Sunday, April 29, 2012

David Sirlin

There are a lot of reasons to dislike David Sirlin. He made a game with a near constant stream of gratuitous female crotch shots. He made an expansion for someone else's game and then released their game bundled with his expansion (no, they don't make any money out of that arrangement). One of his games blatantly copied the graphic design, if not the entire game gimmick of tokens instead of cards, from another person (no, they don't make any money out of the arrangement either). He is disingenuous about the marketing of his products. He is not particularly respectful towards people who disagree with him.

None of which is particularly surprising when one considers where he's coming from. The fighting games community, where a high profile member recently said, without internal dissent, that sexual harassment is part of the culture. If you remove that from the fighting game community, it’s not the fighting game community, and the video game community, where copying someone else's idea and releasing it as your own is standard form, and likely the largest reason for the rather narrow breadth of types of games offered by the larger video game companies.

However, David Sirlin, as an outsider to the board game designer's club, does bring with him some very interesting ideas.

One, he wants to be paid for his design and development work. His method, for now, is to be an independent producer and to make sure he pulls in a fair share on his end, as opposed to the traditional designer method of selling one's idea to a company for them to produce it. A traditional method with an end result of designers earning less per hour than someone working in a fast food restaurant (where employees are paid the minimum allowable by law). Obviously, this is unheard of in the video game world.

Personally , I'm hoping designers will follow his lead. I think that for serious progress to be made in board game design, someone has to think it is worth their while to bother becoming really really good at it.

Now, he takes a lot of verbal abuse for this online. People consistently complain that he over charges for his games and that they can't be found online at super-discount like most games can. However, that's because people are comparing the model of not paying the designer a fair share for their work, to a designer who actually wants to get paid reasonably (not handsomely) for their work.

The fact is, the board game industry has created a situation where customers have come to associate the cost of a game with the components and not with the work that went into making the game (curiously, they can see that artists need to be paid, but not the game designers themselves). The work of designing a game has been completely erased from the end product as far as consumers are concerned. As if game ideas just appear out of nowhere, fully formed, ready to be manufactured.

Essentially, they only care about the physical production end. Sure they understand that the owner of the means of production deserves to get paid, after all, without them they wouldn't have a physical product sitting in their hands, but the designer? They don't see the importance of that aspect, and they don't connect it the hours put into design with having an impact on final cost.

Sirlin is having none of that. He works hard and he wants his fair share. I applaud him for that.

Two, he believes that games should be improved rather than expanded. Now he isn't the only person in the boardgaming world to act in this manner (Andy Looney's Fluxx series has seen both expansions as well as improvements with basic Fluxx being on version 4.0 I believe and other versions being on 2.0), but he is the only one that I know of to state it as a business model.

Now, when this principle is taken to the extreme, you end up with an industry that is simply in a cycle of reselling the same games over and over again with different trappings and the odd aesthetic improvement every once in a while like the video game industry (while modern fps may look very different and react smoother and what not from Castle Wolfenstein, they still end up providing the same experience as a game that came out over twenty years ago).

That's not good.

However, I think there is room in the board game industry, which is currently releasing more games than are being played, to learn something from this model. To say, rather than work hard at getting the next game out, maybe we should verify that all the games we have released already are still in working order. To see if they require fixes to make them the experience we are promising people they are (think of all the games you've played that promise you fun for x-y number of players but where the fun range is much smaller than that).

He also takes abuse from people for this one. People who are upset that they have to keep paying out money if they want to own the latest version. People who feel ripped off because the game they own will not be the same one that is being sold in stores.

Sirlin's response? If you are having fun with your copy of the game, don't buy the newest version, keep playing the copy you have. The newest version only matters if you want to play at a tournament level and need a physical copy of the game that matches the online version of the game, where those fixes were necessary.

Essentially saying, if you don't see why this version is necessary, then you are not the target audience for this game. A fair response and one I'd like designers to acknowledge more often. That there is a target audience for a game, and it doesn't have to be everyone on Earth. That you can make a quality game and make money off of it, even if the target audience is not the traditional target audience of the boardgame world.

Another issue where I think Sirlin brings with him an interesting point of view.

Hate him? Sure, if you must (I know I'm not a big fan). But I would prefer that we don't discount what it is he has to offer the boardgaming industry.


  1. Insightful post.

    I agree concerning his financial modelling.

    More can be said about the puerile nature of gaming communities. It drove me away from being involved in several.

  2. I have been informed that the comment about the fighting game community that I quoted in the text was disputed in the community in question. That does not, however, alter the widespread behaviour of the fighting game community that lead to the comment in the first place.

  3. I only just found this post, which is very interesting and does raise some good points, so forgive me for being so late to the party. That said, I have to disagree with a couple things here. First, a brief note on my background. I recently got into board gaming more out of interest in a section of the gaming community that I know basically nothing about. I read a lot of his writing on game design before I got into board games and I thought he had the right ideas. So basically, I like the guy and this is obviously biased accordingly. :)

    - "He made an expansion for someone else's game and then released their game bundled with his expansion."

    You must be talking about Sirlin's Flash Duel vs. the fencing simulation game En Garde. I've heard this debate before, and unfortunately this is just something people are going to either think is morally okay or morally wrong. I'm personally in the former camp.

    For one thing, it's not exactly the same. There's no push move in En Garde, and you can't use larger numbers than you have spaces available to move. The second thing in particular actually drastically changes the game because it makes your 1 cards much more powerful in Flash Duel, where you can play a larger number and just move as many spaces as possible. So you might say "Okay, it's not exactly the same, but it's close enough that it doesn't matter." I disagree completely. It's actually crucial. En Garde is a very simple game. It's so simple that changing a couple of rules like this basically gives you an entirely different (but also very simple) game. This doesn't even get into the fact that this only applies to the most basic mode of Flash Duel. Once you start adding in characters, a 2v2 team mode and the dragon raid modes, you cannot possibly begin to argue that you are playing the same game.

    On that note, you correctly pointed out that this sort of thing is commonplace in the video game industry. To people like David and myself, this is the march of progress. It's how better games get made, by building on what came before. You can try to argue that you're using the original game as a base and so it's a derivative work, but you're talking about a game that can be played with numbered cards and stones. To consider such a thing worthy of such total enshrined protection is frankly laughable to me, and luckily the courts have agreed. Game mechanics themselves cannot be copyrighted, only the specific implementation of those mechanics (i.e. artwork, code, sound), and with good reason. We don't want Mario to be the only platforming game out there. It wasn't even the first. We don't want Street Fighter to be the only fighting game either.

    - "One of his games blatantly copied the graphic design, if not the entire game gimmick of tokens instead of cards, from another person."

    Okay, perhaps you can mention specifically what games of his and others you're referring to in case people reading this aren't familiar with them. :) Clearly you're talking about Puzzle Strike, as it's the only one of Sirlin's games that uses chips (or "tokens" if you prefer) instead of cards, but I have no idea what the other person's game is. Frankly, it doesn't even matter to me.

    Unless you can clarify this further, this reads like you're saying that the idea of using chips with coloured banners and arrows instead of cards in a deck building game is something that one person can have a monopoly on. This is absolute crap, and I'm calling it such. This isn't even a matter of philosophy on cloning anymore. This is like saying one company can have a monopoly on making chairs out of wood, and other companies have to find other materials to make chairs such as plastic or metal. Again, maybe you meant something more specific, in which case clarification would be welcome. But as it stands, this statement looks simply ludicrous to me.

    1. DF,

      What I'm saying is he's disengenuous in his marketing. His marketing talks about his innovation of using chips, except, it wasn't his innovation.

      And to show how effective this is, you believe that pushing in Flash Duel is his innovation, when in reality he simply took it from the Sumo variant of En Garde.

      Like I said, I think David Sirlin is good for the industry, but not because he makes innovative games, because he doesn't. But the board game industry does need to focus more on paying game creators and on releasing better games (instead of just trying to churn them out to appeal to the Cult of the New).

      That being said, they probably don't need to have someone churning out the same game three times in two years. I think games should be finished when they are released. It's actually the reason why I don't buy David's games, I'm not interested in playing it for a month only to figure out that it's broken and that I now need to buy the next version. Sell the final version first, not the Betas (something the video game industry can get away with because of free updates, but I don't think the idea transfers to board games very well).

  4. Well he's certainly mentioned that chips are easier to shuffle than cards. I've never heard anything to suggest that he was claiming this was his main brilliant idea and he somehow invented it or claimed ownership of it in any way. He mentioned this mainly as a side point, and I certainly like throwing chips into a bag vs. shuffling a deck of cards. The main reason I understand that he wanted to use chips is because Puzzle Strike is simulating a puzzle fighting game, in particular Super Puzzle Fighter. The chips just make more sense as representing the gems piling up and getting sent to your opponent. The game would be exactly the same if it used cards instead.

    As for being disingenuous with his marketing, that was the only thing I could think of that you could possibly be referring to. Namely, how his designs are based on other designs, etc. I already explained how I think this is actually a good thing since we get better, more refined games as a result, so we'll just have to agree to disagree there I suppose. So I personally don't think he's being disingenuous. Also, I'm not familiar with this "sumo" variant of En Garde, only the basic rules. I was simply trying to list the differences between the two as I understood them.

    Releasing new editions, yes this is something he takes a lot of flack for, which is understandable. But in his defence, this is actually unique to Puzzle Strike. Flash Duel got a second edition because it was basically putting the expansion pack in with the main game and upgrading the main game to use a whole new (and much better) printing process, not to mention completely redoing the artwork on the character cards. The first edition also was only printed in small numbers, so it made a lot of sense to combine everything and have a new printing. There's a lot of value in that box. Yomi has only one edition of it. As far as I'm aware, there are no plans for a second edition to coincide with the expansion (currently being worked on full time, but probably at least a year until it comes out).

    The main reason for the second edition printing of PS was because the production process completely changed. (His games are independently published and they had never done chips before.) The first edition used wooden chips, but the printing process had issues with this. There were some gameplay changes, yes, based on feedback they'd gotten at very high level tournament play. They figured since they were doing a whole new production anyway, they may as well throw those changes in. But the game wasn't "broken", certainly no more broken than say the Dominion base set at high level play, for example.

    Similarly, the upgrade pack for the second edition was mainly about getting those playmats and screens for hiding your hand of chips more easily. The third edition coincides with the expansion release, and basically it combines the playmats, screens, everything into a single box so it could be as good as possible and consistent with the expansion. There is a modification to the way the combine chip works, but you can easily use that rule with previous editions. Similarly, they revamped the free-for-all rules but those are also easily used with previous editions. Nothing about the new edition invalidates the previous editions, and they're not broken in terms of overall balance.

    All this having been said, that's three editions in two years. That is a lot, I agree. It's totally understandable that people are put off by this. I guess the main thing I'm trying to say is that it doesn't mean the previous editions were broken in some fatal way, which is often the assumption about new editions. They weren't. It was simply what you mentioned about constantly improving the game, especially at high level play. This also makes it really easy for new players to get into the game without having to worry about expansions and upgrade packs, which is something I think is really important.

    1. I wish I hadn't said broken. I haven't heard that any editions of his games so far are broken. Poor choice of words on my part, sorry.