Nothing in life is free (part 1)

I can still remember the first board game I ever designed. I was about 8 years old, and was inspired by the game Ghost Castle to make a game using the same mechanics but with a theme of monkeys, bananas and 3-D trees. Fast forward 25 years and I re-discovered a love for game design. Now, over 3 years later, I’ve amassed a box full of prototypes and countless pages of design notes. Looking back over these, I can see my progression as a designer. I’ve gradually refined game-play mechanisms, merged ideas, and pushed my work forward.

Like all of us, the main way I’ve learned is by studying the work of others. I’ve discovered so much just by playing other people’s games, or even just by watching other people play those games. Even that first game I designed as a child was based on a game I already knew and loved. This is an important part of how we create and learn. Our ability to take the knowledge and experience of the world around us and build on it is how we’ve come to be where we are today. This raises an important question though, which is: how much of our intellectual property can we really claim ownership of?

Anyone designing something like board games today is using ideas, mechanisms and themes that have already been seen before. Could we have fantasy themes without Dungeons & Dragons or Tolkein? Cyberpunk without William Gibson or Philip K Dick? Apocalyptic zombies without Night of the Living Dead? The answer of course, is “no”. As human beings we exist as social animals. We’re surrounded from an early age by never-ending societal and cultural influences. Creative expression lies in taking these influences and manipulating them, mutating them into new forms. This iteration of the past is how we grow and how we learn. It’s also how we design board games. Would we have deck-building games without Dominion? Would we have Dominion without Magic: The Gathering? Would we have any of the thousands of new board and card games that appear each year without the games that came before them? Everything we create is part of a bigger picture, so do we truly own our creations? Furthermore, if we can’t claim exclusive ownership over our creations then how do we calculate their monetary value?

The obvious answer is to look at the time investment. All creative expression takes time and effort. “Time” in the modern world “equals money” as the saying goes, and much as any designer would love to spend all their time creating things for the love of the experience, we all have to make a living. That means spending time to earn money, thus giving time value. So is it the time we spend creating something that gives it economic value? My own personal objective when designing games is not to make money, it is to make games for people to enjoy; to create something that offers an experience those that play it. In this case, should the value (and therefore price) of the games I create instead be determined by the individuals who want to own them?

In the next part of this blog I’ll discuss Creative Commons as applied to board games, and look at some of the potential challenges of applying “pay what you want” pricing strategies to physical board games.

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Nothing in life is free (part 1)

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