Stealing From Existing Games: Part 2 – Great Artists Steal

In part 1, I talked about how stealing an existing intellectual property (IP) by using it as a whole. But there is a second part to the discussion, about taking bits and pieces from many different places and using them to create something new.  The sharing of ideas by “stealing” parts of games is absolutely crucial to the health of the industry.

Ideas, by nature, are built from other ideas. We put thoughts together to create new thoughts. New games are created by combining various ideas for mechanics and theme, and working them into a hopefully coherent whole. Some mechanics are developed by taking an existing element, and changing how it works. When these changes produce something never before seen in a game, we call it a new mechanic.

Dominion is a great example of this. Card games implicitly change the draw pile every time a card is dealt. Magic: The Gathering has players manually create decks in preparation. But Dominion created a new mechanic by focusing on that aspect and made changing the deck the goal. After Dominion, so-called “deck building” games became incredibly popular. The idea was adapted into a number of games. Some of these games stick very close to the original formula, while other games integrate the mechanic into part of a bigger picture. This is an example of how the game industry grows through the sharing of ideas. By taking the core idea of Dominion and adding to it, we get an entire new genre of games.

To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism; to steal from many is research. Steven Wright

Where is the line between stealing an idea and adapting it? In the realm of ideas, stealing another’s words is stealing, but using their ideas is fine. In fine art, making a facsimile of the original is stealing, while trying to match the style or sharing a subject is fine. In music, almost any part identifiable as another song is regarded as stealing. Generally, the more idea-based the elements are, the less it is considered stealing, while the more execution-based the elements are, the more likely it is to be considered stealing.

Let’s apply that to game design. In board games, copying all of the mechanics from another game is stealing, even if it has a new theme, because making the mechanics all work is about execution. The same holds for using a title or artwork. But the constituent ideas are all open for use.

When you see a mechanic you like, isolate it, understand it, and steal it. Take away parts of the original, and add parts from another place, and you have created something new. In New Bedford, I took worker placement from Agricola, and the concept of role bonuses from Puerto Rico, to create my own mechanic for actions. These games inspired ideas in me, but I didn’t just copy them 1:1.

When you find a theme you enjoy, identify the elements you like, and steal them. Find a new way of representing them in your game. I am really inspired by games farming like Agricola, and Harvest Moon (the video game), and I am still trying to create a game that uses the ideas. But I don’t want to just copy the experience, I want to develop a new one.

This is more of a philosophical take on the subject of IP use, rather than a design lesson. But there are two takeaways. First, don’t be afraid to take something that looks cool and use it. Adapt it, add to it, and change it to create something new. Second, and equally importantly, share your ideas. The game industry is a living entity, and ideas work like genes that combine to produce something unique. In fact, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the word “meme” to discuss the concept of an idea as a gene. (This is the same “meme” that people use to talk about some popular idea or joke on the internet.) Strong and useful ideas will spread and become common, giving game designers more tools to work with. Most people will never develop the next revolutionary idea in gaming, but everyone can play a part in helping to develop the industry as a whole.


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  1. #1 by lewpuls on May 30, 2014 - 11:03 am

    “That’s kind of a common pattern in everything I do. One minute I’m completely on my own and I think, “Wow, I’m a genius, I can’t believe this idea nobody else had!” And then you look at the references on it, and it turns out that a hundred other people have done the same things in the 1980s. And then you look, and you get your additional ideas from those. Between invention and stealing, you come up with a really good combination of ideas.”
    Tim Sweeney (founder of Epic Games) in Gamasutra Interview 2009
    There’s hardly anything new under the sun, so often we don’t even know whether it is “stealing” or multiple occurrences of creation. Nor would I worry about it. Anyone sufficiently knowledgeable about games will see in a new game lots of resemblances to others.

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