Nothing in life is free (part 2)

With the growth of the internet, we’ve seen massive changes in the way information, ideas and creative works are shared. The number of works released under a Creative Commons Licence has increased from 50 million in 2006 to almost 900 million in 2014. Creative communities are increasingly moving towards sharing and collaborating their work more openly, allowing for rapid development of ideas and designs. This method of distribution also allows people to make use of creative works for free which increases choice and helps to link designers with end users more easily.

When I’m not designing board games, one of my other passions is making music. I release my musical work through Bandcamp on a “pay what you want” basis. So effectively, if you want my music for free you can have it, but if you feel it’s worth something to you, you can choose what that value is and pay it to me. Could a similar “pay what you want” model work for selling board games? There are thousands of free board games available to download in “print and play” form on the internet but that’s not the same as a fully produced, cardboard version of a game. Could such a sales approach ever really work?

First of all, we need to impose some caveats. The distribution of music or game files over the internet incurs little to no cost for the creator. Board games on the other hand are physical products and so always have an intrinsic cost to manufacture and ship. Above and beyond these material costs though, how do we value a board game? In his book Sacred Economics, Charles Eisenstein suggests that by placing a value on our creative efforts we are essentially trying to place a value on our own passion and creativity; things which are beyond value. Equally, if we place no value on our work and give it away for free, we are denying any value it has to the person buying it and not offering a way for people to give us something in appreciaton for our work. One approach to these problems is for the amount paid to be decided by the person paying, based on a combination of how much they value the work and what they can afford to give. This brings us back to the “pay what you want” model.

Above and beyond the costs of manufacture are the other costs involved in producing a quality board game, most obviously the costs for illustration and graphic design. It’s almost impossible to produce and publish a board game single-handedly without outsourcing any of the process. However, if a small team of like-minded people worked together, each contributing a different skillset to the project then they could create something between them that they could publish. The funds to manufacture and ship the game could be raised through a crowd funding platform, with the option for people to give a payment above the cost of manufacture if they wish to or can afford to. A small print run could be manufactured and any extra funding donated to the project could be split between the team members based on a pro-rata basis agreed upon before the project starts.

Obviously, I’m vastly oversimplifying the costs and overall process here, but as a concept I think it’s at least interesting to consider. It would give real value to the money paid for games and it would allow people who can’t afford much to still be able to buy games. It would also allow people who really appreciate a game designer’s work to show their appreciation for their work in whatever way they choose to encourage them to keep creating games. With the music I’ve released through bandcamp, everyone who has downloaded it has chosen pay at least something even though they didn’t have to, and some people have been extremely generous. Would they perhaps have paid as much if I’d simply enforced a set price from the start? More importantly that that, on an emotional level there’s actually something deeply rewarding about someone giving you something because they choose to rather than because they have to, and to me personally that’s worth more than any amount of money.

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Nothing in life is free (part 2)

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.

Nothing in life is free (part 1)