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