Game Studios Should Option The Rights to Game Design Documents

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A truism that is trotted out everytime people questions the validity of games as an entertainment medium is how it has surpassed revenues for TV and movies. Yet there is a practice in TV and movies that has yet to cross over into games which may increase these revenues as well as broadening the kinds of games that can be made : Optioning the rights to a story.

How Story Rights Work

Typically when novel, short story, or even a news story becomes popular enough to merit the attention of a movie studio, they reach out to the author to “option” the rights to the story. This means that they pay the author a few thousands of dollars for the “option” to the rights to the story. These rights typically last for around half a year, during with the movie studio goes around to try to secure interest and funding for a the project. Once the option rights run out, the studio might forfeit the rights, allowing the writer to accept new bids for their work, or they pay the writer more money to extend their option rights.

Writing is a perilous field to be in to begin with, so earning some money by selling the rights to your work is a relatively painless way for a writer to secure additional money to support their creative endeavours. There is no reason why game designers shouldn’t be able to do the same thing.

Ideas are Cheap

One argument against the prospect of selling an idea is that “ideas are cheap, it’s execution that’s important.” I generally agree with this statement, but in this case a studio wouldn’t necessarily be buying an idea. It would be buying a game design document with a minimum level of completeness that would allow an independent team to build a game. And the amount of money the designer would earn would reflect that. They’re providing the outline for a game, not the completed product.

This is very similar to how movies work. When a story is optioned that’s not the end of line for it. It goes through a scriptwriter (maybe more than one!) not to mention the role of the director, cinematographer, and the actors in shaping the final product. But the writer, the originator of the work, still sees some money from the release of the finished product.

Expanding the Output of Game Designers

This idea was partly borne out of the my frustration with having what I felt were a few really good game ideas in my head. I would love to see these games come to fruition, but the kinds of games I like typically take 3-4 years to make. If I tried to make these with a team I would, if I were lucky and still cogent in old age, only be able to put out 8 more games in my lifetime. Comparatively, a reasonable game design document would take maybe a couple of months to finish. And if I could option these off to different studios I’d have a much bigger chance of seeing some of my ideas come to life, and they might even turn out better than if I’d been the one to make them.

One might ask why I shouldn’t just make these game designs anyway and put them out there for free for anyone to make. First, I don’t have the luxury of just doing whatever I want for free. Second, there is some pride and a feeling of accomplishment when someone deems your work worth enough to pay for it. But for the sake of argument, let’s say I did do it for free, in the same way a lot of poeple make mods or fanfics for the sheer joy of it. Having the opportunity to have something I made for fun become something that earns me a living is not the most terrible thing in the world.

Creating a New Class of Game Generators

Let’s face it, not every game designer has the gumption or even interest to bring a game to completion. Katie Chironis wrote a popular tweet where she compared “generators” to “refiners” as broad categories of creative types. Obviously this is a spectrum kind of thing, where you may be more comfortable being one rather than the other. But creating a marketplace for optioning game design documents frees up people who see themselves as generators to simply create designs and expand the limits of what’s possible in games without worrying about the implementation. That simply becomes someone else’s problem, and that’s fine because presumably the company that buys the option has a reasonable expectation that they can fulfill those requirements.

This makes it easier to broaden the scope of what is deemed possible by games. Too games creators (with the exception of Hideo Kojima) may feel limited by the restrictions of technology and funding. A marketplace for options allows them to push against the boundaries some more while at the same time acting as a natural limiter. If they simply keep making outlandish game designs that have no realistic hope of being made, no one will option their design documents.

Something kind of similar is already happening in the form of concept teams. Some established game designers in Japan are creating companies that generate the idea, but leave the execution to others. Ico designer Fumito Ueda “compares it to being an architect, where GenDesign would draw the blueprint but not physically pour the foundation.”

Large Game Publishers can Act Like Movie Studios

Large Game Publishers stand to benefit the most from this new game design optioning marketplace. They already have the manpower to have a couple of people scouting for new game designs to option. They have enough money to splash around a couple thousand dollars on promising ideas. And finally they typically have an ecosystem of studios that is always looking for new game content to create in order to keep their people employed. This would work in tandem and enhance the already existing publishing system.

An Idea Worth Pursuing

As with any idea I’m sure there are issues I’m not seeing, and I welcome feedback from anyone who can point out to me why this is a terrible thing. Otherwise, I hope enough people read this and agree so that we can make this a reality.


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