to the book. Just for our listeners who might not have come across The Art of Game Design before. What I’m doing is Jesse and I are just talking through the first several chapters of his book because I think it’s a nice way to do an interview on a podcast and not everybody’s a game or listened to Rule Breaker Investing. Everybody knows the host is a longtime gamer. So that’s why I keep bringing back the Jesse Schells and Richard Garfields and [garbled] can attest to this podcast because of my love for this topic. But this is a 33-chapter book that goes deep across all aspects of game and designs. So for us to just talk through the first seven, that’s really all we’re gonna do. But let’s keep plugging here. Chapter 5, again, just where, where do we come from? First-part chapters tell a story here or there. Chapter titles again, in the beginning, there’s the designer. The designer creates an experience. The experience rises out of a game. The game consists of elements, mechanics, story, aesthetics, and technology.

Chapter 5, the elements support a theme. Now, one of the things that runs is a unique structure through The Art of Game Design. Jesse is you create 100 lenses ways of looking. It’s sidebar material, ways of looking at whatever topic we’re talking about right now. You number them. Not only do you number them, we’ll talk about this later again. But you’ve turned them into a deck of cards, and I own a couple of copies of these decks of cards. We’ll talk about that in a little bit, but these lenses each have a title and then asked you a few questions as you contemplate as a game designer, your creation. For the elements support a theme, lens 9 pops up in this chapter of the book. The two questions it’s asking you to ask yourself: What is my theme? Am I using every means possible to reinforce that theme? That is such a strong lens.  It’s a lens that the world has gotten much, much better at over the years. In part because you’ve whipped us into shape and gotten us thinking so much more thematically than we were before. I do agree with you, Parcheesi is about coming home, but man, do I have games that tell the story, coming home, so much better.

David Gardner: Yeah.

Jesse Schell: Then Parcheesi does so it’s the theming.

David Gardner: Yeah, there’s a reason we don’t play Parcheesi that much. It has some elements, but it is missing a number of things.

Jesse Schell: Yeah, I think theme is incredibly important. Just to note on the notion of lenses. The way I got there. When I started trying to write the book in a serious way, there were not a lot of game design books out at that time. It was maybe, I would say around, I don’t know, 2003. I was probably looking at this in a really serious way.

David Gardner: Yeah.

Jesse Schell: As I started talking to experienced game designers, and I would tell them, I’m thinking I’m trying to write a book about game design. A few of them shook their head and said, “No, no, it can’t be done. You can’t do it.” I said what do you mean you can’t do it? They said the problem you’re going to have, the point of your book is to give people advice about their game. Advice that’s good for one game, is bad advice for another game. Any advice you give is going to be bad advice, and so your book won’t be very good for that reason. I thought about that and I’m like, wow, that’s wisdom and there’s real truth in that. Because I could think of many times where there was a thing true for one game, not true for another game. I was sort of set back by this. I’m like, wow, maybe this can’t be done well. It hit me all of a sudden. Questions can’t be wrong. Advice can be wrong, but questions are never wrong. A question might not be appropriate. A question might not be needed at a certain time, but it won’t be wrong. That at that point I realize this book should be about are what questions should I ask myself and thinking of questions is different perspectives. That’s the idea of it being a book of lenses. That there are just so many different perspectives you can take because making a game is not do this, then this, then this, now you’ve got game. Making a game is about looking at it from many different points of view and trying to figure out which points of view are going to help give you the insight to make this a great game. That’s what the lenses are, that’s what the questions are. To the point of theme, unification of theme. I learned this at Disney. Disney makes theme parks. It’s right in the nation.

The idea of a theme is something that can be quite deep. Herman Melville said, “To write a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.” In other words, when you create something, it should be about something, and you should know what that is. Stephen King tells a story about this. Talking about his first successful novel, Carrie. He’d written it, and there, he had written it all out and he was revising it and going through it. At some point he realized, “Oh, I know what this book is about. This is, isn’t just a book about this girl has this experience. This is a book about blood.” He realized blood was the theme in the blood of the family. The blood of violence. The blood associated with becoming a woman. Like this was about blood in its many forms and once he realized that, he didn’t like rewrite the book, but he went back and found ways to heighten that because he saw it as a theme, as a thread that went through the whole thing. Again and again for great games, this is often so important to understand what is this game actually about? Then to go back and figure out how to heighten those themes so that it can be as strong as an experience as possible.

David Gardner: As you say in the lens, am I using? We ask ourselves, am I using every means possible to reinforce that theme. While I love me, some German euros that are rather seamless but still mechanically brilliant. If you can actually reinforce a real theme and make me feel like I’m managing an aviary wingspan, a good recent example. It does stick with the people. It also just invites more people to the table, or at least they’re walking by a table going, “What does that game you guys are playing?” The games that do theme brilliantly. I do find myself defaulting somewhat to tabletop games, but I want to make it clear. I play hours and hours of video games here at the age of 56 every bit as much as I did at 46, 36, 26, and 16, playing Pong back in our day, hate to use that phrase, but yeah, themes just being pulled through story. Obviously, there’s so powerful.

Jesse Schell: What I love is this story of Rob Daviau creating Risk Legacy. It’s just fascinating. Most people know the board game of Risk is this old war game again, design for children. Because of that, it has a lot of problems. Rob Daviau, working at Hasbro, was asked like hey, can you make a better version of this? What if you redesigned with, what would that be? He has a wonderful design technique he uses, which is this design by opposites where he thinks about, what am I taking for granted about this? What if I did the opposite? Risk as a board game, what do I take for granted? I take for granted that it’s on the table. What if it wasn’t on the table? That’s not great. I take for granted that it has two to four players. What if I have 20 players? It’s not really working. I take for granted that every time you play it, it resets to the beginning and nothing changes. It’s like, oh, wait a minute, what if I do change that? The idea of Risk Legacy was that there are changes that happen in the game that are permanent forever. Anyone whoever plays this game again going forward, those changes are there.

An example, when you win the game, you take out a pen and you mark a territory on the board and any future time that you get that territory, you get all kinds of bonuses, so the world changes. This is an interesting game mechanic and novel and different and it’s now spawned like this was the beginning of an entire genre, which we now call legacy games. But in terms of theme, part of what was so beautiful was that Rob recognized that this is a great mechanic. That’s fine, but he realized Risk is a game about war. Of course, this is a good idea because war changes a world. He realized that was the theme: war changes a world. He talked about using everything you can possibly use because you can imagine how hesitant people are to take out a pen and write on the board of the game, and Rob just rubs it in your face from the get-go because the box is gorgeous, it’s got this handle. You carry a suitcase. But in order to open it, there’s nicely made label that goes over and, and to open the game, you have to cut this label. What the label says on it is, what is done cannot be unveiling. Then the first thing I have you do in the game is like, everybody take two of the different country groups. I forgot what they call on them? What they call the races or what, but they’re basically different nations. Everybody take two of them, pick the one you like, and then take the other one and rip it up and throw it in the trash. No one will ever be them. It’s just fascinating. It was a wonderful use of using theme to unite a game to make a very strong experience.

David Gardner: Absolutely, and longtime listeners may remember, and this might sound like a brag for anybody new. But on June 22 of 2016 on this podcast, Rob Daviau came on and talked about Risk Legacy. I hope Rob’s not listening, Jesse, because I actually think you did a better job explaining about Rob has done [laughs]. Of course you’ve had some more years that thinking about it. As Rob to know, Rob was a wonderful guests, but absolutely the Legacy innovation. I know that innovation spawns so much of what we’re discussing and you talk about throughout your book, you’ve done it in your life with your company. We’ll get to that in just a little bit, but let’s close the loop on just the last two chapters out what I mentioned, Chapter 6 and 7. Again, we’ve just done the elements supportive theme. Now here comes No. 6, the game begins with an idea, and No. 7, the game improves through iteration. Now, at the risk of prompting you because you wrote this book 14 years ago, you may or may not remember that the game begins with an idea. You start to talk about how you were a professional juggler and you learn something, I’m going to say, as a boy from an older juggler at the time, which helps inform what you are conveying to game designers about beginning with an idea.

Jesse Schell: That was a story I just had to put in there because it was something very meaningful to me when I was young. I picked up juggling as a hobby, and when I was a teenager, I later went on to do it a bit more professionally traveling with some circus troupes. But before I had that level of confidence, I went to my first juggling festival. I’d never been to a juggling convention or festival, and I didn’t really know what to expect, but I was like, wow, I learned to juggle on my own from a book, and I think I want to go see what this is. I remember going to the door and the person says, “OK, well, are you a juggler?” I remember, just like, are you a game designer?

David Gardner: Magic words.

Jesse Schell: Really, the only reason he was asking is there was different prices for spectators and for jugglers, but here I was confronted with the question. Was I real juggler? I’m pretty sure I said no, because I wasn’t ready to commit. I also think this got me in at a lower rate, which I didn’t realize until after, but I’m very shy. I brought three rubber balls that I have in the pockets of my windbreaker, but I don’t take them out because I’m not sure what’s what. I’m walking around this place and I see all these amazing jugglers doing things I’ve never seen, never could have comprehended. This is just very exciting, and the nature of juggling festivals is wonderful because it’s very much about sharing. It’s all about just sharing what you do and comparing techniques. It’s very open, very supportive community, but it was all new to me and I’d never seen any of this. I walked around and I saw these different people doing these different things. I was very intimidated because everyone is so much better than I was. But eventually, I got up the courage to, OK, I’m going to take out my juggling balls and I could do maybe two tricks, and so I’m there, I’m doing my little tricks and just doing some of that. As I’m doing that, I look over and I see there’s this older man in this powder blue jumpsuit and he is doing these tricks that are just amazing. I can’t even believe what I’m looking at. There’s one where like, I swear he’s throwing the balls and they’re going at right angles. Some of them are just beautiful and different. I’m just, wow, he’s so different than what everybody else is doing, and I’m just captivated, just watching these tricks. Then I realized that I see one trick and I’m like, wait, that’s one of the tricks. I can only do two tricks and that’s one of them, but it sure doesn’t look like that when I do it. I’m just absolutely hypnotized and suddenly he stops and he stares right at me.

He says, “Well.” I’m like well, what? He says, “Well, aren’t you going to copy me?” I said, “I don’t think I could.” He says, “Yeah, none of them can. Look around.” I’m looking around and he says, ‘See that guy over there, see what he’s trying to do. He’s trying to do this,” and he does this trick. It looks like the balls are fluttering and flying. He says, “But he can’t do it.” I felt OK, and he says, “Where do you think I learned to juggle like this?” I thought about it, and of course, the only way I’d learned was from books. I’m like from books, and he says, “From books? No. Nope, not from books. I’ll tell you where I learn these things.” He shows me the move with the right angle in it, and he says, “See that, I learned that from a paper punch out on Long Island.” Then he does one that where he twirls around and ball is kind of fluttering, and he says, “I learned that watching a ballerina in New York City.” Then he does one where the ball is like coast off of each other and glide up high, and he says, “This one I learned watching a flock of geese take off from a lake.” He says, “So, kid, this is what you should remember. People can steal your moves, but they can never steal your inspiration.” I was like, “Oh, OK, Mister, thanks.” I think I got to go to a workshop or something. I was so intimidated by this guy. But it stayed with me and I realized that this wasn’t just good advice for jugglers. This is good advice for everything. The idea that no one can steal your inspiration, that  where you get your ideas from is really important, and that you shouldn’t, as game designer, don’t just copy other games. Sure, look at other games, study other games, learn from other games. But you should be taking the inspiration from the things in your life that the experiences you’ve had that no one else has had. Those are going to be what let you make the games and experiences that no one can make except for you.

David Gardner: Beautifully told, and thank you for bringing that story back to my memory. You told it just as beautifully in the book and it is from the chapter, the game begins with an idea, and your point is, it’s your idea. We can copy mechanics, we can copy themes. Hey, maybe I’ll also do a traditional swords and sorcery fantasy theme. We can copy themes, but the inspiration, the lived experience, what each of us has seen and what our attitude was about, that’s unique. Yeah. We’re definitely not all jugglers, but I think we all can be game designers, but more to your point and what I love about this work of nonfiction that you have now put into a third edition in recent years is that it’s really a book about design. I love games. I think that’s very evident. I know you love games, but what I especially love is that this is bigger than games. You’re writing about design. When people say stuff like Stanford D school is the new B school, I’m sure you hear things like that around Carnegie Mellon. I think Carnegie Mellon has a business school. But I know one thing: It’s got Jesse Schell teaching people how to design entertainment in it as well. I know it does have a business school. But anyway, it’s that design sensibility that I was not exposed to as an undergrad and I’ve admired it and looking at some of my favorite products, like anything that I own by Apple or some of the beautiful games on my shelves. I’ve grown over time to realize it’s the design, stupid, and design itself is so deep and so worth pursuing over the course of one’s life. Your book, we’re going to stop with Chapter 7 here, but improving through iteration. You introduce a rule, an important one that a lot of us can appreciate, especially the older we are, perhaps. The game improves through iteration, the rule of the loop, which you coin and call it like this. The more times you test and improve your design, the better your game will be. Now, there’s probably not true in every instance. I can imagine there are cases where somebody does it too much and they ruin it for some reason. But, really the spirit of it is of course, iterate, iterate, loop, loop, loop. The faster you can loop, the quicker you are going to improve a game, and the more you loop, the better that game will be.

Jesse Schell: Yeah, and that makes your ability to iterate as fast as possible critically important, and this is the thing novice designers fail to understand. They often imagine that the way a game is made is that you sit around and think hard, and then you write a big document, like some weird movie scripts, but for a game, and then you just execute what’s in that document, and there’s your perfect game. That’s just not ever how it happens. Not ever. What happens is, you come up with an idea for what you think might be good, and you build it, and the act of building it and playing it makes you realize, oh, this is how it really works. It doesn’t work the way I thought, it works differently than I thought. Then you want to iterate and improve it and improve it and improve it. So it is very important to create situations where you can iterate as fast as possible. Video game designers often talk a lot about paper prototyping because early versions of your game, they don’t need to be done digitally because the thing is digitally can take time. You’ve got to write code, you’re going to make digital assets. When I can, a lot of times get out a pair of scissors and some paper and a pen, and I can make a fake version of the game where I pretend to be the computer and someone else plays the game, and we can see, is this fun at all? Is this worth spending three weeks to code up, or should we just chuck this idea and do something else? Iterating as fast as possible is really crucial and critical. Again, one more reason that as a designer, if you want to become a video game designer, start by making card games and board games because you can make them so fast. Anybody can make a card game in an hour,. You got a pair of scissors and paper and a pen. You can make a card game in an hour. It’s probably going to not be very good. But now you’ll know, well, that wasn’t good the way I thought. What if I change it like this? What if I change it like that? Some of the best-known games, you look at a game like Scrabble and you think, oh, that’s simple as letters and things. How long could that have taken to make? It took years. It was years figuring out like, well, how many tiles should you have? Where should the triple word score go? Is triple word score a good idea? Why? In order to do that, you have to play it over and over, and you have to start to understand, well, what is going to make this game stronger, weaker? It really is a process of evolution that you would just want to accelerate as much as you possibly can.

David Gardner: Do you know what an OODA loop is?

Jesse Schell: I don’t know that I do.

David Gardner: Well, you’ve already correctly intuited it and you’ve written in support of it, maybe without knowing, but I came across this. This is one of those tropes you’ll encountering business books and some other things. But it comes from, I’m looking it up now, U.S. Air Force Colonel John Boyd, and he used to go up and compete against the new recruits up in the air tactics, and he won every single time. Nobody could beat Colonel Boyd up there in the air, and they eventually said, how do you do it? It’s simple. I was doing OODA loops. And OODA is an acronym, OODA, observe, orient, decide, act. And that’s what we do, not just when we’re up there, I’ll never be in a fighter plane an Air Force professional. Well, that’s what we do all the time in life, we observe something, we orient ourselves to it, we decide we’re going to do it, then we act, and you were just saying, Jesse, just a couple of minutes ago, the more faster you do that and that’s what Boyd did so well. He did 40 of them before one of his new recruits could do three of them. That’s the way he described his mastery, and it’s back to your rule of the loop, in this case, it’s got a military acronym tied to it, of course, because it’s the military. But observe, orient, decide, act over and over as fast as possible.

Jesse Schell: There’s a famous game design essay called Less Talk, More Rock, and the people’s instinct is, I wanted to design again, let me talk about it, let’s all talk about talk and talk and talk about what this should be and then maybe we’ll go build it. With the essay says is like, look, until you build something, you don’t actually have something to talk about.

David Gardner: Nice.

Jesse Schell: You have an idea, build it quick, and then look at and talk about that, and then do something else and talk about that, so the talking should come after the doing. The talking should not stop you from getting the doing done.

David Gardner: Words to live by, wow, that’s great. Well Jesse, I really could spend easily another hour. I feel like I haven’t even touched on things like, well, maybe I can still ask you one or two questions, I’m curious whether anything is impressing you these days out there in the gaming world, either the work of a designer or any new trend. I certainly want to ask you briefly just to say where you are with your own company, Schell Games? You are a very successful, lauded entrepreneur, you are operating out of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I’ve visited you in your lovely offices once before, I’m just curious. We heard some of your work, but maybe some mix of how about these two closing questions? What’s cool out there that more of us should be paying attention to right now? And how are things going with you and your career, what are you looking forward to?

Jesse Schell: Yeah, Schell Games is a studio are run out in Pittsburgh, we’re pretty sizable for an independent game studio, we have about 150 people. We’ve been at it for about 20 years now, typically working on about eight games at a time. We’re an interesting studio because half the projects we do are our own projects that we made up. Projects like, I Expect You to Die, I may have mentioned before. But then the other half the projects are projects we do either for hire or partnerships, and some of those are educational, some of those are entertainment projects. We end up doing it a huge mix of things. Recently, the virtual reality, augmented reality, mixed reality spaces are the places where we’ve been really dug in making all kinds of things. Everything from Star Wars games to cooking games, to everything in-between, but really just the world of VR and AR has really changed us as a studio.

David Gardner: Whatever one might think of the metaverse or whatever that word means, one thing is clear, Jesse: You and your studio, fairy invested in augmented reality and virtual reality for somebody like me, I haven’t actually bought an Oculus yet. I have a brother who has one and gives it out as gifts to friends, I feel like PlayStation VR has been important. I feel like it’s clearly becoming a bigger and more used platform, but I’m not there yet, so Jesse, you’re telling me that I’m getting there because that’s where we’re headed.

Jesse Schell: Yeah. Over the course of the pandemic, VR became surprisingly popular. We’re at a point now where there are more Oculus Quest headsets on the market than Xbox One consoles. But most people have no concept of that. They think of VR is a thing that, very few people do it, but we’re, we’re in the realm of, I believe, 14 [million] or 15 million of these headsets being out there. What’s fascinating about the Quest headset because it’s so inexpensive and because it’s wireless.

David Gardner: It’s not tethered.

Jesse Schell: It’s not tethered at all, it’s so easy to pick up and use, the people who buy it, they don’t buy to play a couple of games and put on the shelf, they tend to keep playing, keep buying new things, and so we’ve just seen it has quickly dominated the VR market. We feel like we’ve been seeing a doubling just in terms of number of headsets that are out there. A few years ago it was 2 million and then it was 5 million and then 10 million, and now we’re approaching, over the course of this year, I think we’re going to approach 20 million, and I do think that we’d be on track for 40 million by the end of 2023. You really are in a place where this is going to becoming mainstream, and right now it’s mostly about virtual reality over the next couple of years, it’s clear that mixed reality, augmented reality is going to be part of these headsets if you look at what’s already happening on the Quest headsets and some of the rumors about forthcoming headsets. I think we’re going to see this becoming really mainstream for the next couple of years. In terms of what’s cool out there, I think one of the biggest trends happening right now is the whole trend of games inside games. We’re seeing games like Roblox and Fortnite that started out as just Roblox was like, oh, it’s about building places, and Fortnite it’s, oh, it’s this is arena shooter game. Now, both of them have grown into these experiences that Roblox has thousands of experiences in it, and even Fortnite now has a library of different games inside the game. It’s interesting because people talk about, oh, the metaverse is if they have any idea what they’re talking about, [laughs] and most of that talk is nonsense. But if you want to understand the future of the metaverse, you should be looking at this notion of games inside games, because I think that’s really what we’re going to see, not a metaverse, but instead a collection of metaverses, Roblox is going to be one, Fortnite is going to be one. I don’t have any information about this, have a strong suspicion Grand Theft Auto VI is going to be one of the these [laughs] that’s going to allow people to create their own games.

David Gardner: Wow.

Jesse Schell: Inside the other games.

David Gardner: I laugh only because Grand Theft Auto V, which has had a good 10 years, just kept adding DLC download. It just kept iterating, entering in a way it feels like a thousand games to me.

Jesse Schell: Right. But I think again, I have zero information, but like when I stare into my crystal ball, unlike when I look at where all the trends are going and I look at how much success they’ve had taking that 10-year-old game and making it incredibly successful, continuing to sell well over time. Why wouldn’t they make it so other people can make games and put inside it? I think it’s likely to happen.

David Gardner: Love it. Jesse, off the air before we started today, you mentioned you’re working on another book right now.

Jesse Schell: Yeah. I am, this hasn’t been broadly announced, but I’m willing to talk about it here. Working on a book that in a sense as a sequel to The Art of Game Design, a lot of what I’ve done at Schell Games over the last 20 years has been in the realm of educational games. We do education, entertainment, health games, even theme parks and museums, and also a lot of the work had done Carnegie Mellon has been about making educational games. I teamed up with Barbara Chamberlain, who’s another amazing game designer who makes wonderful educational games, and the two of us are working together on the art of educational game design, looking at the principles of how you best create games that are not just fun, but games that are designed to change the player.

David Gardner: Love it. Games are problem-solving with the playful attitude, we do that in school and the longer we live as adults we learned, we’re living in the school of life, which we never really leave until we leave. Constant lifelong learning, constant problem-solving, if that’s the way I can now justify my many game nights that I have in my mid-50s. I look forward to more deep insights from you and guidance for this generation of game designers, many of whom, of course, are working in and around schools, everything from academia at a high-end to, I don’t know, how to make it a better version of Parcheesi for the kids these days. Jesse, I’ve just had so much fun with you. Thank you so much for joining us on Rule Breaker Investing. I do see a lot of overlap between investing is a game and how to play it, and really how to design a portfolio. When I first read the art of game design some 15 years ago, I was doing it with my investment cap on, saying, I think a lot of what he’s pointing out here, if you just substitute the word investing for games or game designer portfolio, you come away with all creative insights and ways to see things with a new lens. I do want to put a real plug-in. Not the Jesse needs this or asked for this, but I wanted to say that I love The Art of Game Design, deck of lenses. The book, The Art of Game Design, has as its subtitle, A Book of Lenses, but anybody who’s a big fan like I am can buy a deck of cards off Amazon these days that takes each of your 100 or so lenses, puts it on a playing card and enables me anytime I want to be creative, are challenged myself or look at things from different angles shuffle it up, deal out a few. Some people look at Taro cards, I don’t and try to think what their future is going to hold, I don’t, but others flip out the deck of lenses and start go, how can I think about this smarter or in a way that will make me happier or challenge those around me. So whether you’re a game designer, a portfolio builder, a non-fiction writer, the list goes on all the makers out there, all of us, the makers in us, I think are designed, can be improved not just by the narrative game design book, but that deck of lenses, which has been really fun. There is a prolonged plug for one of the lesser-known awesome things you combined Amazon these days.

Jesse Schell: Definitely appreciate it, and I’ll also, there is a free web app if, for people who want to check out and see a digital version as well, again, you go to Arctic game, you can find all of that.

David Gardner: Thank you for mentioning that, and it just it gives me I have that on my phone, but I never think of that because I look at my deck of cards each day, thanks Jesse Schell, Foolish best wishes and let’s talk again sometime.

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