Sunday, May 16, 2010

NDA? No way.

On the Paper Money broadcast, the topic of NDAs (non-disclosure agreements) came up.  I think Ben brought it up in jest, and I responded to the topic.  The behavior in question here is the reluctance on the part of many newbie game designers to share what they've made with others.  In the most egregious cases, this manifests as something like expecting a game publisher to sign an NDA before even looking at a game design for potential publication. In less acute forms, it's refusing to post an idea, or to offer your game for playtesting, for fear of idea theft.

Are there individual cases where game designs have actually been stolen, submitted by the thieves, and published? Yeah, there are probably a few, although most of them are of the "I knew this guy who knew a guy..." unverifiable variety, and the others are often cases where somebody saw an idea, modified it, and came up with a better way to implement it. In my life, I know a guy whose mother (the story goes) invented Monopoly, and the idea was copied by a guest (Mr. Darrow) and sold to Parker Brothers. But even that story doesn't line up with other versions of history. My own uncle was convinced that his idea for a train game had been stolen by a company he submitted it to, but without knowing the details it's hard to evaluate.

But even if you're swayed by this kind of story, going into full paranoia mode isn't warranted, I think.  Here's why:
  • Your game idea isn't that good.  The odds that you have come up with a game even worth stealing are tiny.  It probably sucks, at least in its current form.  If you don't show it to anybody, it will continue to suck, alone, in the darkness.
  • Even if your game is good, your game idea isn't unique.  There are probably fifteen other people who've come up with a similar idea, so it can't really even be stolen from you. There aren't that many ways to get people to interact in a traditional game sense, so there aren't that many possible game designs.
  • Even if your idea is unique, your mechanics can't be protected. There's no way to copyright or trademark a game mechanic or theme.  I'm not a lawyer, but the rules are pretty simple to understand.  You can copyright text, artwork, and some elements of graphic design (these are easy to protect; it's nearly automatic as soon as you create it).  You can trademark words and artwork (these are significantly harder to protect). You can patent an actual physical invention or a method of doing something, but most boardgame patents are frivolous, over-broad, or end up being unpatentable.
  • Even if your game is good, your idea unique, and your concept somehow protectable, the odds that you'll get published are minuscule. And forcing somebody to sign an NDA before even looking at the thing almost guarantees that you'll not even get looked at.
So, there's no real benefit to being so paranoid. Your game will get better if you show it to other people. You'll get feedback; you'll see it in action; you'll get to make changes; you'll get it out there to be considered by the world. Smarter people than you will tell you what's wrong and how to fix it. You'll see people trip over obstacles that you never imagined were problems. And ideally, you'll have the joy of seeing your work appreciated by others.

So, I'm going for the full disclosure strategy.  I've had my game rules published on the web for six months now, so if anybody were to copy anything, it would be obvious where it came from. And because of this, and because of sharing the game with anybody who's willing to try it, I've had the benefit of feedback, commentary, and discussion. The world can be a nasty, backbiting place, but I haven't found the game design community to be so. I guess I'd rather take part in it and learn from it than hide behind the door with a shotgun.

UPDATE: Since writing this, I've run across this fine article by Shannon Applecline which addresses many of the same issues, with case studies.


  1. You forgot the most important reasons...

    - NDA's are a hassle so the publisher won't bother.
    - Being paranoid marks you as an amateur, so the publisher won't bother
    - NDA's are a liability : what if your game sucks, but the publisher already is working on a good game with a similar theme or mecanics, but done better ? You could do him some legal harm, albeit totally unfounded. It's a risk, so he won't bother.
    - Games publishing is a microcosm. Most pros knos each other, meet at conventions and fairs, and read each other's blogs and articles. Stealing someone else's work is very bad reputation-wise, especially in a microcosm.

  2. I covered some of that in my 4th item, but all very good points.