Jesse Schell Lets His Mind Create Solutions Through Games | Episode 102

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Jesse Schell is the CEO of Schell Games, a team of one hundred people who strive to make truly great games, both for the purposes of entertainment and education, including award-winning VR games such as I Expect You To Die, HoloLAB Champions, and Star Wars: Droid Repair Bay. Jesse serves as a Distinguished Professor of the Practice of Entertainment Technology at Carnegie Mellon University and is the author of the award-winning book The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses.

Jesse shell is a typically busy person, operating as the CEO at Schell Games, which typically is working on 8 games at a time. He also teaches at Carnegie Mellon University.

One of Jesse’s favorite fails is the first piece of internal IP that Shell Games tried to develop, a game called Ordinary. The dream was to create a game that could tell a story that games do not normally tell. This game involved an unusual mechanic, you didn’t control the main character directly, you were living inside this character’s mind. At the time, back in 2004, they were trying to pitch the game to publishers as it was before things such as app stores where available. It took them years of messing around with mechanics to try and perfect it, in the end, they ended up creating a different type of game called ‘Jelly Kingdoms’. They then were going to offer it as a downloadable for the DS, quite successfully initially, but the 3DS was just announced and no one really knew what was going to happen to the 2D games. Therefore, Jesse and his company decided to take the game to the iPad as by this time it had released. With other projects coming on board they had to put this on the shelf for some time and when they came back to it the App Store had totally changed and it no longer felt suitable. This never, unfortunately, got released. One of the things Jesse would do differently is to figure out what the smallest piece of an idea can be made into a successful game and go with that!

One of Jesse’s favorite successes is with a game called Happy Atoms, a science kit that lets you do molecular modeling. The traditional kits let you create any structure, even ones that weren’t possible to create and Jesse realized that this wasn’t beneficial to learning the structures. It started as a video game but then pivoted to a physical model. The biggest problem with this was that the kids could build molecules and knew they were real molecules, but they had no way of knowing what they had made. It was at this point that Jesse started thinking about ways he could use digital to fix this problem. They developed the app where you could point your camera at the molecule, and it would tell you what it was. This was very successful for Schell Games, they got grants from the US as well as partnered with a toy company to produce the physical end of it.

At Schell Games, there’s a lot of different processes depending on the project and the stage of the project, however, one question they always start with is “what problem are we solving?”. Jesse finds teams most struggle when they’re not on the same page about this.

One best practice that Jesse can recommend is something he calls “the 50% rule” and this made a huge difference in Jesse’s studio. The rule is that when you’re working on something that is time-restricted, halfway through the project you should have all of the key features working and playable. This leaves room to let the schedule slip slightly and leaves time to make really great games and not just the key features.

One book that Jesse would recommend for educational game development would be by Sabrina Culyba The Transformational Framework which presents some great illustrations and diagrams also, available for free. Jesse would like to listen to Barbara Chamberlin on Professor Game. She is an expert on playtesting and has been working on a book alongside Jesse and has some amazing insights. Another great guest for Jesse would be Warren Buckleitner who has studied the world of children’s educational software for years and has great insights.

Jesse’s favorite game changes a lot over time, one game that really captivated him was Blast Corps for the N64.

One of Jesse’s superpowers in game design is the way his subconscious mind thinks about game structures and problems and he believes his meditation helps with this.

Jesse’s final piece of advice for people getting into game design is to not judge yourself by how good you are at game design, judge yourself on whether you’re enjoying what you’re doing because if you’re enjoying it you will learn the rest and get better!

We can find Jesse at and he let us know that a new edition of The Art of Game Design on its tenth anniversary is now available!


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