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Trusting testers

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Hi im new to this site, but have played many board games. Recently I have designed one of my own. I have tested it with friends and family, but wonder how to go about future playtesting. Many posts here talk about playtesting, but how do you trust someone from just simply stealing your good game design and ideas. Should you copyright first? :?

Joined: 08/03/2008
Trusting testers

Welcome to the site!

It's very common for new designers to be paranoid about having their ideas stolen. I think you'll find that most of us around here don't worry much about such things. Here are some of the reasons why I don't think there's anything much to worry about.

1. Your idea probably isn't actually that great. I say that not to be mean, but merely realistic (I would say the same thing about my own games). Designing a good game is really, really hard, and takes a lot of trial and error. Treating every game you create like it's the Mona Lisa of gaming is going to put you in a hyper-secretive posture that is probably unwarranted, and will hurt you in the long run. Because,

2. You can't do it alone. Eventually, if you're going to get the game to a finished state, you're going to need to let some people in on it. It's obviously important to find a core group of folks -- friends, family members -- who you trust completely, and they can handle the lion's share of your testing. At some point, you'll want to branch out and expose the game to people you don't well. Happily, at that point, you have even less to worry about because

3. As a corrolary of 1, just as it's hard for you to design a good game, it will be hard for anyone else to, particularly non-designers. The playtesters you have who aren't designers won't likely be competent enough to steal your idea and make a working game about it, and the ones who are designers won't be malicious enough to steal your game.*

That only leaves the concern that a playtester will memorize your game in its entirety and try to sell it. But luckily,

4. There's no money to be made in game design. Seriously. If anything, you're probably going to lose money. The only reason to try to sell a game, then, is because of a love of the game and/or of the hobby. Someone who didn't design the game is unlikely to have an incentive to try to sell your game, which, we know from 1, probably isn't that good anyway.

If I sound pessimisstic, I don't mean to; this is the most fun hobby in the world, and as you spend more time in it, you'll get to meet some great people and design -- and play -- some fun games. Let your goal revolve more around the fun you'll have creating games than any financial benefit you might derive from your games. In general, it's pretty safe to assume your playtesters are decent, upstanding people. It's crippling to think they're not, and there's not really any incentive for them to steal your idea anyway.

*There is one caveat about playing with designers: while fellow designers won't steal your ideas, it's fairly common for a designer to get "inspired" by another's design and springboard off of it into a design of his own. This can be variously flattering or annoying depending on your point of view.

Best of luck with your designing, and again, welcome!


sedjtroll's picture
Joined: 07/21/2008
Trusting testers

First of all, I agree with Jeff 100% (this may be a first!... just kidding)

But to make it sound a little less harsh, I might amend his point #1 a littel. It's not so much that our ideas are "bad", just that they are (a) not refined enough to really publish (likely the case unless you've really been working on it for a very long time and playtesting it extensively, etc), and (b) just ideas. Ideas are a dime a dozen. It's probably more work to steal someones idea for a game and sell it than it would be to make a game from scratch.

So there you go, another good reason that you ought not worry about trusting your playtesters. There was a long discussion here recently about Non Disclosure Agreements for playtesters, which was pretty rediculous and came down to a matter of opinion and the nature of your game. Evidently if you're designing a CCG and you're likely to publish, and you've got people begging to playtest your game, then it's a decent idea to have them sign an NDA. Otherwise, the consensus was don't bother.

- Seth

VeritasGames's picture
Joined: 08/01/2008
Trusting testers

There is an ENORMOUS amount of money in game design. It's just that not many people get to tap into that dough. You will fail more often than not, but some people make it big.

Copyrighting won't help you an iota except against people pirating your work verbatim. Regarding reworking your idea, somebody can put their own spin on the presentation of the game and then the copyright won't protect much of anything.

Patents cost thousands of dollars. You better have a darn good game if you patent it. Since most neophyte designers sell fewer than 500 copies of a game without a cool license, that's a huge costs to add onto development.

I'd say, get your testers to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDA) that automatically release in 2 years. That way they won't be too timid about signing them. Don't worry about this with your close friends unless you need proof of no public disclosure for a patent. Everyone else gets an NDA. If they won't sign it, get new playtesters. But don't kid yourself. Don't break out the NDA for every design. In fact many designs benefit from completely opening up their mechanics to close scrutiny. In fact, unless you have money already set aside to spend on publishing your design or patenting your design, or unless you are planning on shopping your design around at Toy Fair, don't bother with an NDA. NDAs are not for casual use. In fact they are overused. Never use one unless you are fulling will AND ABLE to take someone to court, because then people can thumb their noses at one and you are losing out on playtesters while failing to secure your design.

Most people who can read and understand an NDA will probably sign one if they are trustworthy. A huge number of people may be frightened by them if they can't understand a complicated NDA. In that instance, you may be losing good playtesters because you have a complex NDA as a barrier to entry.

You know what's generally better than an NDA -- investors. People with money on the line are a heckuva lot smarter about knowing when to shut up than those with nothing to lose. If you want to gain a little more security in exchange for a cut of the profits, look into picking up investors or business partners.

Always promise all folks who sign NDAs copies of your game and credits in the game. Again, you'll generate self interest, and economic self-interest is a good way to secure that people behave. It's often more effective than an NDA.

I posted an NDA here a few weeks ago. A search will find it. Don't abuse it. Use it if you are VERY serious about dropping a lot of cash on the game or if you have some specialized component design (particularly electronic components) that you are designing. Don't use it to protect your top secret game ideas that you have no cash to publish anyway. Don't jerk people around with an NDA. Use it when you have a lot to lose and you are sending a message not to screw up to your playtesters.

Being a Southerner, I often prefer working on a handshake. I used to work on a handshake even from big money until a Fortune 500's offices changed management and cost me over $20,000. Now, I work on a handshake for anything which I can afford to take the loss on. Anything I can't afford to lose the cash on -- I pull out the NDAs and other contracts.

Your mileage may vary.

Good luck with your design.

Joined: 12/31/1969
Idea theft and NDAs

I think if you worry too much about others stealing your ideas, you cut yourself out of the necessary free flow of ideas and feedback that is so useful for creating a game. I felt somewhat paranoid (and it comes back sometimes) about all of my protypes and that someone might steal my baby. No one want's to end up like the first drummer with the Beatles, uh what's-his-name. But I really think you're missing a whole lot more if you don't share your ideas. Besides, I suspect most game designers want to create "Their" game, not yours. Also if I had my playtesters (friends) sign a new NDA after each time I revised a prototype I think they kill me. Just my 2 cents worth.


VeritasGames's picture
Joined: 08/01/2008
Re: Idea theft and NDAs

Triktrak wrote:
Also if I had my playtesters (friends) sign a new NDA after each time I revised a prototype I think they kill me. Just my 2 cents worth.


That's not how NDA's work (at least not how broadly worded ones work). They are blanket agreements that can cover 20 games and all revisions. Depending on the language of your NDA you can:

a) make all game-related stuff automatically confidential unless noted otherwise; or

b) make everything with the label "confidential" covered by the NDA

You'd have to have them sign one agreement on a one time only basis.

You are the second person who has acted like NDAs are impossibly complicated and troublesome to deal with. They take one signature for each player once.

I've been signing them myself for years in business. They are exceptionally common in the software industry and in business consulting.

Trusting testers

sedjtroll wrote:
First of all, I agree with Jeff 100%

I had to read that twice to be sure I was reading it correctly!

VeritasGames wrote:
That's not how NDA's work (at least not how broadly worded ones work). They are blanket agreements that can cover 20 games and all revisions.

I very glad you made this clear, I'm not sure I understood how they worked, either. I was thinking that they would be a one-off, too. But then my understanding of when to use an NDA would almost necessitate them as one off.

Let me first say that I was absolutely paranoid when I first started designing games. When I had the first incarnation of an early game done, I too went crazy looking up information on how to patent my game, etc.

The more I read and the more I got friends and family to playtest my game, the more I realized how paranoid I was being. I would say that a designer who is playtesting with family and friends doesn't need an NDA.

If you get into a situation where you are playtesting (or blind playtesting) with people you don't know, then you want an NDA. In this case you probably won't use the same playtesters every time (depending on how you get your playtesters) and possibly won't use the same playtester's twice (for example, if you go to a game store and set up playtesting sessions for anyone who drops by). In that case, you will probably have them sign one-off NDA's

If you're establishing a group of reliable and repeat playtesters from a group that you don't know, then the broad NDA's would cover you for repeated playtesting sessions with the same participants. I can't imagine this happenning in the hobby design world, since most repeat playtesters will be your friends and family. However, a publisher with a stable of good playtesters would find this a necessity.

In all, you need to be cautious with your design, but not overly paranoid.

P.S. To get some great feedback on your game in a "club" sort of environment (you review and leave feedback on others' games and they review and give feedback on yours), consider signing up for a slot in the Game Design Workshop.

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