At some point in time, every game designer who's been around for awhile has to deal with non-disclosure agreements, either because he or she is submitting a design or playtesting a design, to protect both parties involved. And, most people wonder, "What can I do if the company steals my design?" My answer to that is: not much. Copyright protects the text and images in the game — it does nothing about the mechanics, so it's pretty easy to rewrite a game with a different theme. Trademark offers you no protection at all for the mechanics of the game. There's patent protection, which is almost entirely limited to just the mechanics of the game, but you have to come up with a minimum of around $2000 (often much more) to patent a game, and since 95% or more of all game designs never see publication, this is a ridiculous risk.
But rest at ease, for the same reason it's hard to protect a game, it's also not worth the trouble to a game company to steal a game. Most companies have a backlog of games they want to publish — stealing yours is not only not worth their time, but it's also not worth the trouble and expense a pissed-off submitter is likely to cause. There are exceptions, there are always exceptions, but these are very, very rare and not worth losing sleep over.
However, in some cases, it still looks like a company stole your game. Having been in the business a few years, I've found this to be almost inevitable as a natural evolution of parallel design trains. What I mean is, coincidences do happen, and I've seen enough of them to know that that is all they are, coincidences. It is incredible to me how often I've observed two nearly identical game designs come out within months of one another, and that's what I'd like to talk about.
In my personal experience, I've had two games where this happened. One was called Knots. A month before it came out, Rubik's Tangle came out, independently designed and manufactured. It was a puzzle, mine was a game, so there wasn't really a "theft" problem here, especially since the designers involved had never met or talked to one another. But the tiles! Each tile had four ropes on it, passing from side-to-side of the 2x2" tiles. Not only were the rope-patterns on the tiles nearly identical, but the way the tiles linked up was the same. They were virtually interchangeable with my Knots game. This was just bizarre. Years later, I had another incidence occur, this time with a game I'd made, but never published, consisting of cubes with multicolored sides that rolled over on the 5x5 playing board, with the objective that you get your set of cubes adjacent to each other with the same color face-up. I was at a garage sale, and I came across some obscure game from Ideal that used exactly the same mechanic. I couldn't believe it, again. But then... this may have been a natural evolution from the Crazy Cubes puzzle of years ago.
Were either of these "stolen ideas?" Of course not.
Another example is the appearance of Throwing Stones and Dragon Dice, the first two collectable dice games, coming out within a month of one another. Was the idea "ripped off" by TSR from Gamesmiths, or vice-versa? No, it was just a natural evolution of games from the collectible card game (CCG) arena, the next obvious "collectable game" component. They both independently designed and published the same game concept (though their rules differed considerably).
And yet another example is the creation of Roborally and Robotanks. Once again, Gamesmiths came up with a design similar in many ways to Wizards of the Coast's design: players use programmed movement cards to move robots across the board. Unfortunately, there was a much bigger advertising budget behind Roborally, and it dominated the market, despite the fact that Robotanks was a very good game itself (Fat Messiah Games currently sells it). These also came out within months of each other. I'd seen both of them in their playtest form — I knew that nobody stole any ideas from anyone.
Another instance occurred while I discussed game design with my good friend Mark at a game convention. He started talking about a design idea he had and alarms went off in my head, because I was working on a nearly identical design. I held up my hand before he got into his second sentence, and said, "Wait, I'm working on a similar design, and I think you're about to describe it to me," or words to that effect. I then completed his game design description with my version of the design. Ultimately, if I ever published it, I didn't want him thinking that I'd stolen the idea from him. He was as surprised as I was — both of us had independently designed nearly identical space-combat games.
None of this is surprising to me anymore. Game designs, after all, are usually based at some level on existing designs, usually with some little tweak added to make them different. Once in a great while, a new paradigm comes along which completely changes the industry, like role-playing games, or CCGs. Lately, and more subtly, German game design philosophies have been emerging in American game designs. Non-turn-based games, like Icehouse and Falling, are a totally new concept in gaming, and new designs based on that concept are already entering the market. But the point is that game designs all come from common origins, and themes are usually limited to human experience, so design duplication is inevitable. If someone comes to me and says, "I've designed a great game about Asteroid Mining," I'll say, "That's nice. I've designed four. Three of them are mediocre, and I own at least two designed and published by other people. What's so special about yours?"
Bottom line is, if you're worried about getting your design stolen, you're probably worrying about nothing. If a company comes out with a game with the same theme as the one you submitted to them, they were probably designing it before you ever submitted. If you use game design elements derived from existing games already on the market, then the odds of someone duplicating your design are even higher. The trick is just to design something that's so off-the-wall and new, that no one else could possible have thought of it yet. Of course, there are a lot of crazy game designers out there, so that might be pretty tough.
- Tom Jolly