Monday, August 22, 2005

Why you should share your game designs

Here is a conversation I’ve had many times throughout my career.
“Dude, I just thought of the greatest game design”
“Really, what is it?”
“I can’t tell you that. You could steal it.”

Remarkably quickly, the conversation comes to an abrupt dead end. This happens with professional developers, indie developers and people who happen to have picked up a game controller at some point in their sofa-bound lives and dream of breaking into the game industry. It is a cultural reaction that is pervasive throughout the game industry. The belief driving this response is simple: Game designs are unique and special, like a patentable invention. If you talk about a game design publicly, greedy buggers will implement it before you and take all your glory.

To be blunt, this attitude is completely ludicrous.

Your game design is simply a starting point
A game starts out with 1% game design and end up 100% production and polish. During the production and polish stages of the title, the game design is likely to change dramatically. For example, there was once a genre busting game design by a famous designer that involved a magic hammer and was described as an epic fantasy action RPG. Something very interesting happened along the way to creating the title. First, they did what every good team does in the early stages. They prototyped the concept and evolved what worked. The grand initial design ended up turning into an intense FPS shooter. What was this fantasy RPG? It was a little title called Quake.

When a team gets a hold of a game design, they change it in ways unique to that team. Give 5 teams the same game design document and I guarantee that you will get 5 distinctly different games. A game design ends up being closer to a movie script than it is to a blue print. The director who executes your design has a major impact on the ultimate results.
  • Moral #1: The final game is not going to look anything like your initial game design because ultimately it is the game director who makes the most important decisions, not the person who writes the game design document.
Unique mechanics are almost never copied
At this point, many people claim that their design possesses a unique ‘hook’ in terms of the game mechanic. Take for example the Sims. This game had a great game design with some very unique and innovative mechanics. Holy crap, if only “I could have thought of it first” I could have made millions. Wouldn’t you love to go back in time, create a copy of the Sims and sell it before the Sims brand was established?

Yet, shortly after the Sims was released, game developers had a very similar opportunity. And they did nothing for upwards of two years. The clone masters had the blueprint for one of the most successful games of all time sitting in front of them and they did nothing. Even worse, the original Sims design was repeatedly rejected internally at Maxis because it was too risky. Ever wonder why Will Wright happily shares information about Spore multiple years before its launch?

  • Moral #2: Most people like to copy successful ideas. Original ideas are far less likely to be cloned because they are seen as risky.
You can learn more by sharing than hording
Occasionally I’ll get someone to bite at this point and tell me their game design. It generally goes something like this: “So it is a fantasy game with a guy name Count Blommar who has red sword! He kills a lot of people and then fights a giant boss in the shape of a marshmallow!”

Months later, when a game comes out staring a hero bearing a red sword, the would-be designer is crestfallen that someone managed to create their idea first. Heaven forbid they actually had the gumption or clout to begin implementing their half-assed design in the meantime.

Often it is much better to talk about your game publicly so that you can gain important critical feedback from other industry experts. By discussing your ideas, you’ll learn a bit about what works and what doesn’t work. Writers do it at writing workshops. Painters do it at art critiques. These forums are harsh, open and extremely helpful. Many popular auteurs credit their current success to the constructive criticism they received from other professionals.
  • Moral #3: Most people are absolutely horrible game designers. Your game design could probably be dramatically improved by talking to other skilled designers. You have dramatically more to gain by sharing than by hording.
Two copy cats doesn’t mean anyone is stealing
We operate in a cut throat industry. I’ve seen plenty of examples of similar games released at similar times and their sales suffer as a result. Two historical RTS games are released within a month of one another. Two FPS, both with triple-barreled shotguns are released nearly simultaneously. There are accusations of spying and the marketing people are lambasted for releasing screenshots too early.

Half the time, both games are merely copying from the generation that came before. If you mass enough game developers together and ask them to limit their imaginations to a narrow range of innovation, you are bound to have the same idea pop up multiple times. Suppose a publisher yells in a crowded room, “Quick, think of a color between red and blue.” How can you curse the fellow next to you who also thought of purple? This is convergent innovation, not theft.

More often than not, the ‘stolen’ idea ends up having a minor effect on the final sales of the game. One game typically has better execution and decimates the other. Perhaps if the failing company had been less focused on secrecy and more focused on building a great title, they would have done better.

  • Moral #4: If your design ideas are similar to another title, there is a good chance you are both cribbing from the same cheat sheet. Relax. Your super clone isn’t going to win or lose based off the game design anyway. Brand, polish and production values are more important.
How about a little sharing?
Game designs are not patents or blue prints. They are an initial artistic sketch that is used as fodder during a very involved production process to create a final game. A great game is not derivable from the design document and an original game design is not likely to be copied. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is impossible to steal a game design. The best you can do is create an interpretation.

When you refuse to share your game design, you are basing your decision off of indefensible paranoia. That is okay. You grew up in a culture where everyone claimed that game designs were holy. It can be hard to change. It can be hard to share.

If you do share your game design, I offer you this prediction:
  • No one will steal your game design.
  • By sharing your game design with other competant designers, you will receive in return invaluable feedback that improve your final game.
  • You will contribute to the game development community and help others learn about game design.
You’ll find sharing game designs really isn’t such a big deal. Getting someone to listen, that is the hard part. :-) Hopefully websites like this one will be useful in promoting a reasonable discussion once you’ve made the plunge.

Take care


  1. I can back up what you are saying about 5 developers would come up with 5 different games if given the same idea.

    Whenever I see someone post an idea, I usually read the first line or two, then start imagining how I would implement the game. Then I read the rest of their idea, and 9 times out of 10, their implementation is completely different. You wouldn't even recognize that the two games had a common origin.

  2. Brilliant, Danc! I love the ideas you present here. I will never again feel guilty for sharing my hairbrained gamedev ideas.

    As one who has followed a number of games down the devpath, I have to say, that once you DO get into a niche, that copying does occur, but you're entirely correct, an idea has to be proven. (It wasn't until the game had made a dent in a genre that most folks had considered dead that HOMM started copying AOW. Yes, that's what happened! No! Really! >:-P )

    (It is interesting you don't mention the Circle in this discussion... Now there was a gamedesign that no one understood except for you... Even your publishers didn't get it... (tee-hee-hee!) )

    Also I think game designs that are purely textual, with not many graphics, and little organization is just a pipedream. Unless you've put some effort into the design, and have it documented, it's easy to claim that such and such stole this or that... A few funny ideas does not a gamedesign create--yet a lot of folks have no idea what a good design looks like. They just think they've played a few games, maybe written a mod to this or that game, and now they're an expert.

    Interesting topic, my friend! I could go on and on...


    PS> Sondra and I are still addicted to Viral Billiards ( was credited as inspired by this site. This is the type of game we have time for... it's so nice to just sit down and chill to it, and it's more interesting than spider solitaire. I've gotten to level 11... once... total fluke...

  3. Remember games designs are worth *.833 cents until they are actually made into games...

    *dime per dozen

  4. My own reason for not sharing ideas is not that I think people will steal them, but that the more I tell people about an idea the less likely I am to actually do it.

    As the old joke says: a priest, a hairdresser, and a programmer all spend the night in a brothel, but none of them have sex. The priest because he's celibate, the hairdresser because he's gay, and the programmer because he spends the entire night talking about how great the sex is going to be.

    Getting feedback once a project reaches a certain point, however, is doable (but that point is usually just short of beta). Speaking of which, I'd like to bug you in a couple of weeks for feedback on the GBA game I'm working on.

    Ray: I'm very happy that you still like Viral Billiards. I'm happy that I was able to make such a simple, complete game, but on the downside it really IS a complete game, and I can't think of any way to add more depth to it without significant retooling. Of course, if it's fine the way it is, then maybe I should just leave well enough alone. :)X

  5. Hunty: Ain't that the truth about programmers! Hahaha!

    As for viral billiards, there are lots of things that could be done to fill out the game, but you're right, it's a great game as is.


  6. Even if the anecdote is true (about Quake), could you imagine id producing any other type of game?

    I would imagine any idea sent into the id meat-grinder would come out as FPS hamburger (probably pretty tasty, though :)

  7. Here's a link to the Quake tidbit

    I have vague memories of another PC magazine describing similar details.


  8. As for me, I prefer telling people about my ideas. So what if they get stolen. Then the idea gets made, and I didn't have to bust my ass making it.

    All my ideas are games I would actually like to play, so why shouldn't I encourage others to make them. Anyways ideas are cheap. Follow through is the tough part...

  9. Hey Danc, that article was hysterical. We know from the Daikatana experience that the id folks were pathological liars, but do you think some of these lies were cover for the popularity of their number-one copycat, who was getting a lot of marketshare, Unreal?

    I remember Unreal at the time announcing all sorts of games based upon their engine, talking up your own engine might be just the counter for it. I remember when the "BSP" comment was made, a coder friend (Josh Jensen) of mine went into a tizzy and started researching everything he knew about BSPs. Everything these guys said was being watched and folks were trying to scramble to beat them to the punch...

    turned out the emporer had no clothes... (well, that's my opinion, you folks probably all loved Quake, I never played it, cuz it just kinda felt like DOOM 3, nuthin special...)


  10. Quake did indeed start off as a fantasy rpg, but it got redesigned durning development to be a doom style fps. It wasn't the implementation of the original idea that changed things, but the scrapping & redesign of it.

  11. You're doing a great thing by posting this. A lot of would-be game designers think their ideas would get stolen, in the same way that unknown screenwriters rush to "copyright" their screenplays and plaster copyright notices on every page in fear that their work will be stolen.

    In reality, until an idea becomes popular, lucrative or both (read: successful) the idea is rarely worth stealing.

    But the main reason for my posting here is to plug my own blog, appropriately titled, Steal My Game Designs!

    Here's my usual disclaimer: I'm not blogspamming, since my blog's subject matter is directly relevant to the discussion.

    And please, if any of you check it out, just leave some comments under any of the proposed game designs that attract your attention. I'm putting these up there to trigger some discussion, and I'd love to hear what people think. After all, one of the main points Danc made, in this post, is that discussing game ideas can only make them better.

    And if you plan on "stealing" one of the ideas, go ahead, but please consider talking with me, as I could provide you with a lot more detail on the idea, and I could help you make the game!

  12. i have an idea about a game for ds.first of all i hope someone makes it!the game comes with a scanner and special paper.on the game you just draw anything on the peice of paper that you want to draw.scan it on the scanner and it goes into your game then a edit screen comes up where you can color it with your ds pen or turn it into high graficts. the building has the same desighn but the thing looks cooler . you can make anything . i would call it You World.thats my idea! im 10 so i know what kids like!use my idea!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  13. Thank you for this article. I agree, it can almost always bring about good things. And standing on the shoulders of giants rules. :)

    Is your e-mail on here somewhere? It'd be an honor to get your feedback on some designs...

  14. I have an idea that has potential, and even if I don't make anything off of it, I'd just about kill for the opportunity to play it. Here it is: It's an MMORPG where the character starts out as a colonist on a newly discovered continent in a fantasy world. Highlights include: Player-created governments, laws, societies, customs. The ability to design and construct buildings, roads, walls, dams, etc... Reputation modifiers based on the opinions of other players (to reward the serious and punish the game-killers). Independent character behavior routines, so the character will behave a certain way and take certain actions when the player is offline. A greater focus on real intelligence, as opposed to character stats. Optional world view types (cell-shaded, anime-like, realistic...). And best of all, the storyline is driven by player actions, with minimal developer prodding.
    The players each come from one of maybe six ports. Each port relates to a different real world continent and several languages are spoken in the game, rewarding people who really know multiple languages. The continent itself is so massive that the ports themselves are very widely spaced and a player could walk for days past the frontier line without encountering another human soul. The player chooses a profession ranging from military to crafting, magic to masonry. But the player must also try to choose a profession that is in higher demand. A thousand wannabe mages flooding a market which supports a couple hundred will drop the overall pay for the profession. If everyone chooses to be a fighter of some sort, then jobs will be scarce and won't earn much. The player must then either make enough friends to get a good opportunity in the port city, strike out on their own, or head to a player civilization which fits their ideology They can be egalitarian, sexist, racist, capitalist, communist, fascist, pacifist, totalitarian, democratic, or any combination of whatever traits they want. Their success depends entirely on the strength of their support from other players and the weakness of their opposition from other players.
    In short, I want to play a game which combines RPG, strategy, and sim elements, letting me fight the monsters personally AND giving me a custom-designed castle with all of the amenities and plenty of other servants. (Characters can pay to import slaves, indentured servants, or other NPCs from the outer continents.) It's a bit long, but I think it would work if the tech is around to support it.

  15. I used to be hesitant to share my ideas for the next "coolest game ever" until it dawned on me one day that I will most likely never find the time to create any of the games that I have come up with. On top of that, I thought to myself, how cool would it be if someone did steal my idea and the game actually became popular! Sure I wouldn't be the one making the money, but just the satisfaction of knowing that I came up with that idea and it worked....that's pretty cool! Just think if we all shared all of our creative ideas and worked together to make them even better--we would see some pretty amazing creations no doubt!

    It's this very thought that led me to create It's a forum where you can openly share your ideas for games and other applications written in Ajax. I have one game idea posted there called Word Bump which I really hope someone will steal and create so I can play it!

    Go to if you would like to read more about it.

  16. "Give 5 teams the same game design document and I guarantee that you will get 5 distinctly different games."

    The only way this would happen is if the teams are given the freedom to change the design, or if the design document lacks some details thus forcing the teams to input their own ideas.

    If the design document is as detailed as it could possibly be and the teams are forced to follow it exactly, than I guarantee YOU that you'll get 5 very similar games.

  17. This is unfortunately written for people who will never get into the business one way or another.