Lately, there has been a lot of buzz in the game design community about the topic of stealing games. There is definitely a side that I haven’t yet considered in Part 1 or Part 2 of this series, is the point of view of the “victim”. The quotes are important because, as this article will argue, it doesn’t really happen. There are several very good articles that take the same position.
Most recently, Gil Hova stole my idea for a post, and wrote a comprehensive look that includes some recent examples of alleged theft. Before that, a post on BoardGameGeek stole my idea to write about why execution matters. Tom Jolly also stole my idea to write an article, but added his personal experience in an article on League of Game Makers. And Daniel Solis stole my idea for writing about a real recent occurrence with the mobile games Threes, 1024, and 2048.
Now, this is obviously tongue in cheek. The authors of these articles didn’t steal my idea for a post. They simply share ideas and a conclusion: Don’t worry about someone stealing your idea. It’s important to recognize that other people can and will have the same ideas as you, and learn how to deal with that fact. So where does this feeling come from, and what do you do about it?
There are really only a couple of possibilities when you think someone has stolen your idea. Most likely, someone else came up with the idea independently. This is very common in the history of ideas. Calculus was created in two forms almost simultaneously by Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz. And Alfred Russel Wallace asked Charles Darwin to review a paper on evolution just as Darwin was ready to publish his own. Moby Dick, the card game, went live on Kickstarter literally days after I first debuted New Bedford, to my surprise. Of course that game had been in development for longer than New Bedford, but I was still disappointed because the original theme I thought I had was suddenly not so original.
Very few people will ever develop a completely original mechanic for a board game, or find a new untapped theme. It is a natural reaction as humans to feel pride in our ideas, and think they are special because they are our own. But it is absolutely critical to remember that just having an idea doesn’t make it special (an idea I will return to again in this article). Recognizing that others also have ideas as valuable as our own takes a lot of work. We should be proud because of the validation of the idea through others’ development of it, not in spite of it.
To create an original idea, usually the best we can hope for is to put old things together in a new way, or make a slight change to something existing. We create originality in small increments, meaning that most of an idea is something that someone else has already done. So it is very likely that someone else has made the same small changes.
That segues into the second possibility, that someone took some part of an idea you had and did something else with it. This is already going to be rare, unless you have really been sharing your idea publicly and on a large scale. And it begs the question of when is an idea yours anyway? There are so many conventions used in board games, any game you develop is going to make use of some of them. This is a good and necessary thing, because you can’t possibly create something entirely new, or it won’t be recognizable as a board game. As I mentioned above, most of any idea for a new game is going to draw on other games and other ideas from outside the world of boardgames.
So it should not surprise us in the rare cases when somebody else uses our ideas, especially if they use it in a way that is not identical. If they added to the idea and improve it, we should be proud of creating an influential idea. As Gil Hova writes, “Man, I’d love to have that kind of social reach!” If, on the other hand, the person borrowed from your idea and didn’t execute it well, you can be glad that you have the chance to do a good job on it, and produce something better. Again, your idea isn’t so special that nobody should be able to use it, even though you used others’ ideas, too.
Even in the case of theme, you don’t see publishers cutting back on train, fantasy, or Mediterranean trading games, even though the themes have been used. A good game or good theme will still stand out in the crowd. Tom Jolly’s article on League of Game Makers has a several examples of this.
So the final possibility is that someone actually stole your entire game. This is unbelievably rare in the realm of board games, but let me first talk about video games. I recently read an amusing article (which I have since been unable to find) about how so many Facebook games and mobile apps are just bad clones of each other. The article proved the point by showing about 20 real banner ads for games that looked like a thesaurus threw up on a photocopier (i.e. they all used similar language to encourage people to play, shared the majority of gameplay elements, looked indistinguishable graphically, and only varied slightly within the theme of historical cultures fighting). And the point was that even though the games aren’t original, they make some money because they are so easy to copy the code, and the market is so large, you only need a tiny piece, and the cost of distribution is negligible. But in the board game industry, it is hard to copy the components and rules exactly, the market is tiny and profit margins are small, and the cost of distribution is high. Daniel Solis’ article makes the same point very well.
What all three articles say is that there is a lot of work that goes into taking your idea and making it into a real game. So you might be thinking, “Yes, and I don’t want someone to steal all the work I’ve done.” But this work is exactly why it isn’t worth it to steal a board game idea. Because no matter what part of the process you’re in, there’s always a lot of work left. If you’re only at the idea phase, someone who “steals” the idea still has to create a game, test it, refine it, find a publisher, publish it, and sell it. WAY too much work. Maybe you’ve got a polished and playtested prototype. Sharing your game at this stage actually makes it harder to steal, because you are creating an audience and a market for your game. Someone who “steals” the game isn’t going to be able to steal your audience that is already familiar with your game, so they still have to do all the work to connect with players, produce new art, market the game, publish and distribute it. Still too much work. If your game has already been published and someone “steals” your idea, you’ve got the market advantage, and all the success and recognition already. It’s still going to be a lot of work for someone to take the stolen idea and make it as successful, which means it won’t really affect the success of your game. There is just no point in the process at which it becomes worth it to steal your idea. Your idea isn’t special in that regard. It seems valuable to you, but it is the work that goes into making it into a published game that makes it special
So take a second to pause instead of being afraid of your game being stolen. If you’re at the point of being ready to pitch to a publisher, it’s not worth it for someone to steal the idea. Before that point, you don’t really have a strong claim to the game idea being yours and only yours. Just as you borrow ideas from others, sharing your ideas helps everyone, and makes it harder for someone to take credit for your work. The real fear is simply that your idea isn’t special, but overcoming that fear is as easy of accepting it as a fact from the start. So when you start to worry, about someone stealing your game idea, take a step back and remember that the idea isn’t special. The real trick of game design is to make your game special by the work you put into it. That is what the BoardGameGeek post is trying to say. And that’s why you’re here, working on your craft to make your game special, because nobody else will.