If there’s one question new designers relentlessly ask, it’s this: “What if someone steals my game idea?”
I’ve answered this before. But it seems to come up so frequently, I’ll write it here.
For a board game.
But rest at ease; for the same reason it’s hard to protect a game, it’s also not worth the trouble to a game company to steal a game. Most companies have a backlog of games they want to publish; stealing your wonderful idea is not only not worth their time, but it’s also not worth the trouble and expense a pissed-off submitter is likely to cause. There are exceptions; there are always exceptions, but these are very, very rare and not worth losing sleep over.
Let me add some thoughts to this:
1) There’s four examples of alleged IP theft in board games that I can think of off the top of my head (note the word alleged there):
- Looney Labs once had their card game Aquarius ripped off by a Mormon publishing company (with a very interesting outcome).
- In 2009, Rick Heli wrote about Chinese bootlegs of popular designer games.
- Wizards suing Cryptozoic over Hex’s resemblance to Magic.
- David Sirlin’s Flash Duel allegedly containing significant elements of Reiner Knizia’s En Garde.
The last two examples aren’t even clear-cut examples: the first one is in the lawyers’ hands, and the second one has been the subject of several heated arguments about whether it was theft or legitimate adaptation. Nevertheless, in both of them, the party allegedly stolen from has felt strongly enough about it to express their opinions publicly, so I’ll include them here.
These four examples have something in common: the games they allegedly stole from were all published, and were all quite successful. Even the least successful example, Knizia’s En Garde, sold enough copies to earn a couple of reprints.
None of these examples involve an unpublished prototype, in any stage of its development.
2) So, here’s a thought experiment: pretend that, for some reason, you want someone to steal your game. You take out ads. You bomb social media. You hold demos. You try to spread word of your juicy, steal-able game out to as many people as you can.
There is a word for this: marketing. And it’s freaking hard. It will take a lot of money and effort before you get even one designer to try to copy your game.
The truth is, there are so many of us designers nowadays, it’s tougher and tougher to even be legitimately heard. So the thought of getting your half-done proto ripped off by another designer because you blogged about it? Man, I’d love to have that kind of social reach!
3) Let’s say someone does steal your idea for a game. But it’s just an idea, and one night the thief has a great thought to make the game better. He spends six months working on it. Meanwhile, one day in the shower, you have an incredible idea of your own that will improve your game. You spend six months working on it.
Believe me, your idea and his ideas are going to be completely different, maybe different enough that your games will be quite distinguishable on the marketplace.
There’s a competition at the Gathering of Friends where a bunch of designers get the same set of bits and a theme, and they’re challenged to make a game out of it. And the games they come up with are all completely different. Like, not even close to each other.
An idea is not a game. People don’t play ideas for games, they play games. And it’s an enormous amount of work from idea to game. No one wants to play an idea.
4) What if someone posts about a game that’s similar to a game I’m working on, but his is further along? It’s happened to me. I’m working on a game with a TV-network theme called Prime Time, and one day, I heard that someone started a Kickstarter for their TV-network themed game called Prime Time. But the gameplay for our games? Totally different. Mine is a tense economic strategy game with drafting of scarce supplies; his is a deckbuilder.
Another example: one idea I’ve always wanted to do is a futuristic sports game that wouldn’t be a war sport; it’d just be an existing sport, like baseball or hockey, but with cyborgs and robots slowly creeping in. I tried it from all sorts of angles, but could never get it to work. Then one day, my friend Mike Fitzgerald shows me his game that Eagle just picked up: Baseball Highlights 2045 . Pretty much exactly what I had in mind (although his actually had, you know, actually-playtested mechanisms).
My reaction? A little jealousy, but mostly relief. He had executed my idea much, much better than I ever did. It was done, and I didn’t have to do any work to do it. Thanks Mike!
5) This is a tiny business, and you can’t really make millions of dollars from it, unless you are lucky and work really hard. I can think of three successful publishers who still have day jobs, and two other successful publishers who only just quit their day jobs. They’re all pretty much single-man operations.
The psychopaths who will take any means to make a fortune? They’re all playing the financial industry, the pharmaceutical industry, and any other business with multimillion-dollar potential.
If someone is in the board game business, it’s not necessarily because he or she is a business savant. But it is absolutely because he or she loves board games.
6) The relatively small size of the business means it’s an echo chamber. There’s gossip, there’s chatter, there’s news. If someone claims to have had their game stolen (and again, this doesn’t happen to prototypes or unsuccessful games, and only rarely happens to the most successful games), everyone knows about it.
I’ll close by saying what I always say: Before you worry about someone stealing your game, come up with a game worth stealing.
That part is unbelievably hard, trust me.