Game School: Keep it secret, keep it safe. Big ideas, secrecy and the new designer’s mistake of keeping it all inside.

secret

You’ve got an absolutely brilliant idea for new game. It’s something you really think will catch on and you know it will be a huge seller. So you write up your idea, perhaps draw up a prototype or two and then lock yourself in your office and start chipping away at it for days, or months or even years. Finally, when your idea is perfected, you contact a few of the largest game publishers and ask them to sign a standard non-disclosure agreement (which also gets them excited about this amazing new idea that’s so cool you don’t want them talking about it). They take one good, hard look at your project and start drawing up a contract because they can easily see it’s going to be the next big thing.  Six months later the announcement comes out on their site about your game, people are excited and they can finally, finally get a glimpse at your amazing idea.

Except that happens just about never, and certainly not to the vast majority of newly minted game designers peddling their first game to be published.

Sometimes I think the biggest secret in game design is that keeping your designs secret will most likely hurt you far more than it will help. Or to keep with the theme of this post, keeping your designs an absolute secret won’t make you Gandalf. It will make you more like a cat wearing a Gandalf hat knit by it’s owner.

Yeah, well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.

Yes that is just my opinion. And also the opinion of every single designer I’ve had the joy of speaking with over the past few years. I’m lucky in that I’ve gotten to speak to quite a few RPG and board game designers, publishers and folks involved in the industry in numerous ways. Some folks may be heavily into the the secret game development bunker thing, but I haven’t found them in the industry yet if they are.

Your great idea is just that, an idea. It’s perhaps 3% of what goes into making a great idea turn into a playable and successful game. The other 97% is all the development, design decisions, play testing, prototyping, criticism gathering, rethinking, more play testing, more noodling over what works and what doesn’t, throwing out the cruft and finally, more play testing. I fell pretty safe in saying this assertion is backed up by lots of folks in the industry. Some of them develop games very publicly, others do so in a more closed environment with a few folks they trust. But all of them share their ideas with others to get feedback and find points about their ideas that they just may not see themselves.

Great ideas are cheap

dude

And working games are expensive, at least in the terms of the time committed to make them.  See this cat? This cat had a great idea about a worker placement game where you flick meeples around with your paw.  I get great ideas all the time, and to date only a few of them have become actually working games. It’s mostly because making something from a great idea is a lot of freaking work, and if you do it all by yourself, that work multiplies in some aspects (art, editing, revising, writing and testing, I’m looking at you) or become impossible in other aspects. Not only that, but if you do not share your great idea, there’s no real measure against which you can call it great. You may have a game idea that you would play forever, but no one else is terribly interested in. Or you may have an amazing idea that’s totally unique and has never been done, except that it was done in 1976 by Hasbro and you just didn’t know it.

You may even have an original idea that’s actually just that, an original idea in gaming – but will others enjoy using it? Playing with it? You’ll never know if you don’t expose that idea to other people. What if you’re great idea could actually be improved on, or used in other ways? Again without exposing others to it, you’ll never know.

What if someone steals my idea?

This is an honest fear that a lot of folks have. You’ve gotten a great idea for a game or a mechanic, and now you’re worried that by having others look at it, they’ll run away gleefully with your idea and bring something to market before you can. To that, I say – so what? The risk you run with losing out to the world of board games by having someone take your great idea is very minimal when compared to the risk you take of not getting your game published by never talking about it.

And even if that does happen, well we’re all standing on the shoulders of giants here. Your great idea is most likely a modification on a past mechanic or idea that has worked successfully in the past. Your great idea may already have been had by others. But it probably won’t happen. Most successful companies like to build on successful ideas. These are concepts in gaming that have been around, or made it out to market at least once and done well with it. Your amazingly great idea is less likely to be copied if it’s unique because there’s a lot more risk in doing that.

So you run the risk of someone stealing your great idea? Again, so what? Most companies that I’ve talked to are in the business of making great games. They publish them but don’t actually design them from the ground up. And they’ve most likely got a lot of projects currently cooking which they feel will be a good return on the money and time they’ll spend producing them. The chances that they even have the time to go pirate your great idea is small.

ideaAnd what about other game designers? More power to them, I say. If I come up with a great idea, the chance that it will turn into a game I can purchase from somewhere is a pretty slim one. But if someone has the drive and ability to take that idea and run with it, then perhaps in a year or two I can get that game and enjoy playing it.

even if that happens though, there’s something to be said for building on a great idea (yours or not) and being the second or third to market with it. You get the chance to see what the first to market did wrong, and what they did right. All of the dangerous stuff, the risk taking has already happened for the most part. Now you can improve on your own great idea and do something else amazing with it.

To sum up this little section – putting your ideas out there does come with a small risk of having it copied, but it is a small risk. Most developers and publishers are too busy with their own great ideas to have the urge to put in the hours on hours of work it would take to get your great idea off the ground. If it’s a unique and great idea, there’s even less risk.

Sharing is necessary in game design

If you don’t share your ideas, you can’t get other people to consider your game. If they can’t consider your game, they won’t be able to think about playing it, let alone publishing it. It’s really that simple. At some point in the development of your game you’re going to have to play it with others, or even better, step back and just let others play it without you. That means giving away your golden goose. They’ll have your game and the great idea that spawned it in front of them.

Add to that the fact that no publisher would publish a game sight unseen and game unplayed. It just won’t happen. They also most likely won’t sign NDAs regarding your design because really, who has time for that? It restricts them in a big way when there are lots of other people out there clambering to have their ideas seen without NDAs.

That’s just sharing a project that’s already at a phase where it can be played. If you share your ideas with others, perhaps not publicly but with a group you personally trust, you’ll get the feedback you’ll need to make your great idea better. Who doesn’t want a great idea to be greater? You can’t think of everything when it comes to game design so when you open up your idea to others, they may find flaws you hadn’t seen. They may uncover a great new use of a mechanic you also hadn’t seen.

Right now you also just cannot simulate playing the game with others. You need other people, preferably as many of them as you can drag to the table, to actually play your game. And you need them to do it as many times as possible to uncover any odd bits, bugs and aspects of your game that may be unbalanced. That can’t happen in a vacuum.

Any press is good press, and free press is the best press

Sharing your idea has another advantage. People who get interested in ideas for games tend to talk about them, or at least stick around to see what you’ll be saying about your idea. That’s an audience and a good audience is crucial for getting your product out there once it’s finished. That applies to your idea whether you’ll be giving it away, self publishing it or hoping to bring it to the masses through an established publisher. The more people who are eagerly anticipating it, the better. If your idea is actually a good idea, this is great. If your idea isn’t that great of an idea, you’ll find out right quick.

Getting people fired up about your idea, excited to see it and try it out for themselves, and looking forward to a polished and finished product is an amazing thing. And you can do it pretty much for free! All you’ve got to do is convey how interested and engaged you are with your idea to other people. Social media, blogging, conventions, local and national events – all are great ways to do this. Who knows, one of those people who are enjoying your enthusiasm may actually be a publisher keeping an eye on your idea to see what it grows up to become.

You build an audience by sharing and that audience is there because they want to hear what you have to say. They want to try your game, follow your ideas and see a finished product.

The Pros and Cons of sharing your great idea

Pros:

  • You’ll get feedback. If you share online, you’ll get nearly instant feedback. Feedback is necessary to develop your game.
  • A game publisher needs to see your game to even consider it for publishing.
  • Most creative types have too many ideas of their own to worry about stealing yours, but they may comment on it with useful ideas and criticism.
  • The more people who see your idea and jump on it from day one, the bigger following you’ll have when you do go to market with it.
  • You’ll develop an audience. People get excited about new ideas and like to see them turn into playable games. A game with a built in audience before it’s even published is a wonderful thing.
  • Other designers with a boat load more experience than you now have a chance to chime in as well. You’d be surprised how often they do.
  • You will be an inspiration to others.

Cons:

  • Someone may take your idea and get something to market before you do.
  • Your idea may turn out to be not all that great, and believe me you’ll hear about it if that’s the case.

What if my idea is truly game changing and unique?

If that’s really the case, then I’ll make the following prediction. You’re not only not going to have to worry about someone stealing it, but you’re going to have to ram it down all of our collective throats until someone actually sees what you mean and takes action to make it happen. This would represent a real change in gaming, and that’s a risk. People don’t like taking risks when it comes to sinking in a significant amount of time or money.

I wish you all the luck in the world because I love to see this industry shaken up by new things. To introduce a really new thing though, you’re going to have to work four times as hard as if you just had a plain old great idea.

Stop by the Game School G+ Community for more discussion on subjects like this. 

7 thoughts on “Game School: Keep it secret, keep it safe. Big ideas, secrecy and the new designer’s mistake of keeping it all inside.

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  1. That is a suck. It does happen, but it’s relatively rare and if it did happen to me, I wouldn’t hesitate to call out that company online. Or buy and play the game, depending on how well they did with it.

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  2. I still agree with Ben, George. If you had a great game, and the publisher made a crappy game, then they didn’t really steal your game, did they? Dust off that great game and share it with the world so it can finally be made.

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  3. Absolutely! The 80s were something of a different time as well. Information wasn’t as free and there certainly weren’t as many people designing games.

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  4. This article is interesting but could be slightly refined as follows. There are two kinds of ideas that find success. This applies to games or scripts or chair designs or play mechanics or hair styles. In other words, to anything creative. The first kind of idea that finds success arises from a herculean effort on the part of the idea’s creator to promote an essentially average concept. These are the kinds of ideas that, I gather, are generally referred to in the above article. They have some umph, but basically they will see daylight only because someone, usually their creator, invests an enormous amount of time, effort and money in their development. These are the kinds of ideas that I more or less agree should be shouted from tree tops at every opportunity. That’s true because they just simply are not so good that any other party, let alone many other parties, will just steal them and run. They are going to require tons of effort to happen, and people who get wind of them are just not going to take on that workload, especially when, generally speaking, there are boatloads of these kinds of average ideas out there, including probably a drawer full of them in every creative person’s studio. The actual success of these kinds of ideas grows out of perhaps a 10% value in the concept, and 90% of hard work, time, effort and money.

    The second kind of idea that finds success are those that are truly sublime. They are ideas that encapsulate a concept or process or design or thought in such a magnificently concise package that they are simply irresistible. They are the ultimate elevator pitch. The one when the other party stops the cab on the next floor so he can get a cell signal to alert his colleagues that there’s a blockbuster concept incoming in at 11 o’clock and to clear the desktops because it essentially trumps every other project already under way. These kinds of ideas also need hard work, time, effort and money. But the idea itself may carry up to 50% of the burden.

    These are the ideas that need NDAs and ULTRA careful attention to secrecy and discreteness. These are the ones you have to protect with EVERY precaution possible. The hard part, like many things in life, is to know which is which. I think one thing the article above is trying to say is, if you are a beginner, you probably think your idea is better than it actually is, so don’t limit your options by also keeping it secret. It might help to paraphrase Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer”, a valuable parable: God grant me the ability to create worthwhile everyday average ideas and every now and then a genuinely brilliant experience-altering magnificent bolt of lightning. And the wisdom to know the difference.

    If your idea is genuinely breathtaking, keep it close to your vest until all the ducks are in line. Unfortunately, it is usually impossible for beginners to know which ideas are genuinely breathtaking, which is why the advice given above has it’s place. The odds are your idea is not all that revolutionary. And it’s going to take everything you’ve got to find an audience for it. Including shouting it from tree tops.

    Another thought, the more complex an idea is (most RPGs for example), then maybe the less there is to loose by talking it up. That’s true because third parties are a lot less likely to steal an idea that takes a lot of brain power to get their mind around and to develop. If your idea can be tweeted, KEEP IT QUIET. If it needs an owner’s manual, then you are probably safe to blab about it on talk radio.

    Lastly, keep in mind that there are regulations about spreading ideas with and without NDAs that directly impact the patent-ablity of an idea. You might find that prematurely talking about your idea in public (or posting about it online, etc) might permanently disqualify it from earning legal protection should it in fact turn out to be one of those magnificent bolts of lightning. So be careful.

    Mike
    646 247 6483

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    1. Mike,

      You’ve got some great points! I’m going to disagree with some of them though. 🙂

      Unless you are planning on patenting something (such as WotC’s Magic: The Gathering system) you’re best not to play it close to your vest, sublime idea or not. Not every game designer is after a patent.

      The only, ONLY way I would sit on something and insist on NDAs and the like is if I planned on starting my own company around this revolutionary idea. Unless you’re a well established designer, you just won’t get through to existing publishers with an insistence of an NDA. Why would they bother, since they’re not going to take a risk on something entirely new, and possibly entirely unpublishable or unprofitable when they have their tanks overflowing with publishable and profitable ideas?

      If you the designer are planning on making a career around your revolutionary idea, go nuts. If you’re planning on having someone else publish it, leave the NDAs in a drawer somewhere.

      I still firmly believe, and feel I’m backed by how the industry works, that up and coming game designers will gain far, far more by trumpeting their ideas than they will be playing them close to their vests. You want to be heard, you want people to be talking about your games, you want publishers to hear chatter online.

      Of course, you should feel free to conduct your designing, publishing and playing activities in any way *you* see fit. I ain’t your boss and I can’t dictate how you should do your thing. It’s just my opinion.

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      1. As someone who might described as an “up and coming” game designer, I am inclined to agree with Ben to go with a public approach. The hard part with going the NDA route, even with something you think is the biggest innovation since magic the gathering, is how much more expensive it is time and money. Besides the cost of legal help to enforce something like an NDA, you also are cutting yourself off from all that free marketing you get from word of mouth and social media. I just don’t have money or reputation to afford worrying about someone stealing my idea for one game, as a designer I many ideas for games so if one get cribbed by someone its not like they have taken all my possible creativity ever. In addition being the unknown means I have a lot smaller target on the back of my head from random people I show my game to. So while I do have to worry about someone taking my game at the beginning stages of my path as a game designer my reputation is really worth that much to myself or others to out way the benefits of being public.

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