I offer 30-minute free consultations to new game designers. The most common burning question I’m asked is “How do I protect my idea?” My response is “You can’t… And more to the point, you don’t want to.” Let me explain. 

You can’t protect gameplay

It’s not possible to protect gameplay. It falls through the intellectual property cracks. Many large publishers have tried and so far none have succeeded. You can trademark a game name. So if you think you have the best game name in the world, you might consider doing that. Also – if your game has some innovative technical element – you might be able to protect that with patenting, but it’s a crazy long road and for almost everyone, not a road worth taking. Artwork and text is protected by copyright. But the idea itself – the core mechanics: not protectable. 

My game Spy High was inspired by mechanics from the card game Cactus

Your game is probably not original

Most games combine mechanics used in other games in a new way. Maybe you have a new theme… But when you look at each element, there’s echoes of many other games. So what are you trying to protect?

My game Leonardo, which is currently on version 10

Your game gets better when you play it

Playtesting is the single most important element of game development (read more about why here). Playing your game with friends and family will help you to ensure the game is playable, but it won’t make it into the best game it can be. To do that, you should test with people you don’t know – with people who play lots of modern games. If you have a chance to test with game designers, this is super helpful. Each different group brings a new perspective. It’s hard to imagine how powerful playtesting is unless you’ve done it. But there’s no way playtesters are going to sign NDAs. To make your game as good as it can be, you need to share it widely, show it to lots of people and play it as much as you can.  This is far far more valuable than the notion of protecting your idea. Anyway – once you start playtesting, your original idea will develop so much that you may not recognise the early version you were so worried about protecting. 

It’s probably not that good

It’s normal for inexperienced game designers to think that they’ve invented the next Monopoly. (I mean, it’s vaguely possible, it’s just really really really unlikely.) But unless you play lots of modern hobby board games, your frame of reference is way off whack. If your games cupboard only consists of Trivial Pursuit, Cluedo and a dusty copy of Guess Who, chances are that your game isn’t going to rock the world.

It’s totally brilliant to have made a game that you love playing, but that doesn’t mean that other people will feel the same way. Now, that doesn’t mean it can’t turn into an amazing game – of course it can. That’s where proper playtesting comes in. 

Two of my (many) abandoned prototypes

A co-design with Jeff Allers. Jeff and I got in touch after I shared ideas for games on Twitter.

Nobody is going to steal your idea

An idea is just that – an idea. In many ways, having the idea is the easy bit. I’ve got notebooks full of ideas that won’t go anywhere. It’s what comes next that’s hard: finding a publisher or publishing the game yourself. That’s where the real work is. Even if other people think your game is amazing – the likelihood of someone then stealing it and going and pitching or publishing it themselves is miniscule. When you pitch your game to publishers, they aren’t going to take it and do it without you either. Why would they do that? A designer only gets around 5% royalties – it’s not a big cost to cut. But more importantly, publishers rely on designers. They need to maintain great relationships and a good reputation. They’re not going to put that in jeopardy over one game. 

I’m all for telling everyone about game ideas. I regularly share pictures of prototypes (as you can see on this post). I’ve made brilliant connections with publishers and co-designers from sharing widely on social media. I’ve never once worried about anyone stealing my ideas. I get far more out of sharing them than trying to keep them secret. 

There is a small caveat… It’s not the same with toys as it is with games. Toys are easier to patent and protect and toys don’t require adults to do huge amounts of testing. The more toyetic your game is, the murkier the ‘should I share this’ question becomes. If your game revolves around a single toyetic feature, you may wish to prioritise testing with the target audience, doing bundles of research and looking at what can be protected. 

Maybe you agree? Or maybe you don’t. Let me know in the comments.