29 April, 2016
Game development is mostly about creativity, about how to harness and manage creativity to create these wonderful fun works of art. But, there’s often some weirdness that comes along with that. The “ownership” of creative ideas tends to be a bit strange when it comes to some people, and this is even before we might start delving into the legal aspects!
So, allow me to take a look at creative ownership in game development.
Who legally owns what now?
I won’t pretend that creative ownership is an easy thing to figure out, especially not legally. Often, game companies won’t even look at unsolicited proposals for fear that some game they’re already working on is similar to a proposal sent in. Intellectual property ownership in this case isn’t well-established, so it could mire the company in court should an idea seem similar enough. Especially if the company goes on to see tremendous success.
My friend Dave Toulouse told me about how one fan of his game March of the Living wrote him to propose a version of the game set in the age of piracy, with the offer to work on the game jointly. Well, unfortunately for Dave, that idea is closed off to him unless he wants to take the risk of working with someone he doesn’t know well. Because if he were to use that idea and not bring that other person on board, that other person could bring suit against Dave accusing him of “stealing his idea”. Truth be told, it’s unlikely the case would result in a conviction against Dave, but it’s just easier to avoid the potential hassle of a lawsuit.
So, what is “creative ownership”? It’s the feeling that a creative work was created by you. And, this sometimes makes people a little weird.
The popular conception of creative ownership is partially wrapped up in the concept of “the idea guy” I wrote about a little while ago. The “idea guy” is supposed to ultimately have creative ownership of the idea. They did the hard work of coming up with the idea, now others should take it and implement it.
Reality is a little different, though. For example, game programmers want the creative challenges the game industry poses, so it’s rare that some game design concept touches programmers without becoming something different. Depending on the maturity of the designer(s) in question, this can be an opportunity to strengthen the idea or a situation where the designer gets upset at the sullying of his or her idea.
So, sometimes ownership becomes jealousy. Someone wants to claim creative ownership in order to validate themselves, perhaps at the expense of others who might be a positive contribution to the process. Sometimes established developers buy into their own PR and want to perpetuate their reputation as a “creative genius” who was responsible for some big success in the past. This desire to be seen as creative and retain creative ownership can be detrimental.
The creative urge
Most people like to think of themselves as creative. But, some people have a desire to create so strongly that they can hardly imagine themselves doing anything except for creative work. Even if I were to leave the mainstream game industry and take some job programming mobile apps somewhere, I would still probably work nights and weekends on my own projects. This creative urge is also why I want to write the book on Thinking Like a Game Designer. The creativity that goes into game design fascinates me, and I not only want to share my own experiences from my game development career, but I also want to understand the process more fully.
I think this creative urge also explains why creative ownership can become jealousy. If you want to create, it can potentially feel less creative if you share that creative ownership with others. Allowing others to adjust or edit your work, or recognizing that your work relies heavily on someone else’s prior work, can make it feel less creative and therefore less satisfying.
Collaboration can strengthen ideas
Game development is usually a collaboration. Even one-person indie game studios often contract out work for art, writing, etc., meaning that other people have creative input into the final product. While I would agree that March of the Living is Dave’s game, my contribution of event design improved the game and gives me a small sense of ownership. On larger teams, this collaboration is all but unavoidable.
I think it’s important to recognize that this collaboration is likely to strengthen game design, especially if you’re dealing with a team of creative people with the right attitude. The reason why “design by committee” tends not to work is because the design gets watered down as you try to please too many designers. But, a strong central vision means that the game can be enhanced by additional input that fits within that vision. And, it doesn’t necessarily have to be one person who keeps that vision, it can be a shared vision between multiple people. The trick is that people have to agree on that central vision.
Of course, collaboration tends to muddy the issue about ownership. If I have a high level concept which I pass to a senior who makes changes, who passes it to a junior designer to flesh out the details, who has creative ownership? Is it my idea since I originated it? Is it shared with the senior designer who made some changes? Would I be removed from the process entirely since by the time the junior designer is done the idea may bear little resemblance to the original one I had? Again, if someone has ego invested in being seen as “the creator” of the idea and doesn’t want to share creative ownership, it can prove to be a roadblock to the design reaching its full potential.
Leadership is an odd thing on its own; I want to write more about leadership in game development later, but I have some books I’ve been meaning to read sitting on my desk that I want to go through first. But, let’s talk a little bit about creative leadership in the game industry.
We tend to mingle the concept of “leadership” with a lot of other concepts. In the game industry, leadership is seen through the lens of charisma, experience, and company position. When we talk about senior designers, it’s sometimes is the people who can best sell their ideas who reach that level, even if their ideas are mediocre. And experience can matter a lot more than it should; the designer who is great at taking high level concepts and fleshing them out may not be suited to generating the high level concepts for others. Likewise, you might have someone who is legitimately spectacular at high level organization in design, but who have not been given the opportunity to demonstrate that particular competence if they fail to be a spectacular junior designer.
It’s rare to find a game studio owner who doesn’t also have a major hand in design. When the person who signs your paychecks suggests an idea, it takes a pretty brave person to call BS on that idea. In many cases you’ll find people going along with the idea whether they like it or not. Of course, sometimes you have people who aren’t quite so good at business or who aren’t quite as creative as the situation requires when the creative ownership and business management reside with the same person. However, my best experiences have been situations where the creative ownership truly resided with the team as a whole rather than with one individual person.
What do you think? Who do you think “owns” a creative idea? Or is it something that eventually gets owned by a whole team?