Monday, August 31, 2009

More about Patents

Yehuda B. has tracked game patents for some years (example: The obvious and often impossibly useless nature of these patents only reinforces the idea that the patent office is incompetent, and that patent lawyers prey on the hopes of foolish inventors every day. I think most would fail in court because they're too obvious, or because or "prior art" (the "product" already being in use for a considerable period before the patent was filed).

Yehuda is doing a great service. I've read some patents and know how confusing and obscure they can be. He often cannot figure out just what the heck the filer is talking about.

Owing to limited time I only read two blogs regularly, both by video game designers now in academia who understand the value of using non-electronic games; yet I know that Yehuda's blog is very worthy of your attention.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Patents and games

Note: I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice.

Non-electronic and video games are rarely patented, both because it is expensive ($3,000-$10,000) and because a patent only protects a particular expression of an idea. Ideas alone are not patentable, though a business process may be. At least, that's how it is supposed to work. Patents are supposed to protect inventors from predatory companies who steal their product (not their idea) and mass produce and undersell the originator--something that used to be quite common long ago. Patents protect a particular expression of an idea in a product. Further, you're not supposed to be able to patent the obvious, because it's obvious. But somewhere along the line the patent office in the USA lost track of what it was about, and started to let people patent ideas, sometimes obvious ones, rather than particular products. One well-known game patent is for "tapping", turning a card sideways, in Magic: the Gathering. TAPping probably shouldn't be patented, and I don't think it would stand up in court because it's so obvious; further, other CCG makers seem to get around it, probably by giving it a different name.

So the telephone patent, if it had not actually expired, could not be used to stop Skype. BUT if the patent office had acted then as now, the patent would be for any long-distance communication over a wire (even though it was already done with the telegraph, of course), and would interfere.

I read some time ago that the patent office was going to allow someone to patent a particular plotline for a story. The patent-holder was then going to require royalties (in the manner of "patent trolls") from anyone whose story vaguely resembled that plot. This would be a true disaster, as well as just plain stupid, but I've heard nothing more about it so maybe the patent office had an attack of sanity.

Here is where the bull-in-a-chinashop behavior of the patent office has interfered with games. At GenCon Mike Gray of Hasbro pointed out that the big problem with non-electronic games, especially in the mass market, is that someone has to read the rules. I myself have advocated including a DVD in the game box with a video that is, for all practical purposes, someone teaching the game owner how to play the game. Publishers (including Hasbro) don't want to go for that, because of the expense. But Mike told me that the idea of someone calling an automated phone number to be taught how to play a game had been patented! This is a patent of an idea, which should not be allowed (especially because it is obvious), not a patent of a particular product; but the result is that anyone using this method would be required to pay royalties. And game players (and designers) suffer as a result.

I have tried but failed to find this patent through Google. What I did find was pretty interesting, some game patents that I'd say are "really strange", or really obvious.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Why Design Games?

A form of this article appeared on gamecareerguide, January, 2009. You can click the post heading for the original.

Why design games?

“I’m going to make a lot of money designing games”. This is a common notion, but rarely true in practice. Even in the video game industry, few game designers “get rich”. They usually work for a game developer full time, work fairly long hours, and aren’t paid particularly well (there are exceptions), because so many people want to be game designers. In fact, on average they’re paid less than the programmers, and no more than the artists! They are not paid royalties, though they might get a bonus for a game that sells very well.

Moreover, in the video game industry, people are rarely hired off the street as game designers. Instead they must serve an apprenticeship of many years as testers or (if they’re lucky and good) as level designers, or in other non-designer positions. Is the money they might eventually make worth it?

In non-electronic games, most designers are freelancers (like novelists) and barely make a profit. A few of the most famous, such as Klaus Tauber and Reiner Kniza, can actually become millionaires as freelancers. A few work for big companies such as Hasbro (which owns Parker Brothers, Milton Bradley, Wizards of the Coast, and Avalon Hill amongst others). The typical boardgame, card game, RPG (role playing game), or CCG (collectible card game) does not bring in the revenues of video games, and royalties are low, so most freelance designers have a “day job” just as most novelists do. Amongst novelists, Glenn Cook, most well known for the “Black Company” fantasy novels, wrote while commuting to his day job at a General Motors assembly plant, a job he retired from. Alan R. Moon, a very well known boardgame designer who has won two of the very important German Game of the Year awards, has said he would have had to get a part-time job if not for his second win with Ticket to Ride.

One observer suggested you could spend the time you use to design games, and instead pick up cans and bottles for deposits and recycling fees, and make as much money.

In other words, don’t design games in order to make a lot of money, because you probably won’t. You may not make any money at all.

But please, if you're going to call yourself a "game designer", then design seriously. Don't be a dilettante, don't dabble in it rather than do it half-heartedly. Or design just for yourself, but don't call yourself a "game designer".

Game designers as a group suffer from people who call themselves game designers, but work on just one game, produce a weak (though possibly pretty) prototype, don't alpha test it, and then inflict it on volunteer playtesters who walk away with the opinion that so-called game designers are "amateurs", or that "heck, anyone could design a game that weak". If you can't play your game solo, why expect anyone else to play it? Get your game to a decently enjoyable state before you inflict it on others, or you'll give game design a bad name.

Recognize also that in the "outside world", you won't get much respect. People who don't play games, or who only play traditional games on holidays (as many older people who aren't into video games), tend to assume that game design is easy, that it's "kid's stuff" that any adult can manage to do. So why respect someone who designs games? Or worse, they may wonder why any adult would be "playing with games" instead of doing something productive with their lives! (My 80-year-old English mother-in-law cannot understand why I spend my time teaching young people how to design games--though I'm paid to do it. To her it's just not an adult occupation.)

Even if you do well, you won’t be famous (again with a few exceptions). Yes, we know who Sid Meier is, or CliffyB (but that’s because he blogs), but mostly we know designers by their works. How many know who Carmack and Romero, or Will Wright are? But mention their works (Doom and Quake, The Sims) and they're recognized. I’m lucky to have a very unusual name, but more people know me through games, especially Britannia, than through my name. A game designer may be the “least unfamous” person among his friends and acquaintances, but he’s not famous the way an athlete or actor may be famous.

So if it’s not money or fame, what is it? Why design games? There’s the thrill of making something out of nothing, as an artist does with pen and paper, a composer does with music, a painter does with canvas and brush, etc. It may not be quite like what a woman feels when she bears a child, but it can be something like it.

Perhaps you’re driven to do it, the way some people are driven to write novels even without an expectation of publication. Perhaps you enjoy being creative, and this is your chosen field. When I came back to designing boardgames as an older person, after being “away” for twenty years, it was the realization that this was the best way I had to touch a large number of lives, if only through entertainment. Or you may love the thrill of seeing your game on the shelves, or of being asked to sign a copy of your game. It can certainly be a rush.

At Origins Game Fair 2008, as I was sitting at a booth talking to a boardgame publisher, someone walked by, evidently saw my name tag, shook my hand, said something like "Britannia is an excellent game, thank you for getting it back into print", and walked off. There's no substitute for that, folks, or for hearing someone say “I love this game”, when they’re talking about one you designed, or to hear someone say they’ve played your 4-5 hour game more than five hundred times. Not many people get to experience that.

You can love game design for many reasons. For me, it is truly fascinating to play your brand new prototype for the first time, not because it will be all that much fun (at this point it probably won’t be), but fascinating to see how things work or don’t work the way you expected, to “see what happens”, to puzzle out how to improve it. It’s also fascinating to watch the first time other people play, and perhaps see how different the game works than when you played it solo. Design because you like to design games, and like the “incidents”. It’s rarely a living, but it’s cool.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Game Crafters (POD games)

Recently a POD (print on demand) game producer came online, (you can click on the title of this post). I wondered whether they were actually legitimate, but at GenCon I found the company booth and spent some time talking with them.

They are still experimenting and figuring out how to make their business work efficiently. One of their problems is in sending games to individual consumers. They have a more or less industry-standard size box (10+ by 10+ inches), but have been relying on the box as a shipping container, and UPS has been clobbering many of them. They have a small sturdy box for games that are primarily or entirely cards, but it's much too small to ship safely via UPS. They are thinking of shifting to US Postal Service for shipping to consumers, which will certainly be better for the small boxes and might work better for the large ones. (Among other things, the games can be insured and fulfillment of insurance would be someone else's problem, not Gamecrafters.)

I learned from Ben Clarke of ImagiGrafx in GenCon seminars why games have an insert (which Gamecrafter has not used): to prevent the pieces shifting around inside the box during shipping. TGC has indeed seen some problems because of shifting, and may have to use an insert, which will of course raise their prices some.

I referred them to EAI Education online for pieces in general and the lovely stackable pieces that so many players like. I also suggested they do something like what Lost Battalion does (they also use POD machines): offer to print "pieces" on stickers, and include some kind of blank piece (Lost Bn uses wooden disks) so that player can stick the stickers on the pieces. This would allow them to do games with more complex piece assortments than pawns.

They use JPG or PNG, converting them to PDF so that they can avoid problems with so many different PDF formats. This contrasts with traditional printers, who usually use PDFs.

Their card printing is in multiples of 16, so the magic 55 card rule does not apply.

And I never did ask where they're actually located . . .

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

WBC 2009

I was at WBC (World Boardgaming Championships) Thursday through Saturday in Lancaster, PA. It seemed to be as well attended as last year, one fewer person participating in the Britannia tournament, for example.

Some of the best Brit players tried out Barbaria (the dice version) and Frankia. These two games have elicited interest from publishers, perhaps I'll say more later.

I talked about getting into the game design business at a seminar that was surprisingly well attended, about 20 people. There were so many questions I didn't get very far into my spiel, but the slides and a recording from last year at Origins are on my Web site (

Don Greenwood (convention director) reports: "Attendance was up for the convention as a whole and that was reflected in tournament participation as well with 17 events drawing triple-digit participation and the average attendance for the 151 events increasing 2.3 to 49.4, buoyed by 230 players for Dominion and 220 for Ticket to Ride." That average is probably a mean, I often wonder what the median was in these kinds of stats.

In the Brit tournament, red did very well early on. Blue did poorly throughout. This is fascinating because, in playtesting before this edition was published, blue was best and red worst. And in a past year the wins were very, very even. In games with inexperienced players, red tends to do better, but there aren't many inexperienced players in the WBC Britannia tournament. There were lots of green-yellow deals that left the Welsh unscathed--a stronger opponent for red, and letting yellow charge northward to keep down the Picts. Perhaps that was part of blue's problem. OTOH I saw Mark Smith suffer in a game where all his opponents (he was Roman) refused to submit, even the Belgae! I wasn't able to stay for the final, but I ran into Jim Jordan at GenCon and he said Rick Kirchner (I hope I'm spelling that correctly) had won with green in a close three-way game. He also won his semifinal as green. Rick is a matter-of-fact fellow who doesn't try to BS anyone and just does his thing with a combination of cheerfulness and resignation (see quote below). He has no enemies. Green works well him because it is, most of the time, "on the sidelines", just trying to survive. In the semifinal, for example, Mark Smith and Nick Benedict (Nick was yellow, I cannot recall whether Mark was red or blue) wore each other out while Rick took advantage.

I finally remembered to count king survival in the four semifinal games: 3, 2, 2, and 1, out of the four candidates.

Some notes: Nick Benedict: "Use a scalpel, not a bludgeon." Rick Kirchner: "I'm fighting with butterknives!" (bad dice rolls in the semis). Scott Pfeiffer would like everybody to have boats all the time. This would make for a more interesting game thanks to increased mobility, but would not be historical at all.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Impressions of GenCon

I attended GenCon Indianapolis for the first time last week. I'll have many comments and reports over the next couple weeks, but in the meantime here are a few observations:

It's Big. The convention center is larger than the Columbus center used for Origins, and there are many events in several hotels as well. I think the event count is over 6,000, compared to 4,500 for Origins, but I suspect the events tend to be smaller at Origins.

The exhibition hall dwarfs the one used at Origins. $1,300 for a 10 by 10 foot area. There were even a couple of companies (video game related, it must be said) that had "booth babes". (I talked briefly with one, dressed to be a character from an online trading card game related to Everquest, who travels with the company all over the nation, though she actually comes from California. Big bucks involved here.) The wargame-only publishers such as Clash of Arms, Avalanche, and GMT and others did not exhibit.

Pre-register. When I arrived Thursday about 1, an enormous line of hundreds of people snaked along the sidewalk, all waiting to register. I just walked in to pick up my pre-reg, no line at all at that point. There was another long line Friday.

Seminars. GenCon puts their guests of honor to work. And the results are good panel discussions.

The proportion of male and female appears to be about the same as at Origins (a quarter female). And as at Origins, there are very few black or obviously Hispanic attendees.

A lot more costumes were in evidence than at Origins. One hotel hosted the costume events, I didn't get over there.

One exhibitor mentioned 28,000 attendees, in ads prior to the convention the aim was evidently 30,000. Origins maxed at 15,000 two years ago, and was 10,000 this year.