The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Jesse Schell Interview

Bob Schwartz

October, 2003

It was February 14, 2003 and I was doing what most game storeowners do that time of year—wondering why I bothered coming to work. Drew and I were playing a game of Gobblet when several youngsters walked in looking for game parts. Apparently they were designing a game and we knew the drill. Every week it seems someone wants to know how to get a game published. This always develops into a long discussion of how hard and long (translate: nearly impossible) the process really is, and this was going to effectively end our Gobblet game. But things didn't work that way. They were students at Carnegie Mellon University and explained that they were enrolled in a class called "Game Design". OK, they might have courses like that at Community College, or most football only schools, but CMU? A school where a perfect SAT score isn't good enough? In any case, the more we talked, the more questions I had. It seemed only logical to go to the source.

What follows is an interview with Jesse Schell, the teacher of this "Game Design" course, and I hope you find him as fascinating as I do.


Bob Schwartz: Tell me about yourself (background, interests, hobbies).

Jesse SchellJesse Schell: I have a bit of a diverse background. I've always been passionate about entertainment, games especially. I worked as a professional juggler for some years, while I worked my way through a couple of computer science degrees. I worked at IBM and Bell Labs for a while, but eventually all my interests collapsed on themselves and I started working at the Disney Virtual Reality studio as a game designer. Eventually I became the Creative Director there. After seven years at Disney, designing things like DisneyQuest virtual reality attractions, and Toontown Online, a massively multiplayer game for kids, I decided to join the faculty of the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University. I've been here a little over a year now.

What is your experience in gaming?

I have always loved games. Of all kinds. Board games, dice games, party games, role-playing games, computer games, all kinds of games. There is something so magical to me about the fact that with a little cardboard and couple of rules, you can suddenly be acting and making decisions in a fantasy world. I've played a bit of everything.

What did you play when you were young?

I was obsessed by lots of different games, one at a time. I went through a card game phase (my brother and I used to make up card games and play them – we did this so much, we would dream about it – a few new games actually came to us in dreams!), a board game phase, a pinball/skeeball phase, a wargame phase, a looong Tabletop RPG phase, and a longer video and computer game phase. For me it was not about winning and losing – it was always about enjoying myself, and making sure my friends were enjoying themselves, too. I wanted to squeeze every possible drop of fun out of those games. Another funny story with my brother – after a vacation trip to the Jersey shore, with lots of Skeeball and "Poker Machines" (the kind that give out tickets for prizes), we actually made our own poker machine at home. Not mechanical, you see, we were just kids, but a cardboard cabinet with slots. One of us would sit inside the cabinet with a deck of cards, and the other would put a coin in – the one inside would deal out five cards through the slot – you get the idea. We loved playing poker machine – it was pretty funny.

One of the fastest growing segments of games, right now, are those known as Euro, Designer, Family Strategy or German games. These are the type released in the U.S. by Rio Grande among others, and often originate in Europe. Are you aware of these games? Have you played any? Thoughts?

I am quite aware of these games – and so glad for their existence! They are really doing a nice job of building a bridge from the community of game enthusiasts to the more casual gamer, which in my mind is good for both sides – the casual gamers get a chance to play some deeper, richer games, and the traditional strategy game designers get a chance at selling to a larger market. It is really quite wonderful, and I truly hope it is the beginning of a trend, not a short-lived fad. From a teaching perspective, these have been great examples for my class, because the games are so inventive – they are excellent illustrations of what can happen when you set aside your preconceived notions, and try to come up with something new – which is exactly what I am trying to teach.

The Course

Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) is generally associated with robotics, engineering, science, and even drama. How did the idea of a class on game design originate?

The Entertainment Technology Center ( is a two-year Masters program designed to make students into leaders in careers that combine entertainment and technology. Naturally, many of these careers involve game development or interactive design. The faculty already had great computer scientists, artists, musicians, and storytellers. I was brought in to help cover the game design aspects of the curriculum. It truly is a fascinating program. We take about 30-40 new students each year, about half with a computer science or engineering background, and about half with art and design backgrounds, and we make them work together in groups. Most of their work in on semester long group projects, but they get to take one elective each semester, and my Game Design class is one of those electives.

What can a student expect from the class, and what is expected of the student?

Now, most people expect that a Game Design class, which is part of an Entertainment Technology program, is going to focus on computer game development. And, in truth, the class is designed to give students the skills they need to become skilled computer game designers. The surprise is that these skills are best learned by focusing on the creation of simpler, non-computer based games, such as dice, board, and tabletop role-playing games. A game is a game is a game. The same elements that make for a good board game make for a good computer game, with really only minor variation. Strategy, story, character, theme, timing, pacing, etc., all apply to any game, regardless of the physical medium. The advantage to making games without computers is that you can make the prototypes much more quickly, and change them multiple times very quickly. If I made the students create a computer game for the class, they would only be able to create part of one in a single semester. But by focusing on design of traditional games, they usually create five or six games.

Something else I should mention – the students do a lot of writing. I need to teach them how to think clearly about game structure, and the best way to ensure that is to make them write about it. Clear writing equals clear thinking. This is where a lot of the computer game part comes in – they design board and dice games, but read about and write about computer games. This helps them to see the connections, and covers all the bases nicely.

I was very proud of last year's final assignment. I put the students into groups of four, and gave them one month to design (not develop) a computer game, and put together a pitch, like they might give to a publisher. Each group not only had to design the game, but invent a fictitious company, and determine their roles within it. I then was able to bring in a panel of professionals from the game industry, and the teams had to pitch their designs to the panel, just like you have to in the real world. Most people fail to realize the importance of being able to do a good pitch for your design. The students were terrified, but some of them really came through. It was a great experience for everyone involved.

Do you try to cover the business end of financing, production and distribution?

Yes, definitely. We touch on the board game world briefly in this area, but spend a lot of time talking about the ins and outs of computer game production and distribution, since so much of that dictates limitations on design.

It often seems that the most successful games (Trivial Pursuit, Monopoly, Scruples, Cranium for example) are those I like the least. Do you stress ideas that will be economically viable, that is appeal to the masses, or, rather, directed more to the enthusiast?

I stress ideas that will be economically viable. If your ideas aren't economically viable, you aren't in business. Rather, you are engaging in a hobby, or perhaps in artistic expression. Now, does that mean that I encourage students to water down ideas so they will (theoretically) appeal to the largest number of people? No way. There are great ideas that can appeal to the masses, and there are great ideas that can appeal to niche markets. The important thing is that you know who you are making your game for, and you can work the finances so that you don't lose money when you do it. "Enthusiasts" of many sorts can be a great market to go after – no, there aren't as many of them, but they will often pay more for specialized content, so that it is possible to make the numbers work out. Fundamentally, I try to encourage the students to create great games, for if you do that, sooner or later you will make one that is profitable.

Do students work together or individually?

Even though it is against the grain of our program, which is almost entirely group work (working in interdisciplinary groups is one of the fundamental principles at the ETC), most of the work in the Game Design class (except the group project) is done solo. The reason is this – it is very easy, on a group design assignment, for one person to do most of the work, and for the others to ride on that person's coattails. I need to force each student to confront the hard design issues, and get through them on their own merits. It's harder for them (and harder for me – so many games to evaluate!) but it is the only way to really learn to be a designer.

What has been the reaction from the students? Are they enthusiastic, or just trying to fulfill the requirements?

Enthusiastic is putting it mildly. Unfortunately, there is far more interest than I can accommodate, and I can only accept about 1 in 3 of the students who would like to take the class. This class is not a requirement – it is an optional elective, so I don't have to worry about anyone taking it because they have to. Further, once the students are taking it, they really throw themselves into their work. Some of them complain to me about it – not that I have assigned too much work, but that the projects are too seductive. They can't help staying up all night to make their game "just a little bit better." Most of them truly get bitten by the game design bug -- all designers are familiar with this – you get to a point where you aren't designing the game any more, it has taken you over, and is designing itself, through you. You can't stop thinking about it, even though you sometimes want to. The students aren't thinking about what grade they might get at this point – they are lost in the weird reverie of the designer. For some students, this is a new and surprising feeling. But of course, it is what game design is all about.

What criteria do you use to grade student's work, or, do you even grade?

Yes, indeed I do grade. Why do games have scores? Because scores motivate us to better performance. Grades are just scores – a game design tool that tricks the players (in this case, the students) into doing what is best for them. Also, grades are the clearest communication tool I know. I can say, "this isn't very good," and you might hear me, but if I say, "this isn't very good, I give it a C," the message almost certainly will get through. What criteria do I use? Well, basically, how good is the game? Now, this is difficult to tell on the face of it, and I don't have ten hours to devote to each student's game, playing and re-playing, looking for nuances, so I have a trick. With each assignment, I force the students to do a certain number of playtests. For each playtest they do, they must take notes about what is working and not working in the game, and make decisions about what to change based on those playtests. I can learn most of what I need to know about what is good in the game by reading these playtest reports – clever new rules going in, awkward rules getting removed. Further, part of the grade has to do with the quality of what was created, and part of it has to do with the process you used to get there. In some cases, a game that started out horrible went through an excellent process of many playtests and revisions, vastly improving from its initial state, but still ending up only mediocre. A case like that might end up getting a pretty good grade, because clearly the student learned a lot in the process, even though the final product might not be stellar.

How would you evaluate the games they've designed? Were any published?

There were some clunkers, but most games were good, and some of the games were shockingly excellent. There were a half dozen that were easily worth of publication. The funny thing is that students were often quite surprised at how well their games turned out. People who never thought they could design even a mediocre game made some truly, truly, excellent games. I'm still playing a couple of them. A few students are pursuing publishers right now.

As far as you know, do any other schools offer this type of class?

I've seen one or two, usually offered for a single semester, as a lark, but these didn't really focus on what I would consider to be the important design aspects. Certainly, I have never seen a class that teaches videogame design principles through the design of traditional games.

How many signed up for the class?

About eighty signed up last year, but only twenty-eight were admitted.

Will there be another class this year?

Yes, I will teach it again this Spring semester. I may try to support a larger class this time.

Have you received any feedback from the school (CMU)?

We had a "Designers' Game Fest" near the end of the semester, where the students set up tables, and we invited the campus community to come play the games that the students had made. It was a lot of fun – all the visitors seemed so surprised -- most of them had no idea there was such a class, and were especially surprised that the games were so professional, and so much fun. Official feedback from CMU faculty has been very positive, as well.

I've heard it said that almost everyone thinks they can design a game. So I have to believe that someone who teaches a class like this has to have a bunch of prototypes in their closet and PC files loaded with ideas. So, assuming you do have some prototypes, tell me a little about them. Fess up!

True enough, I have about a half dozen board and card games in various stages of development. Some are kind of crazy and experimental, but a couple of them are actually pretty solid – I've been meaning to shop them around, but I've just been so busy!

One of them is, believe it or not, a math game that is actually fun for people who don't like math. Seriously. It sounds impossible, but it is true. I don't really believe it myself, but every time I play it with someone, the reaction is the same: "I can't believe I'm having so much fun playing a &%#%@$* math game!" It is one of those "potato chip" games – the rounds are short, and once you start playing, it is hard to stop. The weird thing about it is that people who aren't good at math tend to win! I think what happens is that the math experts tend to over think their actions, and the game is based on speed, so they end up trying things that are too clever for their own good. Either way, it's a lot of fun – although I expect it will be a marketing challenge – who would believe that a math game could be fun?

Another game I'm very proud of is called Mordak's Revenge. My original inspiration was to set a game in the world of the Ryder-Waite Tarot deck, but the game evolved a lot over time. It's most striking feature is a novel dice based combat system that really captures the excitement of combat, without all the headaches of lookup tables, skill points, and the rest. I have tremendous fun playing this game – the battles are so exciting! I like to think of it as a "crossover" game. People who are into fantasy games can play it with people who aren't, and everyone can have a good time. I really like making games that are simple and accessible. I think that is because my attention span is too short for complicated rules. Does that make me a good designer, or just lazy? I haven't decided.

-Bob Schwartz

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