I'm sure I've given this advice before, but now it's time I shared a little tale to go with my warning.
In 2012, I had an idea for a game I was going to do. I was psyched. It was going to be a huge hit, I could feel it in my gut. At the end of 2012, I moved to where I live now. Things got a little hellish, money became tight, I put the project on hold. In 2014 I found out one of my idols, a legend of the industry, was now fully open to working with smaller developers, and was even available for work.
Unfortunately, I can't reveal who this is, because it would be my word against his word... and all of his most loyal fans, and I can't exactly prove this happened, but let's call him The Betrayer. If you're clever and are able to connect enough dots to figure out who I'm talking about, please keep it to yourself. There's nothing I can do to fight this. I have to take the blow and use it as a warning to prevent it happening to others.
I idolized The Betrayer. He worked on multiple industry mega-hits. His work has been an incredible influence both on my childhood, and the childhoods of countless others. So I was thrilled by the prospect of getting my idol on board. I emailed him.
He responded saying he was excited to get to work with me. After coming down from the mother of all nerdgasms, I composed myself and began emailing back and forth about myself, answering his questions. Finally it came down to how much his time would cost me, and one final question "What kind of game are you working on?"
I gave him a very vague abstract just to give him an idea of what the game would be, and told him that if I was allowed enough time, I could launch a project Kickstarter and we could begin.
He didn't respond back. I gave him a follow up message, offering to show him images of the project and concept art at its stage of development at that time. No reply. I thought nothing of it, assumed he was busy, and started prepping everything I'd need to launch the Kickstarter. I decided I'd get back to him once I could prove this was a project I was taking seriously.
Fast forward a few months later. Another company suddenly announces a game with a project abstract identical to mine. The only things that are missing are the details I kept as vague as possible: characters, plot, plans, etc.
Production on my project grinds to a complete halt. I knew there was no way I'd be able to beat a full team of developers already with their own Kickstarter running. They were way ahead of me, and were working far too fast. I allow the project to slip into the shadows and collect dust. I have a feeling I've been betrayed, but can't really find a way to substantiate it enough to convince myself.
My project goes ice cold. I don't want to seem like a copycat, so the entire project, work and all, get archived and I move to something else, brokenhearted and depressed.
Fast forward to this year, this month. I discover, by way of The Betrayer's Twitter account that not only is he part of the stolen project, he's also a major contributor of it, and is highly invested in it.
As of writing this, I'm now convinced he took my idea and gave it to someone else.
Like I said, it's my word versus the word of a highly-beloved, AAA industry legend, and I have no real way to prove this was my idea first, and that he was the one who stole it, so I can't name names without suffering the wrath of his fanboys... But my idol betrayed me. I loved him and his work, I trusted him, and I was stabbed in the back and left face down in the mud.
You may be wondering, at this point "Can't you just do it anyway?"
Yes, I can indeed. The developers made huge mistakes both in development and in the public's opinion. I can do it myself, without The Betrayer, and I can do it better than him and his treacherous team. Mr. Betrayer sprang too early to swipe my idea. With my momentary hesitance, hoping to avoid seeming too eager, my vagueness saved me. They don't have my characters, my plot, my ideas, my world. All they got was the abstract.
I can still do it, but I'm going to wait a few more years. Wait until their project launches and when the dust settles on their bitter failure and no one remembers who they are, I'll pull my project back out of the drawer.
Let this story serve as a lesson, dear indie devs: don't make my mistake. Don't trust anyone. Not your brother, not your sister, not your best friend, not your husband, wife, son, daughter, mom or dad, and not even your biggest childhood idol. As kind and great as they may seem on the outside, they're all human on the inside. Swayed by money, tempted by fame and glory. Promise someone wealth and fame, and watch how quickly and easily they turn on you.
The hardest truth to this industry, you have no friends.
No, that's not completely true, but you should treat it like it is. You never know who you can trust. People like Phil Fish and The Betrayer are around every corner waiting to take advantage of you. And in the real world, cheaters do sometimes win.
You might now be wondering "How do you build a team if you can't trust anyone?"
I'm afraid I don't have the answer to that, as I have found no one in this industry I can trust. Composers, animators, AAA developers, I'm learning that this is a dog-stab-dog-in-the-back industry. I have yet to figure out how to find people that can be trusted. And now you know why, when I talk about my projects, I'm as vague as humanly possible: Not naming the game, not revealing character names, or even putting off naming them to make it easier to avoid revealing their names, and never telling the plot or premise of my games. It's reasons like my anecdote that keep me quiet.
Can you trust me? You can, but you shouldn't. I can't be trusted to hear an idea and not forget where it came from and not end up assuming it's my own.
Example: Years ago, when I was a young teenager with no access to the internet, I had thought the Epic of Gilgamesh was my idea, right down to Gilgamesh himself. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized it sounded familiar, but I wasn't sure why. When I eventually got access to the internet, I looked up "Gilgamesh" to try to figure out why he was so familiar to me, and turns out, I'd somehow heard of his story, forgotten where I'd gotten it from, and got it in my head that I had thought him up on my own.
I can't be trusted, either.
Don't let yourself fall prey the way I did. Take steps the way I do to avoid your ideas being stolen. And don't act like it couldn't happen to you, because it definitely can, and the looser your lips, the more likely it is that someone will snatch it, and likely get away with it, just like The Betrayer will get away with it, and probably has gotten away with it multiple times.