I remember watching presenters on a morning news program interview a man and his son after the release of Terminator 2. This Australian gentleman was suing the creators of Terminator 2 for copyright infringement. This gentleman had written a script for a sci-fi movie where machines travel back in time to kill a human hero of the future. He claimed that someone had stolen his script and published it. The thing is… now don’t think I’m crazy… but it’s happening to me as well!
It seems I just can’t cut a break. I designed a card game where you were boxer fighting an opponent. As the game progressed you collected sets of cards to execute combo moves. While watching a preview of games for BGG Con last year I saw someone had published a version of MY game. I then tried to design a game where people collected tiles to move their mine cart across a board and used cards to influence the tracks. Then not long after on Instagram a published game was getting lots of play and pictures posted that followed the same basic design as MY game only using trains instead of mine carts. I also designed a game where you collected plants in Tetris style patterns and fit them into a box. You would then score points based on the design you made only to see Cottage Garden hit the stores.
These are only three examples of this happening and I have other stories of this occurring to me over the last couple of years. What might this mean? Could there be a person, or maybe people, monitoring me and leaking my designs to others publishers? Could I just be so cutting edge that I am setting trends even before I get the chance to set them? The answer to these speculations is “not bloody likely”. With absolute certainty, I can say none of these designers stole my game ideas just as I was certain that James Cameron did not steal that Aussie man's script. The fact is that for any of these games to be published and on show or out for public consumption, they would have gone through design, testing, and a development period of nearly two years. The same goes for Terminator 2 in case you needed me to say it. So what is going on?
I remember one of my university lecturers talking about ideas like the Reformation and the Renaissance were able to occur because the time was right for those ideas to take root and grow within the hearts of people. There are always examples of people who had an idea ahead of their time, but these ideas usually had little to no impact until someone else reinvigorated the idea in a culture, time, or place that was ready for that idea. This is much the same with design. Multiple Discovery is a concept that discusses the idea that many discoveries or inventions are made independently, but simultaneously. It is a bizarre phenomenon, but there is plenty of evidence to argue for it. It’s why we can get the movies Volcano and Dente’s Peak released for the same holiday season. It is how we can get a spat of board games with similar themes or mechanics released at the same convention. They are not trying to copy each other, they are just falling victim to the Multiple Discovery Effect.
I would go so far to say that all this feeds into the very nature of design and innovation. All great design occurs in a culture and community of discovery. We all share and mix ideas from which trends develop as people start to articulate preferences, get excited about ideas, and look for ways to innovate on concepts. In many cases, people are often looking to directly develop and perfect other people’s work. Look at the Wright Brothers. They didn’t invent the plane, they innovated on other people’s ideas. There were many communities and research groups around the world working to crack the problem of flight. Much of it was already there, but they just couldn’t control the plane once it was up and keep it from falling. A pretty key part I’m sure you would agree. (Hmmm... I wonder if anyone has a made a game about this?)
The Wright Brothers borrowed and shared ideas within this community. Their major contribution was a rudder piece that proved vital to directing the plane. This should not diminish their contribution in any way. They cracked the problem that many had been working on, but I would argue that they would not have gotten as far as they did without the community at work. The board game community is a community that prides itself on its collaborative efforts. It is not surprising that there are popular themes or mechanics that come to life at different times. And the truly great games are the ones that have found that magic innovation that builds on this community of design. Take Kingdomino for example. That game is simply worker placement, drafting and tile laying. Nothing new in that list of mechanics, yet it would be hard to argue that it was like any other game on out there. Cathala has innovated and approached the mechanics and theme in a way that is truly him but using ideas that build on the broader design community.
I’m going to keep working on designing a game. And while I am not truly part of this great community of design I do try to keep alert to the trends and the mechanics that are popping up. It provides a small insight into the prevailing form of thought and popular interests in the industry. It’s also great to compare and contrast with how designers solve similar problems or approach themes in their own style. And if you are considering suing a designer for stealing your game or movie script… just stop and consider the Multiple Discovery Effect before wasting your money on a costly court battle.