Monday, April 03, 2006

GAME STORE CONFIDENTIAL ~ How two French guys ripped me off and stole my game design

I know the title to this week's blog is somewhat inflammatory. I have nothing against the French, they are probably nice people and I admit to having been in their country on several occasions and once it was explained to me that the French humor is all about bad manners, ignoring Americans while taking their tourist dollars and playing jokes on us by taking us Americans on psychotic cab rides around Paris that remind me of the chase scene in The Pink Panther, I ended up chuckling right along with the rest of the world. Those craaaazy Frenchies, they are so funny.

But still, having personally designed the world's best racing game and then seeing it stolen, altered and then sold in large quantities by a couple of French guys is mildly unsettling.

This all goes back to 1983....

Back then I owned a small miniature company called Dark Horse Miniatures. I also had recently opened a game store called Dark Horse Games. I like the name Dark Horse. Anyway, I was partnered in the miniature company with a friend by the name of Ian Lungold, who shared my personal love of all forms of motor racing. Ian and myself, along with a number of other board game fans played hundreds of games of 3M's USAC Auto Racing, Speed Circuit and Regatta. All of the little cars and boats from the games were painted up in custom colors and our enthusiasm for race games infected a number of friends and customers.

So it happened that Ian and I made a long drive back to California one January to retrieve one of my motorcycles and some other goods I had left in storage there. We started talking about racing and the games we enjoyed. Having been a motorcycle road racer myself for a number of years I started jabbering on and on about why I had kept spending money and time and suffering through broken bones, broken motorcycles and the cold, glinty stares of my wife so I could keep racing until I was almost 30 years old. I explained to Ian that racers such as myself didn't race because we believed we would be champions, we raced for the drug-like high we received from our own bodies in the form of adrenaline, endorphines and dopamine.

My lovely wife Cinthia was always very supportive of both my racing and gaming obsessions. I'm certain her loving show of support, evident here in this picture, reminds many of you of your own wives.

The wheelchair, while temporarily sidelining me from becoming a World Champion racer dude, came in handy for gaming. It was very comfortable.

That was my intellectual way of explaining to him that as a racer I had all the willingness required for success, but lacked any of the actual skills that would have made me a champion.

To which Ian replied, "So, what you're saying is that you couldn't stay focused. You didn't have the attention needed to succeed."

I was stunned. He was 100% right. I sat there in the truck for the next few minutes reviewing what would happen to me in a race, the unbelievably awesome roar of my motorcyle, the insane speeds, the sounds and motion as I passed others or, more often than I liked, was passed by faster racers. The feel of my knee dragging through a corner at 90 MPH, all of it was so intoxicating that I couldn't have cared less about Victory Lane, I just wanted the rush that going fast and risking my body gave me.

But I lacked the "attention" to race at a championship level.

As you can see I didn't lack the proper equipment or background scenery to suceed as a macho racer guy. What you can't tell by looking at this image from 1978 is that I was missing only the skills and discipline to do anything but go very, very fast until I fell down and hurt myself.

What happened over the next several hours was an intense discussion between Ian and myself about race games, dice and attention. Using the Speed Circuit game as a launching pad we discussed how a game could be designed that replaced dice or speed dials with something closer to what a racer really needed in order to compete well. That would be, in our minds at that time, attention. Or, if you prefer, focus.

I grabbed a pad and pen and wrote while Ian drove. When my turn to drive came he took notes. By the time we got back to Idaho we had a game designed. The Speed Circuit tracks were good enough to do a couple of test runs and fix a few broken rules but eventually we designed a few hand-drawn tracks and began play testing.

The game was awesome. We named it "Victory Lane".

If you have played Formula De you know that each die is custom made to represent a specific gear. It's random, true, but because, for example, a D12 returns results only from 7-12 rather than 1-12, the random factor is reduced and a player quickly understands that a 9 or 10 is the most likely result. Even then, gamers who reject any random factors in their games tend to dismiss Formula De as a "dice fest". I disagree, but that's not going to change anyones mind.

In Victory Lane we developed the concept of Attention Points. If you've played Formula De you know that in the advanced rules you have "build points" which allow you a moderate degree of customization for your car. You can add tires, fuel, brakes and so forth. In Victory Lane our customization extended into two aspects of the game; the driver's innate "attention" quotient and how the driver utilized his attention points during the game. Using a pile of markers (in our play tests we used pennies) the player would expend his attention points during his turn, making decisions on the fly and pushing the required attention points in front of him as he spent them.

Each race car was customized as well and the remainder of the base points any player had left was the total of Attention Points his driver had to use during a race.

Did I already mention that Victory Lane is an awesome game?

We play tested for about a year, designed half a dozen tracks that were large enough to use Matchbox cars on and we ended up with a series of arrows through the corners that are duplicated almost exactly in Formula De. When I felt like we had a playable game I started doing a little market research. Too bad the internet didn't exist then, or BGG for that matter. Life would have been easier and my phone bill wouldn't have been enormous. I even got to the point where I was communicating with the CART marketing department ( CART stood for Championship Auto Racing Teams, it was the organization that ran the Indy car race league) and had their requirements for licensing. I took all the estimates for art, boxes, cars, rulebooks, tracks and other associated costs and tallied them up.


And this was in 1984 dollars.


We could certainly have made a version of Victory Lane that cost perhaps half that amount, but I didn't want to do that. If I was going to be a game publisher I wanted a game that was high quality or none at all. So Victory Lane became a shelf ornament. Then, in 1995 or so I was at Origins in Ohio and sat down for a demo of a very interesting looking race game called Formula De. I played it several times, purchased the game and all the tracks and when I returned to Idaho pulled out my Victory Lane folders. Formula De was essentially a dumbed-down version of Victory Lane.

Those damned French.

This is the finished product that the two French guys purloined from me via their telepathic hijinks. Despite the fact that I actually designed this game without the messy dice, it plays very well as it is and I highly recommend you buy a copy. The French could apparently use the work these days

So assuming that great minds think alike, that a butterfly in the Amazon flapping it's wings can cause a tsunami in Australia three years later and that the French really aren't total meatheads (once you get away from their insane politics) I was not at all suprised to see a similar design, with more "user friendly" mechanics do as well as Formula De has done.

All of this brings me to the point of today's blog entry... I'm considering revamping Victory Lane, bringing it up to the standards of the current century and then shopping it around for a publisher. My theory behind why this might work now is simple... television and miniature cameras.

If you have read anything I've written here or on BGG you already know that I have a racing sickness. I love the stuff. I record everything from Formula One to AMA Superbikes, to the Dakar Rally and more. I am a racing slut. And Speed Channel, satellite TV, cameras in the noses of race cars or on the helmets of motorcycle racers and the intense technical coverage of strategy, tires and pit crews has popularized motor racing well beyond what it was 22 years ago. I really think there might be more of a market today than there was then. If anything the French guys who designed and succeeded with Formula De have proven my point for me.

I don't for a moment believe there is a fortune to be made. In fact, I so don't believe it that I have already revealed the secret inner workings of my own personal game design. So what? I'm actually considering redesigning Victory Lane with the help of anyone reading this blog who wants to help. Then, if I end up with a great design I'll keep all the money and fail to acknowledge your contribution. Which, if you think about it, is what those French guys who designed Formula De did to me. Let's not get hung up on small little details about the fact that they designed their game independent of mine, on a different continent, about 10 years later. The fact remains that they "picked up" the vibes of Victory Lane out there in the same ether that turns butterfly wing flaps into hurricanes and so they deserve to be punished. Or at the very least, they should be made fun of.

Depending on the response I get from this article I'll think about making the basic rules to Victory Lane available for anyone who cares to give it a go using their Formula De tracks. It might be a month or so before I can do this because I am finally moving at the end of April into a more gamer-friendly home and it's unlikely that I will have the time to dig everything out, enter it on my pc and then make it available.


Okay, here's an email you can contact me at -

Drop me an email and put Victory Lane in the subject line and when I get moved I'll pull out the old rules, enter them into a Word Doc or maybe just scan them and you can have at it. This isn't a plea for playtesters, it's really more like a free set of rules that may end up back on the on the shelf someday. If I get enough positives by the end of the summer then maybe an old idea, dusted off and updated, might be worth pursuing.

If this whole Victory Lane thing works out I will haul out two other products that were stolen from me. One, a fantasy naval combat game, stolen by Games Workshop and turned into Man O' War and the other a post-holocaust autmobile combat game that Steve Jackson filched from me in 1980 and renamed Car Wars.

Both my designs are far better then the stolen ones and no doubt someday I'll be a game publishing tycoon and all those French, British and Geeky Texans will be begging for my attention and favor. Imagine... you too might play a vital role in this future success story.

Enough of this... I have lots of brooding and plotting to do.

1 comment:

DWTripp said...

**** Update ****

I may just dig those rules out sooner rather than later. I thought maybe I'd get one or two requests for the rules but the number is much higher. Maybe we'll all...errr... I mean maybe I'll get rich. Finally!