A while ago, I saw a post on BoardGameGeek about whether to use existing characters and setting for a game that was to be entered in a design contest. My initial reaction was “Absolutely not!” To take someone else’s hard work and use it for your game is stealing. When you ask someone to judge your design, the it should depend solely on itself, and it adds a lot of complications if you go to publish it.
But, as I started to think about it more, I found that there were a lot of very good reasons to use existing intellectual property (IP) when designing a game. And I realized that variants, which I discussed in a post last year, are another side of the issue. This is my attempt to rectify the two points of view.
Good artists copy, great artists steal. Pablo Picasso
First, I want to talk about game variants and fan expansions. I’ve written about variants before, and my position was that variants are not stealing, and play an important role in the world of board games by letting players adjust games to their personal preferences.
Fan expansions do this to a higher degree. Some of my early game design work involved creating my own expansions to existing games. I have a variant for Catan that adds Agricola-like occupations, and I did a lot of work to create my own extra wonders for 7 Wonders (both of which I plan to make available here and on BGG). The game forums on BoardGameGeek have a huge number of custom “variants” and fan-created expansions to games. When people want more of a game, they will create it if it doesn’t exist.
Now, creating a fan expansion is a form of stealing. Perhaps it doesn’t break any laws to create something that simply fits into the rules, but you are stealing the ideas. It is more clear if you use actual graphics from the game, like 7 Wonders, in which interoperability depends on matching the symbolism.
But there is a wide gray area. There are two large Fan expansions for 7 Wonders that, while unofficial, are sanctioned by Repos productions and Antoine Bauza, who provided graphics and permission to use them. Most game publishers, especially “hobby” game publishers, do not seem to be concerned about the relatively small use of intellectual property (IP) for a fan expansion. If anything, it works to promote the game and increases its popularity.
Fan expansions and variants also do something important; they explicitly declare their unofficial nature, so that they cannot be mistaken for something from the original IP holder. However, translation into a game from a different medium makes that relationship far less clear to begin with.
In many other media, IP rights are very important, due to the amount of money involved with licensing. If you relax the IP rights at all, others can dilute the product market and brand name, which can be disastrous. And there are some game franchises that need to do protect their property in the same way. But this is rare in the board game industry, and being especially secretive and protective of IP is often a sign of inexperience.
All of this means that if you can avoid using existing IP, there is a lot of work you won’t have to do in order to use it. And attaching an existing IP to a cheap product is fraud, like a coat of paint on a rusted out car or damaged wall.
There are several good reasons to use existing IP. First, maybe it just fits. I’ve talked several times about finding the right theme, and sometimes your mechanics are perfectly suited to certain characters, stories, or settings. Trying to rework the theme of something like Firefly or Battlestar Galactica without using their respective IPs could theoretically be done, but a lot of the nuance of the theme would be lost. The flip side of this is that an established IP with lots of history can suggest a lot of mechanics. In fact, far from appearing lazy, matching an existing IP to your game can show that you put a lot of attention into merging theme and mechanics.
Second, maybe you use it to introduce an idea to a new demographic. The recently announced Munchkin: Loot Letter, takes Love Letter into the established Munchkin universe (such as it is). Players who love the Munchkin games may try it with that theme when they wouldn’t otherwise have been interested. Bringing a game into a new universe can show your appreciation and understanding of the mechanics and themes of both the original and new IPs.
Third, it’s a great way to practice game design. Make tweaks and add ons to a game to understand how it works. You’ll learn a lot about how games are balanced, how mechanics interact, and what makes a game interesting. You get the advantage of an existing system and don’t have to start from scratch. Much like finding a theme that perfectly fits existing mechanics, you sometimes have an idea for mechanics that fit perfectly into an existing game. Redeveloping something that works almost the same in order to explore these new mechanics is a lot of unnecessary work. And likewise, sometimes playing a game will give you an idea for a new mechanic. Adding to an existing IP can show that you know when not to reinvent the wheel, and demonstrate your understanding of the original game, or highlight certain mechanics.
Finally, do it because you love the original. Share your love for a great story by paying tribute to it. Enjoy your favorite games more by adding new parts. Others like these things as much as you do, and this is a good way to share your enjoyment. Like the old Reese’s commercial (“You got your chocolate in my peanut butter!”) you can enjoy your favorite things mixed together. It shows others your interests, and gives you a way to interact with new people.
In part 2, I want to look at the more subtle form of using existing IP, stealing smaller pieces and ideas and putting them together in new ways.