There is this great little card game out there called Plague and Pestilence. I am not sure how big it was in the rest of the world, but in So Cal it was all the rage during the beginning of the CCG era. I have been trying to track down the designers to see if we might be able to do a new version of this game with absolutely no luck finding them.
Turns out that this is not a problem, because I have recently been informed that I can just change the art and the name and publish it, and it’s completely legal to do so. The AEG version of this game is simply titled, THE PLAGUE, and will probably be coming out next year.
Well, there is one problem. I have to figure out how to get over the feeling that I am stealing that game—which is a bridge too far—so we are back to where we started and we are still trying to track down the designers. (Tray Green and Dawn Payn, if you see this, contact us!)
The sad news is that this is happening and it is just bad for gaming. Not illegal, but wrong.
There are people out there who have convinced themselves that because it’s not illegal they are not doing anything wrong. Companies and people doing this have different ways of convincing themselves that they are in the right.
There are the super fans … “I love this game so much, and the publisher is screwing us by not keeping it in print, so I am duty-bound to just publish it under a new name and with new art.”
Or worse, unscrupulous publishers “I found the designer/publisher in another country but we couldn’t make a deal – maybe it was just a language / cultural issue” or “I reached out to a designer and offered to make their game in the US, but they didn’t respond. So screw them, I’ll just publish it myself. I tried to do the right thing.” Did you?
“It’s not the same. Our cards are black and white, not red and white.” “it’s not a copy, we added one rule.” “It’s totally different – you get random elements from an app not a deck of cards”, etc.
How much difference is enough difference? Everyone’s games use some elements of other games; there’s no new game that comes wrapped in an entirely new package of components, rules, play patterns, etc. One of the questions we ask designers when reviewing their games is “what game is your game most like” – and that’s not a trick question, we honestly want to hear how the pitch fits into the ecosystem of existing game options that players have to consider
DID YOU KNOW? Maybe the biggest game of all time that was published without the original designer’s permission is a game called Legends of the Three Kingdoms published in China. That game was a simple reskin of the game BANG!. I am sure some people are saying, “If they did it, it certainly must be okay?”
This industry is built on trust. Heck, designers go to protospiel events and share their ideas with other game designers and people they have never met—and may never see again—to make their games better. They show off games years before they ever get published.
This is a small industry, but there are lots of people making games. We will occasionally go to a show and get pitched 4 different versions of the same idea or theme in a single day of meeting designers. Games inspired by other designs, games that put a new spin on a mechanic, and games that mix mechanics in new ways. Designers work hard to find that perfect mix of inspired game design that makes for the bones of a great game.
The result is that a number of games may get published with no unethical intent but which nonetheless share substantial similarities. That doesn’t feel like “stealing”.
Some designers may develop a game that is very similar to another game and never know until someone else tells them. There are tens of thousands of games. The design space can seem very limited especially to new designers. Sometimes similarity is just a coincidence.
But we worry about the fact that games (like a few other kinds of creative work including fashion and cuisine) don’t have strong legal protections and that lets people who can swallow their pride and ignore their ethical obligations publish work that they KNOW was really created by someone else. In the app gaming space on smartphones copying of games is immediate, rampant, and lucrative. We don’t want to see tabletop gaming acquire those attributes because we think it hurts the creativity and risk-taking that we need to see tabletop gaming pursue greatness.
Just because it is technically not illegal, copying is the thing that threatens the core of game design creativity, I personally think it breaks the glass on the creative trust we have built in this industry, shows a lack of character, and can only hope it is not rewarded in the future.