Afraid someone will steal your idea?

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I'm a board game designer. It's a fun, creative, scary job and worlds away from my former career in corporate advertising. In both fields, there is a high value placed on ideas, especially "new" ideas. No one wants to get scooped. Be it an ad campaign or a board game, you want to be the first out the door with it.

So it may seem odd that I've spent ten years blogging my game design process. Every one of my harebrained concepts and fully-formed prototypes go up live, viewable by everyone.

The question I get most often is: "Aren't you afraid someone will steal your idea?"

To those who ask, the real thing I hear you saying is: "I'd be afraid of someone stealing my idea."

I get it! You're really proud of your new game mechanic or your original theme or some other thing about your precious IP that is gonna be worth bajillions. Pride in your work is good! It keeps you going in the dark times when you wonder whether you'd be better off with some other hobby, like tortilla golf.

But that pride can also give you some weird expectations, like that anyone else cares nearly as much about your idea as you do. That's not meant as an insult against your idea, it's just a necessity of the creative field. If anyone cares as much about your game idea as you do, they'd already be spending the late nights and long hours it takes to playtest, develop, cry, revise, cry, and playtest again until the idea is a proper game.

Wait, you are putting in those long hours, right? Please don't tell me you're worried about someone stealing your idea before you've put in that development time. Please don't tell me you've researched patents, copyrights, NDAs, and trademarks before you've even tried playtesting. Please don't tell me you're only playtesting with people closest to you, who therefore have a vested interest in not breaking your heart. You're not doing all these things, right? Of course not, that would be foolish. That paranoia is just an excuse not to do the work.

Here are a few things I've learned from years of designing games in public. I hope some of these observations are relevant in your own creative field.

The truth about ideas

Ideas aren't that special.

Seriously, a cool idea isn't a game in and of itself. Antoine Bauza was recently awarded the Game of the Year award at the Essen game festival in Germany. He won it for the tiny cooperative card game Hanabit, in which players hold their cards backwards and rely on each other to get accurate information about their own hands. Now, he didn't just roll up and say, "Hey, I want to make a game where you hold your cards backwards and have to work together!" and get the Spiel de Jahres handed to him. No, there was a ton of work and two separate publications before Hanabi got recognized for its brilliance and became a commercial hit.

Ideas don't reveal emergence.

Even if your idea is 100% original, the idea alone isn't valuable, it's the work of revealing emergent properties that makes the idea valuable. Taking Bauza's Hanabi example again: For a game that elegant, you know there was a lot of time put into every design decision. With so few mechanics, everything becomes that much more important. How many suits should be in the deck? How many cards of each rank should be in the deck? What's an average score across one hundred games? How do people communicate with each other in play? None of these questions get answered unless the "idea" becomes a reality at the table. There are uncountable emergent properties that just don't reveal themselves until you playtest.

Your ideas are stolen... from someone else.

I've got a closet full of unfinished ideas that never made the final cut for whatever reason. Ideas everywhere! Seriously, here, have some, I have too many. We've all got them, and chances are that not one of them is at all original. Not mine, probably not yours. We can't escape the design milieu of our times, we can only respond to it, iterate it. We are adrift on the flow of style, whether we realize it or not. A simple example: Try thinking of a new chess piece. Go ahead, maybe it moves like a bishop, but limited to two spaces? Maybe it moves like a King, but two spaces if it moves forward, and can only capture diagonally? Okay, now take a look at the hundreds of chess pieces out there and see if you can find some empty space left to explore. Is this sobering? Yes. Is it discouraging? Hell no. 

Your idea alone is not a game.

Let's get zen for a bit. If a game goes unplayed, is it still a game? Is it only a game while being played? These are the questions I have for you if you're more concerned about jealously guarding your precioussss instead of actually putting it in front of as many people as possible. Your idea is not a game. Only your game is a game. Even then, it's only a game if people are playing it. That means you have to actually make prototypes, write rules, and face the social awkwardness of asking strangers to play this thing with the added caveat that it may not even be fun. That is what will make your idea valuable. And guess what? When the game is fun, the victory will be so much sweeter.

Value takes a while. A long while.

All that to say... No, I'm not worried about someone stealing my ideas. Exactly the opposite, in fact. I wouldn't be here if I wasn't so open and public about my design process. I've been doing this in public for over a decade now. But when I started? Yeah, I was worried about it.

It started in 1999ish when I designed a fan-made World of Darkness RPG about sentient zombies, called Zombie: the Coil. There was a gap in the WoD mythos that I thought I could fill. And boy, did I fill it with every contrived faction, inconsistent mechanic, punk-rock posturing, and gothic whininess that I thought a proper RPG was supposed to have. I just copied the structures from existing White Wolf properties of the time and wrote within those constraints and posted the results on my crap website.

Then I got worried about White Wolf stealing my idea. I heard they were releasing Hunter: the Reckoning and that it featured zombies. Oh no, zombies in the World of Darkness? Crap! All my writing was for naught! Nevermind that I didn't even try properly pitching it to White Wolf in the first place. Can you imagine the naive audacity? I crib wholesale from White Wolf's books and then I get worried about them looking at my stuff? Get it together, teen Daniel. Zombie: the Coil sucks. But, keep at it, you'll find your design mode in about 15 years. (Also, teen Daniel, stop wearing a trench coat in Florida. You look like an idiot.) Needless to say, White Wolf did just fine for itself in the 90s without my tiny contribution. But working through that fear, just getting comfortable showing my work to other people and holding it up for critique: that was valuable. And, then I went on to design plenty more rubbish games.

No genius. No mystique. Only work.

Don't buy into the genius mystique. It is a mirage. Maybe there are geniuses out there, but you can't go assuming that you're one. That's like living as if you're going to win the lottery on a regular basis. No, the value comes from the work and no one's going to do more of it than you. Buy a pizza for your playtesters. Agonize over game terms. Completely scrap three prototypes in a row and start over again. That is the craft, the work, of game design. So get back to it!

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Art director by day. Game designer by night.


Thanks for helping us get a grip on this issue which I see is a common one in the online world. I find the same fear of theft working in the online art world where almost every artist has threatening copyright notices, huge destructive watermarks, and the annoying right-click menu disabling javascript. The funniest thing about it all is the artwork they're vigorously trying to protect isn't worth stealing; it's all some sort of fantasy in their head, or the "genius" thing that you've suggested.

My day job as an art director constantly presents that problem. I'll be searching for illustrators and usually the least experienced ones will have those giant watermarks across their images. The real pros are confident enough with just a signature and contact information as a footer for the image. That, more than anything else, is extremely helpful when I'm looking to hire an artist.

Wish you would research how out of control some of the things have gotten.. They are using your ideas to interface with gov. computers local computers an cell phones to steal disability money , steal bank money an to even steal money fro pnone services. To inlighten you more check out research on high frequencies an the implications for sybliminal messaging as well as effects on the human brain // moods /./ ECT... tjhese have all been inturgrated with programs snatch from your system,,, help us put a stop to it.... WE THE PEAPLE FOR THE PEAPLE FOR WE ALL ARE THE PEAPLE>>>> Thank-you

This is the best piece of advice I have read in a long time. Working in a startup environment I always get this kind of questions and I always explain to people that I believe an idea is worthless without research and development... now I have a great post to hand out :) Nice work, love your games!

Oh man, this is so confrontational! :)
Yes, I worried about NDA's, copyrights etc. Being a bit further down the process now; I understand exactly what you mean.

It's very reassuring to read from someone with a successful experience that I can actually stop worrying about someone "stealing" "my" idea (which I think deep down I knew already...)

I'm eager to further develop my idea now! :)

Thank you...

I think you've perfectly articulated a feeling I've struggled with putting to words for quite some time in my creative life.

It's laughable how much "ideas" are similarly viewed/valued in the photography world. In the end, it's all about doing.

Thank you!

So why do you think all major companies develop their products in secret? Why would Apple have a paranoid secrecy policy if ideas aren't worth it and only execution counts? Why are patents the big thing in industry? Is Rovio developing their games in the open? Or is this advice and "wisdom" only applicable to single individuals whose ideas are necessarily worth nothing -until execution- according to you and only if they become a company are then "allowed" to keep their ideas in secret?

When a company is developing in secret, what they're worried about "first mover advantage". It's a concept that is hotly debated in business schools. And certainly from a game theoretic point of view, it's a valid strategy. But you have to take into account what you're giving up by building in secret, not just that you gain first mover advantage.

This author is trying to point out disadvantages to developing in secret, while downplaying first mover advantage. And I think they're all valid points. Especially as you point out single individuals might benefit most from the author's points. I'd agree that an individual who worries about first mover advantage such that they stop moving, has no advantage at all. A large company can pay for feedback about their products while keeping them largely secret. Not so for an individual, which means they end up sitting on an unrealizable idea since they can't get any of the feedback necessary to make a good product.

The open source development model is the opposite of this. The development happens in the open. Transparently. You can see the innovations happening almost real-time. No secrets. Ideas worth stealing I guess, but better if you jump in and contribute.

IMHO, the whole "first mover" concept is a myth, and here's why I believe this way.

The "first mover" may have a perfectly valid idea, but no effin' idea how to really implement it. The PDA craze back in the 80's and 90's is a perfect example. Everyone and their aunt's brother-in-law tried to put out a PDA, and they all tanked, until Palm finally put together a paradigm that actually clicked with the marketplace. 12" optical "movie" disks are another example: Great idea, suck implementation.

Second, (in a sense a restatement of the first point), just because someone has an idea, doesn't mean you can't improve on it - or make it your own - in some unique way.

As an example, I have a (small) computer consulting business and my target audience is the micro-business niche. These are people who desperately need competent IT help, but can't afford the 200 bazillion dollar per hour rate that others charge.

You wanna "steal" my idea, go for it! The pay stinks, the hours stink, but when you see a small healthcare business get put under the Medicare audit microscope - and pass! - the gratification is priceless.

So go ahead and steal my idea. Give me your address while you're at it so I can send you a case of Zantac and some Prozac samples.

What say ye?
Jim (JR)


I like the following part:

"Your ideas are stolen... from someone else."

Two quotations immediately pops to mind:

"Freely you have received; freely give." Said by Jesus in gospel of Matthew 10:8.

"If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." By Isaac Newton.

Everything we discover today is built on top someone elses discoveries. This has been the case through history and we should acknowledge it and be humble before this fact.

Good One.

the last part of it got me back! Thanks!

I'm completely new (but have an idea!) that will require utilizing contract programmers through O-desk or Elance. Do I not need an NDA with the company I choose?

Hi, thanks for sharing your views.
The framalang translation team has translated your text into French, you can find it here :

You gave me my inspiration for the day, thank you sir.

One question though: how would you react if someone actually made a game based on an idea you showed on your blog?

Thanks! Every paragraph of this column was helpful for me.

Trained as a musician, I'd say most of those thoughts resonate; music shares with game design the property that it isn't really what it is until the real-time execution involving the ultimate consumer. It also shares with game design the property that neither is absolutely necessary to the consumer at any particular point in time. (Some of us NEVER play computer-hosted games and rarely play the old-fashioned kind. Really.) Ideas do get recycled, revised, reused. That's fact, that's history.

It's also history that the guy who invented the windshield wiper intermittent delay device saw a lot of money going to others for his realized idea before he saw enough to notice himself, and then only after legal action.

It's common sense to consider where the value is in an idea, whether it's primarily in the use (methods of work), the finished product (quality of execution), uniqueness, marketing, or whatever. If you think of something that would help Apple sell 500K more Macbooks this year, that has value to Apple, not to you. If you make a better, more durable tractor, a great part of the value may be durability - can you get paid for that? If you make a better hand soap, there's not much durability - and that's potentially money in your pocket - unless someone else can convince consumers theirs is "better", whether or not true. And some ideas are best given away, while others need to be mothered and nurtured to fruition in a quiet womb-like space.

Love this post, Daniel. "The idea alone is not a game." Yep! The idea alone is also not a creative product for any kind of working creative. Already referencing this post for some of our creative clients who are either feeling impostor syndrome about their ideas or feeling hesitant to put the inner workings of their ideas out there.

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