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