Wednesday, July 12, 2006

In Defense of the Homemade Game

“…if you play the game, you should own it, unless the rights have been released.” This is a quote from a recent thread on BGG regarding homemade versions of games, which turned into a fairly lengthy debate, and sums up the general consensus for games that are still in print.

I often make mock-ups of simple games, some are out of print and some are yet-to-be-released, to decide if I should try to hunt down a copy in the case of the former or buy the game when it finally becomes available.

My latest experiment was Um Krone Und Kragen (To Crown A King) which is soon to be released in English. My impatience got the best of me so I quickly printed up 2 sets of the card translations and dug out my tube of Stack (14 dice in 4 colors and some rules. It was awarded “Best New Family Game” by Games Magazine at some point—says so right on the tube!)

Sunday evening my husband, Richard, and I sat down to try it out and we both had fun with it so I’ll be placing my next order as soon as my Friendly Not-Quite-Local Online Game Store gets it in.

But what if I hadn’t liked it or I liked it a little bit but could be satisfied with occasionally playing the mock-up version? That would be bad, right? I would have deprived the designer, the publisher and the store their profit. Me and my ilk could be responsible for the early demise of a board game, casting a blemish on the reputation of a designer and throwing the whole board game economy into disarray. To top it off, I would not be allowed dessert for a month. We’re all in agreement then, I’m sure.

Except…how is that different from the people who have commented that they played a friend’s copy of something and really liked it but they don’t feel the need to own the game since they can play Fred’s copy? Or the people who have a game store locally where they can play games so they don’t buy their own copy which no one at home will play? Or the people who go to Cons and try dozens of games, many of which they don’t care for enough to buy?

Maybe my moral fiber is frayed at the edges, but I don’t feel one bit guilty about my homemade games. Taking the last piece of pizza rather than saving it for my husband’s lunch, on the other hand, did give me a bit of a twinge.

A meeple by any other name would score points just the same.



Unknown said...

I made my version of UKnK with Paint Shop Pro using the images from BSW. The cards turned out nice although the images had to be stretched a lot.

We've played it quite a few times, and I'll still be buying it when it comes out. Only complaint is that it comes with 12 dice; I recommend each player has their own dice. We play with a pool of 32 dice (from Sharp Shooters) and we sometimes run out in a 4-player game.

Michael Langford said...

It is just FINE to play a game if you make the pieces of it at home.

Copyright, patents, etc are to promote the useful arts, not because the creator owns the work with a moral decree from some authority. It's a government monopoly on distribution in the first case and use in the second to make it profitable to create things.

Yes, buying the game would in fact help the creator (usually) and may cause more games to be made in the future. However, a home created copy of a game is not a substitution for a store bought copy. It will usually be of either A> Far inferior quality (such as was the Caylus I made around last Xmas when it was unavailable, or B> Far superior quality, where the components cost many multiples the price of the published game.

Usually, the price of a game will be cheaper then making it at home. If not, you have to ask, why are they selling it for so much?

I would say, if you're a game creator, and you view people making homemade copies of your game as a problem, then negotiate harder with your publisher to make set of components for the game so much better than a person will miss out if they make it their own.

This is *not* a large problem, *not* worth fighting, and probably a beneficial practice for the game industry (as I know own the printed caylus, and I know all the other homemade games of people I know have been replaced by commercial version's once available).


huzonfirst said...

Mary, I have no problem with making a homemade version of a game as long as its purpose is to "try before you buy". If, however, you decided that the game was good but not great, so that you wouldn't purchase the game but were going to bring out your own version occasionally, that's moving a bit toward the old slippery slope in my opinion.

As you say, copying a game falls pretty far down the list of immoral acts. It's probably not worth more than two or three extra minutes in Purgatory. But the arguments that it can hurt the gaming industry are valid. If, indeed, this became a common practice, it would be even harder to make a profit on a new game and therefore much fewer designs would get published. The only defense against this is an understanding throughout the gaming community that this practice is frowned upon, keeping it from being widespread. It's much like littering: it's easy to do and if only one person does it, who cares, but we police ourselves because we know if everyone did it, we'd have an unholy mess on our hands.

I feel about copying games much as I feel about illegally downloading music--it deprives the artists from profiting from their creations and is therefore self-defeating. It also strikes me as a form of stealing. Copying to try before you buy is more like borrowing your neighbor's can opener rather than swiping it. I understand that people of good faith can justify the practice and I wouldn't condemn them. But they do risk killing the gold-laying goose, so I'd prefer it if they kept it to a minimum.

Enjoy your new copy of Um Krone und Kragen when it arrives. It's a very good game.

ekted said...

I feel that anyone who has the initiative to make their own copy of a game (ultimately bought or not), is going to be a stronger positive force for the game in the long run. These are the people who review them, and who publish their images on BGG, making others want to buy it. It's similar to Lucas "allowing" all the Star Wars fan sites to use imagery from the movies. It can only help.

I also feel no moral twinge when I play games online that I do not own.

Ava Jarvis said...

Home-made games are generally not a problem.

Now, distributing your own home-made versions of games that are already available... that's in violation of copyright. Of course, when it comes to games, what is an idea versus what is copyrightable expression might be an issue.

Downloading music illegally is much more of a problem because it's easy to duplicate music, right down to near-CD quality. Downloading books illegally is a little bit less of a problem than music, because lots of us still like reading a book on a medium that doesn't cause your eyes to cross.

It's far harder to make games than to do either of the above. People could surely play Lost Cities with a deck of cards, and the people who think that Lost Cities with a deck of cards is just fine... well, what can you do? The fact remains that many people like bits, nice bits, and thus they buy Lost Cities. And Lost Cities is not going out of print for a while.

Many Knizia small card games are, in fact, reproducible via a deck of cards, but it's not like his games aren't selling. People still like nice bits.

If illegal music downloads had all the quality of a scratched record, it would be far less of a problem.

I know that there are people who believe that copyright should be illegal, and patents should be illegal, and anything people do to protect their work is immoral. I know that this is an extreme, and people tend to fall towards the middle in this issue (like most anything else).

But if people think that a particular action that they do does honor a creator, and doesn't insult them or the work they put into whatever they did---and they believe this in their hearts and understand things from the creator's point of view---then it's fine. People need to be honest with themselves, of course.... and we so often aren't....

I rather suspect that a lot of the fighting is done because people feel threatened, one way or the other---guilt or whatnot. The question of whether one should feel guilt or not over a particular action or attitude is what generates a lot of flamewars. Flamewars in turn generate more doubt and anxiety... and on... and on... and on...

And in general it's a good issue to discuss, if only to straighten out one's own ideas on the matter or to get new points of view.

Then of course the thread itself can become something like a religious flamewar, with people standing across a gulf and shouting at each other, at which point it's time to unsubscribe that thread and read another.

No worries.

Yehuda Berlinger said...

Cookbooks can be copyrighted, but recipes?

Fair use copyright law allows you to exerpt material from a book - one recipe, for instance. Of course, the exerpted material is still under copyright. But what does that mean? You can't actually copy the page of the recipe, but that's not because of the recipe itself, just the presentation, fonts, layout, etc.

Every cookbook has recipes taken from other cookbooks and "adapted". Sometimes this amounts only to changing the size of the portions, or substituting a little less butter.

Who can say if a recipe is original? Has noone used these ingredients together? Even if you could prove that your combination of ingredients is unique, every facet of the recipe, from the raw ingredients to the methods of cooking, have all been used before.

Our world is changing from a vast community of creative individuals into isolated towers of rehashed material protected by obscene lawsuits. Recipes have always been shared and they evolved over time. So did songs and games.

Games certainly copy mechanics from one to another. Thousands of abstract games and hundreds of new Euro games vary in their themes and presentation only slightly, with tweaks to old mechanics dressed up in new settings. Noone has tried to put out a copy of Puerto Rico with a new setting and only slightly changed mechanics, but only because the audience is so tightly knit and full of fervor that they would probably rebel. But look at the number of people putting out clones of Monopoly, and not all by Hasboro.

The folklore of life, from recipes to game mechanics to story elements are the building blocks of our creative psyches. It used to be that noone could patent them, and it was better for all involved. The modern world is slowly festering over with patent-creep, like a scab that threatens to cut off your breathing. Even consumers have gotten into the habit of defending businesses - how else can small businesses make money, they blithely repeat?

In my world, the answer is not "by suing". A business whose entire enterprise exists only because they can sue others into not doing what they do doesn't deserve to exist: not game companies, not publishers, not music distributors, not movie producers.

These companies used to make money because they did something other people couldn't do: make quality games, distribute quality content. The world changed around them, and now their entire living is based on suing others to protect their investments.

If your business depends on my buying physical stuff that I don't need, your time has come and gone, and you will just have to think of something new to do.

If you produce a game that is easily creatable with household components, I may buy it if I like the artwork or if it represents some convenience for me. However, if today I buy a game that has cards in six suits from 1 to 12, and tomorrow there is another game with cards in six suits from 1 to 12, and the next day is yet another game with cards in six suits from 1 to 12, I may choose to play it at home with homemade pieces. Sorry, but that's my right and my choice.


Coldfoot said...

As you say, copying a game falls pretty far down the list of immoral acts

Copying a game is an immoral act?

Most of the games sold in the world are a Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit, Scrabble, Life or Parchesi rip-off.

Would it be alright to make a home version of a game that is itself a copy of another game? I'm pretty sure that all of the games that use the Monopoly system don't pay Hasbro for the right to make a roll-and-move-race-game, they certainly don't credit Charles Darrow or Elizabeth Maggie for their design.

huzonfirst said...

Brian, I said immoral, not illegal.

You can't copyright an idea. And thank goodness for that, for it would mean that no new games would ever get created. Just about every game ever designed borrows concepts from multiple designs that came before it.

So I have no problem with Monopoly or TP ripoffs. The companies are free to make them and I am free not to buy them, if I wish. There are no wounded parties.

When I said that copying a game to play with is immoral (and low scale immorality at that), I meant it from the perspective of the hobby. It can be problematic because in theory, it can reduce the profits of publishers and make them less likely to publish new games. It also encourages companies not to publish rule sets, or to make their components more irreplaceable (thus needlessly raising the cost of the games). You have the potential of a group of people (the copiers) who, by there actions, can conceivably hurt another group (the buyers), so that's where morality comes into it.

To me, it also feels like stealing. This is a personal stance and I don't expect everyone to agree with it. And everyone has a different line they aren't willing to cross. Back in the day when it was difficult to find copies of some games (but rules translations WERE available), I played a number of games with modified decks of cards. This didn't bother me, because I was willing to buy the game if I could do so without too much bother (and, in fact, I did eventually buy all these games). Someone else might say this was hypocritical on my part and, like most discussions on morality, this is an argument that cannot be resolved. So, as Ava says, if the people who copy are convinced that they are doing nothing wrong, I can't categorically deny this, as it comes down to a personal choice. But I do feel it's worth pointing out that not everyone feels that way.

If everyone insisted on the nice bits, copying wouldn't be an issue. The number of people who are willing to put that amount of time and effort into a creation is quite small, and they usually wind up spending more than they would have on the packaged game. But there are quite a few (like me a while back), who are content with makeshift components. For the most part, their motive is to avoid spending the money for the game and I can't bring myself to agree that this is perfectly acceptable. It isn't illegal, nor is it awful behavior, but I do think it makes them a little less of a good member in standing of the small community which is our hobby.

ekted said...

"Our world is changing from a vast community of creative individuals into isolated towers of rehashed material protected by obscene lawsuits."

Quote of the day.

qzhdad said...

I think all agree that it's legal to make your own copy of a game, the debate is on morality of doing so. At least my post is starting from that assumption.

If one contends that it's immoral to copy a game, then I don't follow how it can be ok to "just try it" on a prototype and then decide to purchase it. If you make a copy before it's available, then buy one it seems pretty obvious that no harm has come to copyright holder. However, if you try it, then decide not to get it, then hasn't the designer/publisher been harmed by the homemade copy?

What I'd like to see is a way to easily send payment the designer and, possibly publishing company when one makes a homemade game. (I'd like to see the same thing for books, so that authors are rewarded when I check them out of the library.)

Personally, I would have no qualms making my own copy, but in general, my time is valuable enough (you could be _playing_ games in the construction time!) that I don't make my own.

On the flip side, I would hate to see rules no longer available online which would be the eventual result if everyone (or a significant fraction of gamers)decided to make their own copies.

As far as playing online, I absolutely do not think one should be required to own the game to play online. For Cyberboard downloads I respect the wishes of the gamebox designers when they request that you do not download a copy unless you own game. If I ever make one, I will not make that stipulation. To require all players in a game to own a copy is a fairly onerous burden that is not requested in ftf settings.

Coldfoot said...

"...if you try it, then decide not to get it, then hasn't the designer/publisher been harmed by the homemade copy?"

No more so than trying it out at BSW, a convention or a friend's house. In all cases, you've tried before you bought (or not bought). I don't see the difference

qzhdad said...

Well, if you play at a con or with a friend's copy, someone bought a copy and the designer and publisher were compensated.

As to BSW, I agree, but will contend that playing ftf is a very different experience for many games than playing online. And that is a medium that was explicitly approved by the publisher.

My point is that I don't see a large moral leap (if any) between keeping a homemade game and playing it indefinitely, as opposed to constructing one to try it out and then deciding not to buy "a real copy." In both cases, one has received all of the benefits of owning one, without paying for one.

(I also don't see either of these as a particularly immoral act.)