Vanity and the Downfall of Aspiring Game Designers

Written by Alex Harkey

Analog game design has grown steadily, or at least has appeared to grow steadily in recent years. Emergent paths to publication via crowdfunding and print-on-demand sources have given rise to a growing interest in boardgame design. Still, we face some recurring questions from new game designers which may indicate a concern I’d like to address.

What if someone steals my game idea?
How long does it take to get my game published?
How can I get more people to support my game on Kickstarter?

Idea Theft

All of these questions are common and entirely reasonable from a newcomer to game design and inspire generally positive and helpful responses in game design forums but seeing a flurry of these questions that included “I”, “My” or “Me” recently sparked an idea for this article which I hope you’ll find useful in your worthwhile pursuit of publication.

Avoid the greatest downfall of an aspiring game designer: the Ego.
What if someone steals my game idea?

I’m not sure exactly what perpetuates this question but there are a plethora of reasons why having your idea stolen shouldn’t be a significant concern for new game designers. Industry margins are small, game ideas are plentiful and there isn’t really much history of idea theft occurring to legitimize the scare. One of the best counterpoints observed by published game designers is the reality that publicity is a necessity in such a small market. In an article last year from Ben on Troll in the Corner addresses the idea of secrecy and covers how getting your idea out in the open allows for collaboration, feedback and the ability to build an audience for your game.

At the end of this article I’ve included links to several of my favorite game design blogs including recent articles by Tom Jolly, Daniel Solis, Gil Hova, and Nat Levan covering the concern of stolen ideas. They each covered the topic in great detail and are worth reading if only for re-assurance or for designers continuing to struggle with this concern.

Overbearance and Game Designers

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My interest in the question of “What if someone steals my game idea?” is the basis that we have a tendency to overvalue our own ideas relative to the ideas of others. For the variety of backgrounds, habits and opinions, Game designers frequently have two things in common:

  • We have an endless supply of ideas, many of which we’ll never even begin working on.
  • Many of the ideas we do begin will never (and probably should never) reach completion.

So why might I think everyone is interested in mine rather than their own? What makes a game worth stealing to begin with?

A Plausible Explanation

The psychological reasoning for overvaluing our own ideas is complicated but can explain how we perceive many areas of society. While game design ideas are intangible it may be simpler to start with tangible ownership as an illustration.

In behavioral economics the endowment effect is a fascinating observation in which people are willing to pay more to retain ownership of an item than to acquire something from someone else. This includes the idea of loss aversion in which people have a tendency to avoid risks and potential losses despite the opportunity for proportionally larger gains. Have you ever observed yourself or another gamer performing a sub-optimal decision in order to retain a territory, a special role, a scoring asset, or the ability to go first again next turn? We don’t want to lose what we have, even if there is something better available right in front of us.

Valued Ideas

So simply having possession of something is a powerful motivation to retain it regardless of its present or future value. I’d imagine this could similarly extend to intangible subjects with perceived value; ideas for inventions and investment ideas. I’d also fare to guess that this is even stronger in a mixture of creative or business interests in which game designers can envision bringing their own creation to market. Let’s dig deeper:

In his economic book titled Predictably Irrational, author Dan Ariely addresses this idea in great detail. Ariely discusses how ownership has six strange effects on us, including that ownership increases the perceived value of an object in our minds. Have you observed owners of particular boardgames become highly resistant to criticisms of the game in reviews or forum comments – perhaps even combative? We continuously have the urge to confirm our purchasing decision by suppressing the negatives and focusing on the positives.

Ariely also writes about how virtual ownership provides similar attributes in people. In his book he observes how auction prices on EBay can become inflated by the imaginative ownership of items even before the auction has ended, leading to a series of escalating bids beyond rational valuations. Have you observed backers on Kickstarter grow in enthusiasm simply because they supported an interesting campaign?

We reaffirm our own beliefs and decisions in life, adapting to circumstances and imagining others perceive things the same way we do. Three of the other ownership observations Ariely covers are the concepts that:

  • Our level of effort increases our perceived value.
  • We assume others share our perspective.
  • We tend to focus on losses.

All three points seem to collectively help to explain our concern about having our ideas stolen.

We reaffirm our own beliefs and decisions in life, adapting to circumstances and imagining others perceive things the same way we do. Three of the other ownership observations Ariely covers are the concepts that our effect increases our perceived value, we assume others share our perspective and we tend to focus on losses. All three of these seem to collectively help to explain our concern about having our ideas stolen.

When we work on out game ideas we become incredibly attached to their progression. I know I’ve been defensive about removing a particular mechanic or idea from time to time because I’ve observed how it has improved through development, even though it probably never belonged. All of the prototyping, playtesting, revision and development  elevates our perceived value of our ideas. We cherish our designs more simply by the amount of time and effort we invest..

We also assume others share our perspective. You know how much effort you’ve put into your flagship design and you expect others to appreciate it too. But you’ll also have a mixed fear that someone might take your idea to market before you and capitalize on all of that work. We have a tendency to focus on risk of losing designs despite of the benefit of getting our work in the hands of others (a frequent goal of game designers to begin with – why are we trying to avoid this?).

We can really find much greater benefit sharing our ideas with other brilliant designers and receiving the critical feedback that can turn our ideas from good to great.

Guidance for Playtesting & Publication:

While we overvalue our own creations another pitfall new game designers can realize far too late in the process is that there is a habit of under appreciating the need for others. Game designers frequently work alone or in small groups but there is an incredible amount of work that goes into the best published games each year by people who will never see their name on the box. Lets look at some thoughts that can make you a better designer long-term.

Filter

Filter out your worst ideas. I mention this first as I realized over the years that I have a lot of wonderful and willing playtesters who always wanted to see my next idea. You shouldn’t take every prototype to your playtesters just because you can. Playtesters aren’t the subject of your experiment; you are the subject of theirs. Avoid burning out your playtesters by solo testing and screening out your worst ideas. Take the successes to your playtest group.

Look for a diversity of opinions. Be both appreciative and skeptical of anyone who absolutely loves your new game. Game designers often playtest with the most readily available audience who shares enthusiasm for our interests: family and friends. These are also people whose opinions we value most and so we trust them for good advice and feedback. Unfortunately for the critical feedback game designs need, these same family and friends have a lifetime of positive influence on us and will often hold back their concerns. As you progress in developing your game you should seek to add fresh perspectives to your consideration.

It is tempting to want to complete a project quickly because it receives accolades from everyone you’ve tested it with but what is really the reality of someone designing a perfectly publishable game design all at once? Keep revising and look for more feedback.

Don’t assume you always know best. This may be the most universal message I can send to experienced game designers. Be open and consider new ideas rather than dismiss them and defend your original idea. You are the greatest limitation to your own game design. This is a difficult idea to accept but if you fail to consider the ideas of others because you feel you always know what is best you have effectively put a roof on a three story building when you originally envisioned a skyscraper.

The best work I’ve ever done started as a game about one thing and it gradually transitioned into a completely different type of game. If you keep detailed notes you can always rollback your game to a previous version and start again from there. Be willing to pursue the uncertainty of an idea you didn’t originally consider.

There is never a reason to become angry or defensive. Playtesting is the quality control of every great game idea. You shouldn’t get upset because you structured a game to work one way and someone plays it differently. You should appreciate their ability to see things differently and demonstrate something you never considered. Remember players are never playing your game “wrong” if they are playing within the rules.

You can design how others perceive your game but you can’t design the choices they make. If playtesters are making inferior choices which cause imbalances in the gameplay it can often be attributed to lack of clarity. Appreciate their efforts for enlightening you.

Be willing to admit what you don’t know. Sometimes we experience the game design equivalent of writer’s block and can’t find a creative solution. If your lovable playtesters aren’t kind enough to provide you a solution then set the game aside for now. Designing games takes time. Revisit it after several weeks or months with a renewed enthusiasm. Try any new changes and solo test them before taking it back to your playtest group.

Bad Ideas

Accept not your all ideas are great ideas. As you saw earlier our value of things increases as we input effort. It can be tough to accept but you need to be willing to release your ideas. The earlier you can identify this, the better designer you will become. Every design project you are resist cancelling takes away from your development time on the greatest game you haven’t designed yet. In all likelihood that game is probably a whole lot better than the one you are working on now.

The Most Important Idea Before Reaching Publication

Don’t rush it. The goal of many aspiring game designers is to finally get that first publication. We don’t do it for the money. There aren’t many accolades. But we all imagine the ability to hold that first shrink-wrapped copy of a game with your name on it. The reality is you may not get many shots so don’t waste the ammo. Who are your favorite game designers? Chances are if you can name them you follow their latest releases. You are a part of their following. You contribute to their success and they will have plenty more opportunities.

Now think about a game that really disappointed you, preferably one that you bought. Would you buy another game from that designer? Probably not, you’d want to play it first as you are probably skeptical. If it was a really terrible game you’ll remember their name and you’ll avoid it entirely in the future. Maybe it was their worst game by a mile and everything else is gold. You’ll be skeptical of positive opinions and reviewers. You may even avoid even playing someone else’s copy, because let’s be honest, there are a lot of games out there and plenty of great ones you haven’t tried. They’ve lost your confidence. It only took one game.

This isn’t about publishers, great games will get published. This is about gamers and your obligation to provide on your reputation. If you don’t complete a lengthy period of playtesting your first game could really burn your early adopters, those willing to take the biggest risk on you. If you’re familiar with marketing the cost to acquire a new customer is significant. The problem is those were the least expensive to acquire and by far the most important, they spread the word on your game, good or bad.

Further Exploration:

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7 comments on “Vanity and the Downfall of Aspiring Game Designers

  1. Alex K

    What is the game pictured in the top-right of the webpage?

    1. Alex Harkey

      Terra Mystica! We recently did a game design analysis of it and the photographer was kind enough to let us display their image. Beautiful game!

  2. Karlos Zafra Lorente

    “Don’t rush it” best piece of advice. I rarely have the right idea in the right time so learning to be patient is paramount to get a good design.

  3. Lucas Hedgren

    The book referenced by author Dan Ariely is titled Predictably Irrational.

    1. Alex Harkey

      Thanks Lucas! Indeed, a troubling typo I overlooked while editing. I appreciate your help.

    1. Alex Harkey

      Thank you, we’re always thrilled to receive feedback from readers, especially when the subject matter can be close to home like this.

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