Post by: Grant Rodiek
Friend and fellow designer Kyle Van Winkle asked me if I’d ever written about a moment where I thought I had a killer idea or mechanic, only to find someone else has already done it. The answer, is that I’ve been in that situation, but I hadn’t written about it.
So, let’s do that.
When I started working on Dawn Sector (previously Battle for York) in March of 2012, I was chasing a few elements I thought would make the game more unique:
- 2-4 player war game with no player elimination
- Short play time of about an hour
- Entirely card driven. No dice!
Now, even then, and certainly not now, I wasn’t foolish enough to believe those three things hadn’t been done before. But, I was examining the landscape of games to play and found myself frustrated by the lack of options along the first two bullets. And the card only idea seemed like a good challenge.
Around May or so of 2013, after over a year of development, I discovered the game Horus Heresy. It had many similarities to my game, at least regarding its combat mechanic. Then, I discovered the game Kemet, which also had many similarities. Very close similarities. This all broke me like an avalanche hitting a flan lying on the mountain slope. Why is the flan there? It isn’t important. My internal (and to some degree, external) response was: why the hell bother any more? I’m years too late.
Luckily, I bucked up, found an amazing publisher (Portal), and we created a unique beast that, yes, still has some similarities.
Here are the realities you need to face.
- It’s 2014. There is very little in the way of mechanics that hasn’t been discovered or attempted. In my case, three different designers set out with a similar goal and arrived at a similar solution. You know what that means? A lot of the other solutions were garbage. My design partner, Joshua Buergel, has over 3000 games. He reminds me constantly of a game that has done it before. At least in some way.
- Few games are a single mechanic. Yes, your game uses worker placement, but it pairs it with dice. Or it pairs it with drafting. Or it uses it to fuel a war game. Mechanics in a game aren’t additive, but multiplicative. The uniqueness that springs forth from these pairings can exponentially affect the overall design.
- Too much innovation and uniqueness is overwhelming. Players can only absorb and glean a few new elements. Even if you are brilliant and can create new mechanics, you should do this sparingly.
That might feel rather bleak, but it’s not meant to be. If anything, this is a pep rally, especially for newer designers. I don’t want you to break like I almost did a few years ago.
I think your overall game needs to be unique. I think your overall design MUST bring something new to the table. I’m super proud of Dawn Sector’s balance that keeps players in the game until the end with no elimination and relatively fast pace of play. The battle mechanic is neat and adds a lot of variety to how things evolve. And me and Portal have done some really cool things with dynamic events and such that vary a game with many other deterministic elements. Plus, factions!
In Sol Rising, you can see the finger prints of other games all over it. You’ll read the narrative and think Mice and Mystics and The Expanse/Honor Harrington series. You’ll see the events system and think about Robinson Crusoe’s exploration tokens. You’ll look at ship abilities and think about Summoner Wars.
But, the mix of fleet oriented tactics, how the events affect play, the smooth pace, and unique objectives and scenario balance make this a very unique package. Plus, it only takes an hour to play. And there’s a team campaign.
Had I been bogged down by those individual elements being derivative I’d never get out of bed. A few weeks ago I posted a community post asking about eureka moments. One of my favorite designers, Ignacy Trzewiczek had this to say, which I think is apt:
“Let’s face it – I don’t believe in Eureka moments. I don’t believe that I will ever have this brilliant idea, that moment of enlightenment that will let me invent something that awesome like Worker Placement mechanism (William Attia in Caylus), Deckbuilding mechanism (Donald X. Vaccarino in Dominion) or Pay With Cards mechanism (Tom Lehman in San Juan). It won’t happen. I just sit on my ass and work hard trying to use already invented tools and mechanism to build something fun and entertaining. I have not had many Eureka moments in my life, and yet, I managed to design couple of fun games. So my advice for you is – don’t wait for Eureka moment. Just sit on your ass and work as hard as you can. That’s all you need.”
To counter this, my friend Corey Young, who designed the very clever and innovative Gravwell, shudders at the thought of releasing a derivative game. If you follow him on Twitter, you know this! He seeks to craft unique mechanisms, whereas I seek to craft unique products, knowing full well I’m borrowing heavily in the weeds. Neither methods are incorrect, nor is one simpler than the other.
Therefore, what do you do when you discover that your killer idea is someone else’s killer idea? You keep working on it. You re-examine it through a new lens. You pair it with a mechanic or component that nobody has done before. But most importantly, YOU continue to make the game YOU want. All of us are unique in our tastes and manner of thinking and development. If you give the game time via development and testing, you’ll begin to see a wide distance between what you crafted and what has come before.
Don’t break, don’t give up, and don’t fret the borrowing. Consumers want great games. They want to be entertained. Make something original, either in part, or in whole, that satisfies those qualities.
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I absolutely agree. The goal of game design shouldn’t be to prove your creativity by designing something unique in as many ways as possible. When designing a game, you should be thinking of the emotions/reactions you want to provoke and use all you can to achieve that.
My friend’s drama teacher, when he was doing a retelling of an old play, recommended that he watch the original after he had started, but before the end. That seems like good advice.
Wherever your inspiration comes from, go down your own path and explore that. But purposefully seeking out the games that explore similar territory will allow you to apply some of the lessons they learned and make your game a better play experience, whilst still hopefully making it recognisably unique overall.
Excellent post, Mr. Rodiek! And fantastic point, Mr. Shahriari! I wanted to just chime in with my agreement on the post (because it is a topic which needs discussing), but found myself struck by the commentary. I’ve been struggling through 2 years of the process blindly, but have found what Mr. Shahriari says to be true. Explore your inspiration, try to gleam lessons from similar projects, and then refine. Great stuff!
I experienced a similar heart-wrenching discovery as Mr. Rodiek. A year and a half into developing my pet game, I discovered Pairs. Which does amidst exactly what I was trying to do: create uniquely themed decks, of the same content, for a group game. Both games had the same idea: pretty pictures primary, a number on the card secondary. I was able to get over it because the 2 games ultimately play out so very differently. Pairs is basically The Great Dalmuti; Top Deck is kinda like an amped up War.
Anyway, thanks for continuing to produce great reads, sir!
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