Of course you can sell a game. But can you sell game rules? Can you sell rules and still make a buck?
No. Rule’s can’t be copyrighted and aren’t worth patenting (and a rules patent would probably be overturned in court if it came to that). Rules, in and of themselves, have no monetary value.
You could collect a large amount of rules and sell them as a book. If the rules referred to games you could play using standard components. If there were enough of them. If they were of games similar to what people were already playing, or aimed at a specialist audience. And you probably wouldn’t make much with it. So no, even if you could sell rules you wouldn’t make much money selling them.
So even though rules are at the core of any game they’re not what makes the game salable. How about the components? Can you make money selling components?
You can sell components. Walk into any game store and you can buy dice, chips, even maps or boxes. But there isn’t much money in components. Not in the type of components that are mass-manufactured by the lowest bidder. If you want people to haul out their wallets you need quality. High quality. Exclusive quality. Hand carved chess sets. Petrified wood dice (boy, would I love some Artisan Dice. Ceramic poker tiles (although those have become mass market as well and dropped in value). Gloss finish marble dice are common now and not much more expensive than ordinary ones. And the competition is fierce and driving prices down; I recently bought 50 D6:s on eBay for all of $4.50 including shipping. So no, you can’t make much money selling generic components.
You can sell Star Wars vs Harry Potter Monopoly. You can make a lot of money selling Star Wars games, even though the game rules aren’t very good. Even though the game components aren’t very good. It’s enough that it’s Star Wars and not abysmal. But then, if you aren’t selling rules, and you aren’t selling components, what are you selling?
Experiences. Fantasies. Franchises. Which are nice to have but augmented by the feel of a nice hunk of plastic in your hand. A hunk of nice plastic. Or thick cardboard. Good art. Quality. We’re in the business of selling quality.
Not quality game design; most games today are played a few times before the players move on to the next one. That’s not enough to find all the flaws or appreciate all the nuances of a well balanced mechanic. It is enough to feel the heft of the components, see the art, make the recommendation to a friend: “it’s a good game and it looks great”. Good game. Looks great.
The games funded on Kickstarter aren’t always the ones playing the best; as gamers we don’t know how they play. But if they look great they’ll have a much higher chance of succeeding. Looks sell. So while we might be in the business of designing games we’re in the business of selling looks; we’re in the business of selling art. Or rather, art, especially but not limited to franchise art, is what sells games.
The question is: have we come to the point where a decent game with great components will outsell a great game with decent components? In the mass market I’m pretty sure that this is true. But is it true in the hobby market as well? If not, is it becoming true? Would we still buy a Britannia with first edition components for the gameplay or are we experiencing component creep? If so, what are the ramifications on hobbyist game publishers, those of us happy to print out copies of our game on our home laser printers. Does pure gaming stand a chance against art?
I have no idea.