Design Theory: The Art of the Original

I’ve been chatting on FrontlineGamer’s blog about some mudslinging that’s been going on about a new game, and it brings up the old chestnut about whether you can copyright game mechanics or not. That and the related notion that there’s nothing new in gaming, just reworkings of existing mechanics. I’m working up to a much longer ramble about this, but for the moment just thought I’d put a couple of ideas out there.

Firstly, as games tend to model the same thing over and over (combat, movement, etc) it’s not surprising that different people come up with the same or very similar ways of doing things. It is perfectly possible to develop a nearly identical rule without ever having any cross-pollination between the developers. Seen it done several times. Done it myself. In a legal sense, the first out the door is the one that has the legal protection, but only (as I understand it) if that idea is non-obvious and unique. Is that fair?

Secondly, if there really aren’t any new mechanics to be had (and that’s a fairly big if), can anybody claim copyright or ownership? Should they be able to?

I know what I think. What’s your view?

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12 Responses to Design Theory: The Art of the Original

  1. Kevin Wesselby says:

    Hi Jake.
    I look at game mechanics and resolution methods as the ‘basic building blocks’ of game design.
    In the same way basic physical mechanics are the ‘basic building blocks ‘ of electrical and mechanical design.

    ONLY the PARTICULAR way they are used in the end product, could and should be copyritable.

    EG the basic laws of physics, thermal dynamics, electrical theoretical interaction etc ,are NOT copyritable.BUT using these basic laws to develop a particualrly efficient engine , would mean the specific way these are used in this instance is copyritable .

    IF we assume that all the BASIC game mechanics are known.
    This doesnt stop unique combinations of these to generate new game play ideas does it?
    Its quite rewarding to use existing mechanics in new ways.And even swop out and merge well known game mechanics and resolution methods to get new combinations and effects.
    I could post up some examples if you like?

  2. Kevin Wesselby says:

    HI Jake .
    I agree the line between ‘basic’ and ‘developed’ gets a bit grey in the middle.
    Here is are some examples ,(I dont know if they are good or not.)
    ‘Basic Game Turn Mechanics.'(We all know of.)
    (Assuming we want a greater degree of interaction than Alternating Game Turn offers.)

    Alternating Phases.
    Players alternate taking one action/phase at a time .Actions are controlled by fixed sequential phases.
    A moves, then B moves then A shoots then B shoots , then A assaults then B assaults.
    A moves ,then B shoots, then A reacts, then B moves , then A shoots then B reacts.

    Alternating Activation.
    One players takes all actions with one element(model /unit.)The opposing player takes all actions with one element.
    Alternating activations often use ‘order counters’ or ‘activation tokens.’To add tactical planning to the game turn.

    However, if we added ‘order counters’ or ‘activation tokens’ to the alternating phase , we could free this game tun mechanic from the ridged series of sequential actions and allow more tactical decision making.
    Eg Players choose what elements to activate /what actions they perform and in what order.

    Alot of games use a defined range of effect for ranged weapons ,Then roll to see/ roll to hit to determine if each each weapon shot has an effect on the target.(Each shot misses or hits.)This is usualy determined by shooter skill.

    However, if we assume the firer will NOT shoot unless they WILL put shots on tartget.Then the effective range defines shooter skill.And we can use the targets ability to determine if the shooter gets to fire on it or not.(Cannot shoot what it can not see clearly.)
    The effect on the target if engaged is determined by direct comparison of weapon effects to the resilance of the target. If we use this for unit interaction the volume of fire can be represented to get physical and morale damage on targets.

    Negateing dice rolls is a basic game mechanic, to show abilities of weapons.
    Eg in 40k a weapon with AP 4 , stops targets from making a saving roll of 4+,5+or 6+
    But saves of 2+ and 3+ remain unaffected.
    However, if we say the AP value discounts the dice VALUE rolled.
    Then AP 6, reduces all saves by 1.
    A 2+ save only now saves on 2,3,4,5.(As saving rolls of 6 are discarded.)
    Ap 4 reduces all saves by 3
    A 2+ save now only saves on 2,3.(As saving rolls of 4,5 and 6 are discarded.)

    Just some examples of tweeks to basic game mechanics and resolutions , that may allow quite different game play .

    • Quirkworthy says:

      OK, but nothing that would work in court 🙂

      I once helped prep a presentation for a copyright theft case within gaming, It was one of those things where any gamer would instantly have agreed that game B was a complete rip off of game A. Unfortunately, you have to convince a judge, not a gamer, so everything has to be reduced to its smallest component part and then compared. Much trickier than you’d think.

      But I take your point about small tweaks changing things. This is the basis of what I often say about there being little or nothing original in the detail of game mechanics*, but that the way you combine those details is the clever, potentially unique and possibly copyrightable bit.

      Of course, most of what you copyright is the IP anyway, so mechanics rarely come into it other than as a way to add leverage.

      *or perhaps I’m just too dumb to think of them.

  3. Kevin Wesselby says:

    I agree there is nothing new in the basic game mechanics.(I can not think of brand new ones either.Just variations on a theme.)

    (However , there are lots of cool ways to tweek resolution methods,and use well known game mechanics in more interesting ways.And this is the fun part IMO.)

    I belive it would be better/easier to copyrite the entire system IF it is substantialy different to what has gone before.Especialy as the entire system is usualy tied to the IP.

    But why should individual game mechanics be copyritable?

    I belive its better that the new ideas are freely available to be used by game developers .Who in turn can add and change things to arrive at thier goals, and maybe progress and add more to the wide spectrum of avaiable game mechanics and resolution method sets.
    It would be awful if the same game mechanics had to be used in totaly inapropriate games because the developer was restricted by copyrite.
    I understand the desire for developers to be able to claim and defend thier work.But this realy is best done for the entire end product not the individual component parts, IMO.

  4. mattadlard says:

    Yep have to agree with this thread, and from a prspective of someone who has looked and worked on personal ideas and rules for a club before it is amazing how game rules and duel evolutio can come about.

  5. maxxon99 . says:

    A ripoff is NOT a copyright violation. Only outright copies are. It may be ethically suspect to take, say, Lord of the Rings and rewrite it completely in your own words — but it isn’t illegal. Note the importance of complete rewrite: just changing Gandalf to Gnadalf creates a derivative work, which for the most part requires permission from the original rights holder.

    Ideas, like gaming mechanics, can not be copyrighted — only their expression. And expression in this context means the exact wording used to describe the idea.

    However, gaming mechanics apparently CAN be patented in some jurisdictions (Magic’s card tapping).

    Personally I’m quite fine with this (except the patent bit).

  6. Graham Bartram says:


    Turning a card sideways to show that the represented element has been changed is common to many games. The Pokemon CCG uses this as well as Magic the Gathering (and many others ).

    I’m sure the patent can only be for referring to this action as “tapping” or “tapped”. That, in my opinion does not represent a problem for other game designers. That is until we run out of descriptive words for the same action of course. If one could not refer to tapping, turning, rotating, etc… because they had all been tied up in legalise, now that would be a problem.

    Truth be told, I can’t see that any other card game using the term “tapping” could effect WOTC’s profits in any way.

    I personally find my interest in any particular game system is inversely proportionate to how many times the games manufacturer oversteps reasonable defence of their products. Perhaps that’s why I haven’t bought anything from GW for so long. :/

  7. Tapping is a non-descriptor word used to ‘rotate a card’. Fair enough the term could (is?) copyrighted. I can’t see the terms ‘rotate’ or ‘turn’ being copyrighted as they are literal instructions.

    Game of Thrones uses the term ‘kneel’ for tapping. It has nice flavour!

  8. Graham Bartram says:

    @ Ross Whitehorn
    It’s often the small things that add the most flavour and ‘kneel’ is a great choice. I see your point and any company that did try to copyright a non-descriptor word, as you put it is probably pushing it.

    I think the most dubious case I’ve heard off with regards to attempted ‘defence’ of copyright I’ve seen recently has to go to GW for it’s attempts to snag the terms ‘space elves’ and ‘space marine’. Thankfully they failed miserably but then even the word ‘eldar’ does not belong to them as it’s straight out of Tolkien’s work.

    Game designers deserve to protect the hard work they do but it’s a shame on GW that they tried to push it so far. I have far more respect for Mantic and Wyrd, they seem to appreciate that the best way to protect themselves is just to make great games. Do that and the gamers will support you.with hard cash. Meritocracy is a great thing when it works.

  9. mertaal says:

    The interchange of ideas in creative fields is the engine of progress! Art, literature, film making- all of these take both the philosophical mindset and the specific techniques of previous works, to build upon.

    To me, copyrighting a mechanic is a bit like an architect copyrighting a brick, and expecting other architects to find their own construction solution. It isn’t the fundamental mechanics which make the character of a game, but the combination of those mechanics to achieve a particular effect/ atmosphere/ character.

  10. Stephen Holmes says:

    It’s my understanding (based on recent D&D controversy) that game mechanisms cannot be copyrighted.
    I’m not a lawyer, and not an American, where the D&D controversy was played out, so cannot offer more than that.

    Let me move on to how much originality is desirable.
    I’ve played a lot of games that have felt familiar, and been easy to play and learn because they employ familiar mechanics and turn sequences.

    I’ve enjoyed a lot of games that introduced one novel mechanism.
    Easily learned as “Its like Warmaster except…”.

    Authors like Daniel Mersey and the Too Fat Lardies have what I’d call signature game mechanisms, which work, are proven and can be applied (with a little historic massaging) to different eras.
    I can plan Lion Rampant, Dragon Rampant the next week and Pikeman’s Lament the next – and I benefit form the fact that the rules have 90% in common.

    Likewise I can play Sharpe Practice and then play Chain of Command. Two engagements in Flanders separated by 130 years and different rulesets. But enough mechanisms in common that I can play a decent game of the second without 3 or 4 efforts to assimilate a new ruleset.

    I welcome the original elements of each of these games, but welcome the “largely common core”, which makes play enjoyable and easy.

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