Game Design 113: Duplication

One of the best things you can do to sharpen your game design skills is to remake old game designs. I’m not saying to plagiarize other designers’ works and then try to sell them, I’m saying to copy successful systems in your own way to privately learn new techniques. They say that copying someone is the sincerest form of flattery. While that may or may not be true, it’s also how we learn. When we copy a teacher, we learn a new subject or skill. When we emulate a professional sportsman, we up our game. As human beings, we are constantly copying tiny details from other people’s lives and applying them to our own. Sometimes we do this unconsciously, but you can certainly make it happen out of willpower.

They say there are three steps to mastering something. One, you see it done and absorb the information. Two, someone teaches you how to do it. And Three, you teach it to someone else and cement the process in your memory. I think you can do the same with game design projects you intend to use only for practice. I’ve created multiple copies of many famous games and have certainly not limited myself to only role-playing games: Monopoly, Risk, Magic the Gathering, and more have all fallen prey to my well-meaning stealing of ideas.

I certainly don’t do this merely to cheap out on buying the games. They’re fine games, and I own them all. However, I like to make a habit of creating a game before I even own it or get the chance to play it. When I see an interesting new game I’ve never played before, the ideas strike up the creative juices. I immediately take what sketchy knowledge I have of the game and build it from the ground up. Whatever supplies are necessary I either grab or improvise. If I’m missing most of the rules, I improvise or look up what I can and interpret them how I like. Based on this new creation of the game, I can usually decide if I’d like to buy it or not. It’s very strange, but sometimes I’ll be so interested in a game I’ll create a whole copy of it only to find I don’t actually like the game system enough to buy it based only on the vague information I had to begin with. When I first saw Catan in a magazine, I instantly set about building the system from the ground up with only a hazy internet article on the rules as a guide. The family enjoyed my ham version so much we instantly bought the full game and have since bought a number of the extra settings. No one really bothers with my old version now, but I still feel it was a worthwhile endeavour. I can’t sell it, it took a long time to create, and it’s probably far inferior to the ‘real thing’. However, there’s something about the process of re-creating a game in your own way which teaches you things about game design you would never have learned otherwise. I’m sure many people see famous game designs and figure ‘I could do something like that’. How many people have actually broken those games apart and built them themselves just for the heck of it?

As you may have already guessed, I don’t limit myself to only making carbon copies of famous games I haven’t played yet. I’m also a big fan of messing around with the rules of existing classics, rebuilding them with strange twists in the rules, or making hybrid games by combining totally unrelated systems and genres. Most of my players simply groan at the insanity of it all, and try their best to deter me from these strange cannibalisms. In most cases, they are total flops with no perceivable reward. It’s just something I like to do. Maybe I’m crazy, but who hasn’t dreamed of combining economic board-games with massive warfare and an RPG simultaneously? It’s one of those crazy things which may never work, but it’s something which you just have to try once and a while. Just like creating the ultimate RPG, sometimes a game designer just has to shoot for the moon and do something absolutely crazy. Everyone will think you’re mad and doomed to failure. In all likelihood they’re right, but you still must make the attempt.

I think it’s partly about what inspires us. Sometimes we just have to follow our dreams no matter what other people say. You might sing along to your favourite song on the radio even though everyone thinks you’re crazy. You’ll probably never make a million dollars by singing a famous pop star’s song better than him, but it’s just something you have to do. In most of the games we enjoy, there is some spark we recognize as creative and good. Something unique and inspiring. When we copy those great ideas, or become inspired by them; we’re letting our passion drive our vision to create something new. Eventually, we might combine enough old ideas with enough new ones to create something fantastic.

Good writers read a lot because we need to see what the great ones have done before us. Before we have a sure style, we might be influenced heavily by what we’re reading at the time and it’ll show up in our writing. This might look goofy, but it’s all part of the process of learning. In later years when we develop our own style we have so many tricks of our own that we gain a voice. You still might see occasional flourishes you can peg on a specific writer but, on the whole, the experience is different. I think game design is much the same as good writing. To write well you must read a lot. To create good game designs, you must design a lot of games. Of course, you could always create just your own games with no perceivable reference to any other game system. This would be much the same as a writer sitting down one day and saying, “I’ll never read another book again, and write a #1 Bestseller.” Chances are, your book will be less unique because of your more limited repertoire. If you only ever play one RPG system and then seek to create the best RPG ever, my guess would be that your game design will actually be more similar to what’s out there than if you had experimented with many systems.

Copying good ideas is certainly not limited to only games. If you have books that inspire you, magazines, movies, or anything else; go for it. There is something within them that’s inspiring your creativity and that’s always a good thing. Even if it’s a total experiment, even if it’s doomed to failure, even if it’s so derivative you couldn’t pass it off as anything but the original; it’s always a good idea. I’ve created submarine battle games when I’ve watched Red October, giant robot death battle games when I watched Transformers, and super hero variants when I watched the Avengers. This might seem like jumping on the bandwagon, or being a goofball, but I think it’s simply part of the game design process. When you see something good, you want to mess around with it. When you play a game that’s fun, you want to create a game that’s fun. What would we all be designing if RPGs hadn’t been invented? Computer games? Board games? Card games? RPGs themselves are all derivative from the original which itself had strong ties to a certain series of very famous books. In fact, there were copyright issues with the original. Did that stop anyone? No. They changed things and forged on fearlessly. If you ever read some of the original books that the first RPGs were based on, you might laugh out loud at how much was shamelessly stolen. I don’t think this is a bad thing, I think it’s a good thing. Someone took a lot of old ideas, combined them with a lot of new ideas, and created something which would inspire thousands if not millions afterwards with their own creativity.

This whole article isn’t an argument in favor of copyright infringement or plagiarism. I certainly would never dream of trying to sell something I knew was obviously too similar to the original. Think of it as an argument in favor of pursuing good ideas and dreams. The more you steal, the more ideas will be stored in your subconscious. The subconscious can do some pretty amazing things with old ideas. Sometimes you’ll create something totally bizarre which seems a little old hat to you because you know where all the ideas originated from. To a player who’s never experienced those games, or doesn’t understand the mad way you’ve mixed them all up together, this can seem like nothing short of an expert game design. I think copying ideas actually does the exact opposite of what you’d think. The more tools you throw into your box, the more strange and miraculous will be the final creation. So don’t feel bad about creating your own version of Risk next week. It’s all part of the game design process.


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First Post
I agree. In a way, this has brought us Pathfinder. I'm not a fan of it but they have taken the old and turned it into something new.
As for myself I can guarantee one can learn a lot from other systems, if you dissect them precisely and understand how they work.


First Post
When I see an interesting new game I’ve never played before, the ideas strike up the creative juices. I immediately take what sketchy knowledge I have of the game and build it from the ground up. Whatever supplies are necessary I either grab or improvise.
Ha! That's me after my first contact with roleplaying games and again after my first session of AD&D :D
In the latter case it triggered the development of my own rpg system since the 'real' AD&D was nothing like what I imagined in the beginning!

I also used to rebuild boardgames I liked, mostly because I was low on money. Ah, good times!

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