Tuesday 25 August 2015

Game Design #51: Intellectual Theft i.e. "Someone Will Steal My Idea"

I see my fair share of playtest and "alpha" rules and one thing that makes me smile is the paranoia some people display about their ideas. They make a few assumptions such as:

-Other people actually care about their cool idea
-Their idea is actually original
-Their idea matters even if it's not actually part of a functional, successful game
-Game mechanics are somehow "patentable"
-Their idea or half finished game is worth stealing

Guess what? Originality is no guarantor of success.  In fact, as I've commented repeatedly elsewhere, most successful rules seem to be regurgitated or copy+pasted from somewhere else.   Flames of War, Bolt Action, Warhammer 40K, and Warhammer Fantasy share similar mechanics.  Armada is just a more complicated version of X-Wing, which shares a lot with Wings of War.  Lord of the Rings: SBG has a host of imitators.  Stargrunt/Dirtside have spawned a host of indie hard sci fi rulesets.   In fact, originality is overrated when it comes to making $$$ out of a game.  Your original idea is unlikely to make you rich.  And if game mechanics were patentable there would be a LOT of lawsuits put out by GW, which is a notoriously litigious company.   (Not that they didn't already steal every mechanic and piece of background fluff from other people, anyway.)

You're not original, anyway. Odds are, your idea has already been used before.  "There is nothing new under the sun" declared King Solomon. I never knew the guy played wargames until I read this.  You idea or mechanic is not a game.  Until it's a fully working game, with people actively playing it, it's still an idea or concept.  And good ideas are a dime a dozen. Heck, we ALL have had a Great Wargame Idea. A good idea is not necessarily a good gameI see lots of games with one or two awesome features/ideas/mechanics, but the game itself is lame.  A good game is a fun game - one people want to play.   And a finished game that is fun = a lot of hard work.

Pretty much no idea is totally original, but builds a little on what comes before.  That's how technology progresses.  Others having the same ideas as you is not surprising.  If a majority of fantasy/sci fi gamers came into the hobby playing 40K/WFB, I'd expect to see 40K-esque influences in their games.   I can see "Stargrunt" in the ancestry of about half the indie hard sci-fi rulesets made for 15mm.  Just because many of the games are similar doesn't mean they are actively stealing ideas from each other or even are aware of each others' work. 

Odds are you are not an unidentified game design genius.  And if you only share your ideas with trusted friends/family (you know, the sort of folk who are really analytically critical about your work and will go all out to try to "break" your game mechanics <sarcasm disabled>) you probably aren't getting the depth of feedback you needThere's a LOT of work involved in making and publishing a working, properly playtested game. (Which is why I test and critique games rather than designing them myself!)

The wider range of people that playtest a game, the better.  For example, I get the feeling that GW secretively playtests with small group of testers (hermetically sealed within an ivory tower?), compared to Privateer Press who did an open "beta" for their Mk.II rules.  "We did a very extensive test of the Witch Hunter Codex - 8 people, 30 games - it's the most exhaustive yet."  

To be blunt, your idea seldom sounds as awesome to others as it does to you.  I mean, your close family/friends/gaming buddies probably say its awesome, but are they really the best barometer?
 I bet I could easily make a game that is popular with the regular posters who frequent this blog. Doesn't mean it would be a best seller though. 

Risk vs Reward

You know, I can't really think of any examples of copywright/IP theft in tabletop games? Or even boardgames/cardgames?  I think there was one involving Magic - but that is a complete, finished, fully functional, wildly successful, published game.   You know, something proven to be worth stealing. Not a "cool idea."  Not a prototype. Not even an alpha/beta playtest copy.  

You know, it's actually quite hard to spread word about something.   You know another term for spreading the word?  It's called marketing, and people actually *gasp* pay others to explain the benefits of their ideas.  However many designers miss out on this free marketing in order to "protect" their ideas.  

Ironically, a few RPG companies deliberately torrent their fully finished rules on pirate sites in order to raise interest and attract legitimate sales. 

Also, tabletop gaming isn't exactly a big money business.  The real money is made by big hitters like GW or PP, who make their money through miniature sales. Which is not exactly plagued by piracy either.  Despite our passion for tabletop gaming, it's not exactly a prime target for hardcore IP thieves.  They're targeting better places - industries that actually have the potential to make real money.

I think game designers are missing out on valuable chances to thoroughly playtest/improve their game, and indeed market their game, in fear of having their "original" ideas stolen.   


  1. Haha, this is in some respects very true. At the end of last year I published a dungeon crawl ruleset - Trapdoor - through Wargames Vault. It started out as a home-brew set, but users of various gaming forums expressed interested so I set about knocking it into workable shape. On-and-off this process took several years and I released (I think) three beta versions, but wasn't overly concerned about how far these copies spread. I am actually now working on a 'final' revised edition which won't probably see the light of day until next year, but which will present a thoroughly-honed gaming system.

    One thing I have learnt is that marketing an indie gaming product is not easy. If, for instance, my rules had been picked up by Osprey, I am confident that my sales figures would be rather more healthy. In fact I was advised by an employee of that esteemed establishment that - superficially as it may sound - a colour cover is a surefire way of drawing in more punters. Interestingly, from my meagre experience at shows (not with my own product) it also seems people would rather drop money on an expensive full-colour hardback ruleset, than a cheaper b&w affair; blithely assuming that if it looks good it must play good. I find this thinking amusing: being a follower of underground music I am fully aware that glossy presentation is not always a guarantee of a releases' actual substance.

    A while back you reviewed Brent Spivey's Rogue Planet rules and I agreed with many of your conclusions (see my own prior review here) . I have helped play-test Brent's systems in the past and vice-versa, so I suppose I might be somewhat biased in my estimation of his rules. I think that overall RP is an excellent set and is a rare example of a designer who 'thinks outside the box', as it were. Anyway, happy gaming!

    1. "RP.... ....is a rare example of a designer who 'thinks outside the box', as it were."

      I think Brent lost sight of the box a few years back :-) Which in the era of copy+paste rules isn't a bad thing.

      I don't make rules. But I often muse about space games, in the form of a Delta Vector homebrew set I sometimes muse about in blog posts. It's initial core design concept posts garnered 15,000+ hits. Given the interest, I fully expected to see its vector movement system (in itself developed from a boardgame) copied somewhere. I thought it was rather elegant. But you know how many indie space games that have used/borrowed even ONE of the concepts outlined? Exactly. :-P

  2. Mick - agree with most of this. Sometimes what is novel is the way things go together, or the way the rules and miniatures line compliment one another.

    I think that if you selected the rule components you like best and listed them out I think you could develop a cracker of a game without any problem.

    1. Sadly, a string of good ideas do not necessarily make a good game. They also require a lot of hard work (ugh) to polish into a good game.

    2. Agreed. A universal approach to mechanical design is more important in my book that using a lot of novel or even inspired concepts. The universal mechanic also make the game accessible and easy to pickup and play.

  3. Sometimes an idea really makes the game. Pulp Alley has a couple of ideas, one of which I've never seen before. It increases the size and number of the dice while keeping all target numbers at 4+, so you could try to roll that on a D6, D8, or D12, and occasionally multiples which is so elegant I'd be surprised if it hasn't been used elsewhere (and I've seen plenty of games where they just increased the number of D6s and picking the highest and so forth).

    What really takes the cake, at least for me, is that initiative is handled kind of like Blood Bowl's turnovers, in that players can activate each model, and if they meet certain conditions like failing to hurt an opponent in a fight or fumble a roll, then they lose the initiative. The initiative, however, is choosing which player has to declare an activation next. So if you have the initiative you can either choose to act with one of your own models that's in position at that game-state, or you can force your opponent to choose one of their own models that's in a sub-optimal position.

    Now, I think that combines nicely with the dice-rolling and other simplified mechanics because it creates a game-able element that both keeps things kind of 'local' like Infinity, but reduces cheer-leading (game pieces left out of the action, but contributing due to mass) and cognitive distractions like long procedural rules.

    For the life of me, however, I can't think of how to incorporate these elements into anything I'm doing, and even if I could I don't see why I wouldn't just re-skin Pulp Alley for some other setting than pulp adventure. It's the system that works, and not only does the system already exist, is published, but I'd like to do something original even if the market tends to like what it has.

    1. "Pulp Alley has a couple of ideas, one of which I've never seen before. It increases the size and number of the dice while keeping all target numbers at 4+, so you could try to roll that on a D6, D8, or D12, and occasionally multiples which is so elegant I'd be surprised if it hasn't been used elsewhere"

      You assume correctly. It is copied straight from Savage Worlds - also a pulp RPG/wargame. Offhand, an identical mechanic is also used in Tomorrow's War, also I think Cutlass! and Rail Wars. I used it for a space game in 2011, simply because it was a easy, familiar mechanic. Star Grunt uses something similar, as does, from memory.

      The failing to make a roll then losing initiative is used in many other games. Song of Blades and Crossfire! (made way back in 1996) spring to mind offhand. Even GW did something similar (Warmaster) which would have undoubtedly been recycled in Hail Caesar/Black Powder.

      I used the "you can force an opponent to move" back in 2011 and that was far from original at the time.

      As you can see, the IDEAS are faaaaar from original. The ideas themselves are not amazing, or new. What matters is the finished game is fun. Emphasis on finished (completed, published etc) game.

      That said, I still doubt the creator is giving up his day job to retire to his yacht, either.

    2. Sure, it's all the same ingredients as usual (dice, models, etc) but compared to recent game development I've been watching (Warstrike M42, for example) it's just a really elegant way of combining these things. I think it's how the initiative is about choosing which player activates next rather than some over-complicated Rube Goldberg procedure, rather than anything particularly new about the notion of turn-overs, that makes it interesting. I think it's something to do with how it enables a player choice rather than simply being the next step in a procedure. It certainly got me thinking about interesting choices to give players beyond the usual "Where do you wanna go, who do you wanna shoot?"

    3. Activation and intiative is something I am always banging on about.

      WHEN and WHO acts is just as important as HOW it is resolved (the mechanics). However 75% of game designers focus on the move/shoot mechanics (and tbh, there are only so many ways you can shoot/damage etc using dice).

      The other (WHY) = scenarios, victory conditions, is also under represented, as is WHERE (the table layout) which most games do not explain expectations for terrain (i.e. Infinity vs ancients).

      Hopping off the soapbox, I think they key comment is "combining these things" i.e. the finished sum of the (not very original) parts.

      I think I remember seeing Warstrike a while back. My goodness, someone who has only played GW games has decided to make "40K but better."

      Why has no one ever attempted this before?

      We will get a stunningly original product, be sure... ;-)

    4. Recently I've been making a point of concentrating on objectives and terrain first, as game-able parts of the game, as well as material, with the notion that having easier objectives or more beneficial terrain can offset having inferior or smaller material forces.

  4. I completely agree with your thoughts. That is why I don't waste anyone's time by charging for the rules I make. :)

    1. I don't mind people making an honest buck for their games. What I find a bit amusing is the paranoia, which then means they miss out on valuable playtesting and marketing.

      Someone will steal your game and cash in on the millions(?) you'd make?
      The only millionaires in tabletop gaming are the companies that make minis.

      "Copyright thieves" couldn't be bothered. They are busy ripping off things that make actual money.

    2. Sometimes people will buy what you couldn't give away for free. I certainly can't give anything away for free. If I ever manage to publish anything I'll probably charge for it just so people think it's worth stealing.

    3. Make sure you have a shiny colour cover :-)

      Again, we come back to "marketing" i.e. others awareness of your product. It's harder than it seems.

      You don't need to secretively protect your game - not enough people are aware of it anyway....

    4. I mostly design for my own amusement anyway. I don't do it for anyone else.

      That being said, a post on marketing your homegrown game would be very interesting.

    5. A bit outside my scope, I'm afraid. That said, Brent Spivey and Ivan did some good articles on making/playtesting games a while back that might be of interest - hunt them out in the game design index.

  5. >You know, I can't really think of any examples of copywright/IP theft in tabletop games? Or even boardgames/cardgames?

    The oldest one I can think of is super-early versions of D&D using the terms "ent" and "hobbit" until TSR got a cease-and-desist from the Tolkien Estate.

    There's a game called Khet that involves bouncing a light beam off mirrored pieces. About a decade ago, its maker sued a competing game, Laser Battle, claiming patent infrigement. They eventually won.

    David Sirlin has been in the middle of a few - not formal charges, but ruffled feathers. He's a designer who knows full well that game mechanics can't be copyrighted. His game Flash Duel is an upgrade of Reiner Knizia's En Garde, and Knizia himself, plus Fantasy Flight's CEO, chided Sirlin for not licensing the game or even approaching Knizia for permission first.