Why you should make games nobody can play

By Harrison Gowland. Posted

As a society, we’ve generally accepted the idea that stealing the property of others is a bad thing. That philosophy extends into the realm of ideas as much as it does the world of knocking over banks and nabbing purses from old ladies: an entire branch of law, copyright, exists to protect the intellectual property rights of people so that their ideas and creations can’t be used or exploited – arguably, stolen – without their permission.

You might be wondering, then, why this article is urging you to make games that violate the intellectual property rights of other people. In this case, I’ve found stealing can actually be very good for your creative process; provided, of course, that you don’t publish any of it and get yourself knee-deep in litigation. A very quick précis before we get into the discussion proper, however: I cannot stress enough how not-legal-advice this is. Don’t complain to me if someone sues you for publishing a game based on assets you took without permission.

With this being said, there are two primary reasons why I’ve found blatantly stealing things in my private work so helpful to becoming a better game developer in personal experience. The first is the sheer wealth of assets available online: 3D models, music, images, artwork, sound effects. The biggest pipeline blockage to making something fast, at least as far as I’ve experienced, is ingesting all the assets you need, and when you don’t need to worry about petty ethics when it comes to sourcing them, that bottleneck is quickly removed.

This comes with the advantage of letting you use any resource you want. Do you think the soundtrack of the Persona series is wasted on them and could be put to much better use in the tax filing simulator that only you or your circle of friends can ever play? Then use it! As an example: almost a year ago, I built a game for a friend’s birthday. It was a visual novel with him in the lead role, but to finish it on time, given how relatively ambitious the scenario was, I resorted to pilfering the contents of Google Images; “x stock photo” was a reliable way to find backgrounds that fitted my weird aesthetic.

Reverse-engineering the mechanics of other games can be a helpful way to learn new programming techniques.

You aren’t only limited to stealing assets, either. Is there a gameplay system that you really like in another game, that you think would be a neat fit in a personal project – like the combat system of a game you think does battling well, for instance? Well, through the magic of “never allowing anyone other than you and a group of people who you’ve sworn to silence to play it”, you can lift the mechanics of other games into your work.

This sounds ridiculous and like I’m not taking myself seriously, which is accurate, but there’s also a real creative benefit. Learning how to code and design games is a challenge, both in terms of picking up the syntax of whatever language you’re developing in, and of conceptualising game mechanics and designing gameplay flow. Faced with this, the decision fatigue that comes with an empty project and no direction can be prohibitively daunting; faced with limitless possibilities, how do you start?

This is why stealing helps. It changes the question: no longer “Where do I start?” but “How do I make this?” For the project I mentioned earlier, one of the visual novel’s many minigames was the trial system, lifted wholesale, from the Ace Attorney series. I’m not the greatest user interface designer in the world, and so getting a ton of independent and often competing systems to play nicely with each other was a compelling challenge, and the experience has taught me to appreciate the complexities of the medium more.

This leads neatly to the second reason you should steal things. It’s true that having a specific frame to work within can give you a helpful place to start with creative projects; it’s why some people (me) find it easier to write thousands of words of fan fiction rather than a 2000 word critical essay for their (my) actual degree.

If you’re short on placeholder graphics, your search engine of choice is a good starting point.

It’s also true that knowing your work has been at least partially stolen from the works of others is, despite the self-imposed constraints, surprisingly liberating in a creative sense. Since your creation can never legally enter the stream of commerce, it doesn’t matter whether it’s buggy or broken or barely functional or even fun – no comment section will ever see it.

I’ve found trying to replicate existing mechanics is a good way to learn new programming techniques, but your fear it’ll turn out broken? You can make your game without worrying about putting it in the hands of others. I can attest to recently trying to build a pathfinding system with an algorithm called A* (that story is a whole separate article, but suffice to say it’s going embarrassingly badly for someone who claims to be a bona fide game developer). Fortunately for my dignity, no one other than me and my circle of friends can ever know what a horrible programmer I am, and the relief that comes from that makes it far easier to keep trying.

What I’m trying to say is that, as weird as it sounds, knowing that no one other than yourself can ever legally see your work takes away so much of the pressure – the feeling that in order to be a genuine game designer you have to produce something ‘good’ or ‘functional’. It’s OK to make broken things, because everyone has to start somewhere – and for more people, I think, that somewhere should be blatant copyright theft.

But seriously, folks…

It’s important to remember, as helpful as this process can be to improving your creative cycle as a game developer, that copyright law is deadly serious. You should not publish games you create, even if you aren’t making money from it, unless you have a licence to use everything inside it or you have a fair use right to whatever you don’t. This article is not legal advice, and corporations are historically defensive of their copyrighted work; seek the assistance of a lawyer or a solicitor if you’re unsure about whether something is publishable.

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