Designing Rewards in Games
Grey Market Blues

Should We Share Game Designs?

There is an issue on the fringes of the game design world which will doubtless come more tightly into focus at some point in the future. Should we share our game designs? Or should we continue to keep them to ourselves? Over at Lost Garden, Danc makes an impassioned plea towards design sharing. He argues:

  1. That game designs are merely a starting point. Which is generally accurate. Although it does depend upon the quality of the game design, and the skills of the game designer. It is certainly the case, as Danc suggests, that two people beginning at the same concept design will not end up with the same game.

  2. Unique mechanics are almost never copied. Which is partially true. It is the case, as far as I can tell, that no-one has ever copied a unique mechanic that didn't first make it into a released game.

  3. You can learn more by sharing than by hoarding. Which is true... but obscures the point.

  4. Two copy cats doesn't mean anyone is stealing. This point is not quite as well developed as Danc's other points, as the premise and conclusion differ. The conclusion that two similar games will not win or lose out in market terms based upon design issues because production values are more significant is a more key point than the fact that the zeitgeist often produces similar content. But both are valid points.

So I broadly agree with Danc... and indeed, I have suggested to other members of my team that we might consider sharing some of our concept designs with a wider audience. But why haven't I?

It's this sticky point number 3, I'm afraid. You see, Danc is right when he says:

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.

Which is spot on. Except, let's presume I'm not an absolutely horrible game designer. I'm actually one of the best game designers in the world. Let's say I'm at number 97 in the Top 100 Game Designers in the world (and, to be honest, I'd be lucky to make it in to the bottom of the table!). Which means there are 96 better game designers out there, but what are the odds that I will get feedback from those? [Note: the assertion above should absolutely not be taken literally!]

I have had one major brush with "open design". While working for Perfect Entertainment, I tried to lead an open design project with other employees of the company for a hypothetical RPG project. This experiment was a dismal failure for the following reasons:

  1. Most of the people were absolutely horrible game designers. They were amazing artists and programmers - but they didn't know a thing about designing games.
  2. They all had different play needs, but couldn't express them. The only way they had to express their needs was to look at what they were playing and enjoying and then suggest copying random elements they enjoyed in those games, regardless of how this would fit in the proposed project.
  3. Discussions on the design slowed progress to the rate of an asthmatic ant. We couldn't agree on anything, so nothing got done. Eventually, I was forced to abandon the attempt.

Now I appreciate that this situation is not the same as posting a design to a blog or wiki and then taking comments and contributions. But as a general rule, democratic game design or any other open game design process is a slow process, one with plenty of drag, and one that does not necessarily produce better results.

I still believe the role of the game designer is to co-ordinate the development of the game design. That is to say, the development team are making the game, the game designer is a facilitator who uses their skills to manage the design process, and to anticipate and prevent as many problems as possible. The more people the designer has to co-ordinate with, the harder this process becomes. In a large project, the game designer must deal with heads of departments rather than individuals - with the lead programmer and artist, for instance, rather than all programmers and artists.

If I wanted to explore open design (and I am tempted!) I would want, as a game designer, for the open discussion to be treated as another department. I could not shoulder the time responsibilities for the discussions, so I would need a 'lead diplomat' to deal with the comments and input from outside the project. I don't know where I would find the money to employ such a person, but if I had an existing game series I was continuing to develop for, there would be a certain obligation.

Why wait until the game exists? Because most people are absolutely terrible at envisioning a game from its design documentation. In fact, so awful are people at doing this, that we don't bother showing design documents to publishers any more (until there's a demo to show as well) because there really is no point. I might as well hand them a papyrus scroll in Egyptian hieroglyphics and tell them that we had found the game design in the Temple of Akhenaton.

If I were to publish some of the designs we're working on at the moment and invite comments, I suspect I would end up spending most of my time teaching people the design philosophy and methods that we use here at International Hobo - if only to explain why certain elements of the design are the way they are. I'm sure I'd learn a lot too, but I doubt it would be commensurate to the drain on my time. I'm content instead to keep regularly visiting Universities and giving guest lectures to students of game design. I learn a lot from these, especially if I can go out drinking with the students afterwards. I think it's a better use of everyone's time.

I support open game design. I think what Danc is doing at Lost Garden is fantastic, and I support it to the hilt. But I'm not quite ready to try it myself.


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You bring up some great points, Chris. My business partner and I are focused on creating a transparent design process and you've clearly expressed some of the nagging issues I've been trying to put my finger on.

I think converting a studio's process to an open system would be incredibly challenging. Building one from the ground up will have its own challenges, I know, but somehow it seems more possible.

We'll see how it goes. The rewards could be well worth the challenges, I think.

Incidently, Design Synthesis came at this topic from an audience perspective a while back (look for a post titled "Sore Thumbs and Manifestoes" from 8/11). It's a very impassioned plea and good food for thought as well.

Thanks for the tip. I have to say, I've been thinking about the whole open source issue... Can indie games afford to be open source?

Well, we'll keep you posted on how we do!

From what Martos and I have discussed, I'm not sure we could afford not to be open source.

I'm guessing you're on PC... open source makes more sense there. What about indie games on consoles?

Yes, we're planning on being PC (Win/*nix/OS X) based. Of course, by the time we're ready to release a flagship product, we could be into the next-next-gen consoles and who knows what that'll be like? I suspect that online delivery will become quite standard for all platforms and that might have a dramatic effect on developing for consoles.

One of the interesting things about planning this far out, as we are, is that you have to leave a lot of flexibility in your plan, which I think is going to stand us in quite good stead long term.

So, who in theory would have access to this design doc? Would even fans/gamers (ie non-industry people) be able to see things like this? That seems like a trainwreck waiting to happen. Not only that, but the immense deceleration caused by the design by committee process just sounds like it would greatly length development time. I'm a pretty strong believer in the concept of the auteur, and that too many cooks would spoil the pot. Since so few people understand good game design, it seems like it would be a poor idea to give that many people access to the games foundation.

Now, post-release I completely agree with the idea of disclosure. A lot can be learned from the hindsight of others, and being able to analyze both a game and its documentation would be insightful and useful to other designers. During actual production however, it doesn't seem like it would be very beneficial to disclose everything.

The core design doc would not, as I picture it, be available to the public, not until post release, at any rate. Nor does our plan allow for design by committee. Ultimately, once input is gathered from the involved parties, one person has to make the call. the majority of input will come from the development team. Community polls and feedback from demos of various game components will also play a roll in that, but since I'm the one with the central vision of our flagship title, the final arbitration lies with me (unless I'm so far over budget that my BP has to step in).

As my BP and I were discussing at our last meeting, transparency means full disclosure of business practices and design plans, but discretion should dictate when that disclosure should happen. We'll be very open about that with our community as well. Transparency will sometimes mean explaining that information exists, but cannot be shared yet.

I have seen so many small studios build up a super rapport with their fan base during early development, only to blow it once they ink a publishing deal and have to start being more careful about the information they can and cannot share. Invariably, one or two of their strongest (i.e. the pundit with one of the biggest soapboxes) becomes alienated and turns on the game. How much damage does that do to the bottom line? I don't know, but we feel it's an avoidable situation with the correct transparency/reticence balance.

So sharing is good, but there are specific groups with which we should share. I've certainly tried telling my grandmother about my latest game design when she expressed a passing interest in how I spent my time. However, she was not the proper audience.

I was actually imagining something closer to a writer's workshop (or perhaps than an open source blasting of the design accross the internet. Game design is its own discipline with its own language and skills. The example about trying to get artists and programmers to design is an apt one. The result is often no better than the feedback my grandmother gave me.

Instead, imagine a forum (or lots of forums) focused on game designers talking to game designers. Imagine a culture of sharing where it is okay to talk about your design before it is finished. Imagine a culture of informed and constructive criticism that is held by other members of the forum such that your participation is valuable.

I believe that fans, in some form, can partipate in this process. However, it needs to be more rigorously defined than merely a forum post by a ranting ninny. There's a stage-gate product development process I've been meaning to write up one day that unifies developer and designer content. You earn the right to critique by creating quality product of your own.

But before any of this can happen, designers need to stop being so irrationally paranoid. :-) First things first.

Great article,

Your passion for sharing designs is inspirational, Danc. I'm still seeing problems where you're seeing opportunities. But I want to believe.

I don't think forums are the way to do it... students and young designers may have the time to read a lot of different design documents, but the older game designers (especially those with families) will not.

Perhaps what is needed is a system of patronage or 'design exchange programs'. Let me plant your seed in the back of my mind and see what germinates...

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