Friday, February 04, 2011

Why I Hesitate to Get Into Licensed Games

Apparently it's the "in" thing to bash licensed games at the moment, and I don't mean to jump on that bandwagon, but I first drafted this post back in November of last year and let it cool for a while before posting. I still have some concerns about licensed games that I haven't really seen mentioned elsewhere yet, so I thought I'd share them. Of course, I don't spend a lot of time reading RPG forums and such, so it may have been covered elsewhere and I just haven't seen it.

This is not a comment on the quality of licensed games. Some of the best games out there are based on licensed properties. The Dresden Files RPG is hot. The Smallville and Leverage RPGs have gotten some excellent reviews. Unlike the days of TSR's Adventures of Indiana Jones RPG, games using licensed properties today tend to actually be pretty good.

The problem is the nature of licensing. Specifically, the fact that licenses eventually end. This has always been the case, but in the past the end of a license was not something that had a very big impact on the consumer. In most cases, if a license was profitable it was kept, and if it wasn't then it was dropped. From the consumer's perspective, if a license was lost it was identical to what would happen if a line was ended for any other reason: new stuff stopped coming out and old stuff disappeared from the retail shelves.

With the increasing role of the internet and ebooks, things have changed. When a license ends, all support for that product usually ends, as the licensee is often legally obligated to end that support. When WotC dropped the Star Wars license, they took down most of their online content, and there was a lot of that content. Whole chapters that were cut from the printed books were posted online. Some or all of this is now available elsewhere, but finding it can be tricky, and hosting it is potentially dangerous should Lucasfilm ever decide to play hardball (WotC ended up keeping the forums for the game on their site, and after some random searching I was able to find links on them to fan created compilations of content formerly hosted by WotC).

Now, WotC is one of the few companies that doesn't make PDF copies of its books available, so that wasn't an issue with the Star Wars RPG, but the more recent demise of the Conan RPG from Mongoose, and the Battlestar Galactica and Serenity RPGs from Margaret Weiss Games, points out that when a license is gone, it's usually gone for everything, including PDFs.

When most non-licensed RPGs go out of print, even if the publisher decides not to re-print the game, it's usually still available for purchase as a PDF. That's not the case for licensed games. I wouldn't have even known that any of these games were going away if not for being bombarded with reminders that the PDF products would soon be unavailable.

This makes a game ending due to a lost license a distinct event compared to a game ending for any other reason. If a company decides to stop printing new product, they still usually leave PDF versions for sale (and sometimes even publish new product solely in PDF format). When a company goes out of business, the rights to the games they published usually revert to someone who can still sell the PDF versions.

While less visible than before, the games are still out there, unlike licensed games which virtually disappear after the license ends.

While no RPG is ever truly dead as long as there are copies of the rules out there and people willing to play them, games that remain easily available as PDFs are certainly more healthy than those that don't have them available. To me, this potentially makes getting into a licensed game a riskier proposition.

For example, Leverage has been sold as an extremely hackable game by one of its designers, Rob Donoghue of Fate fame, but I'm extremely leery of getting into a system that I expect to be commercially available for only a couple of years before becoming completely unavailable. This is partly because historically, it's often been several years after I get a new game before I'm actually able to play it. While that has changed thanks to our Magpie Gaming Night group, it's still something that's very much in the back of my head.

So what's the solution? I could say "don't do licensed games" but I think that's both unrealistic and unfair. A lot of people like licensed games, including me. There are properties that I want to use in gaming, and I don't always want to have to hack my own system to do so. Licensed games also often make for the most interesting sourcebooks for the properties they are based on. The Star Wars expanded universe arguably got its real start from the original Star Wars RPG.

I think that a better solution has been presented by Green Ronin in how they are doing the DC Adventures RPG. They've published a complete licensed game, but also published the exact same game system without the DC intellectual property as Mutants & Masterminds 3rd Edition. So, when the DC license inevitably goes away, people will still be able to get into the game (assuming that the game hasn't moved on to 4th edition, but that's a whole different set of issues).

Margaret Weiss Productions started with a similar process, creating the Cortex system as a standalone set of rules (if only in house at first), then adapting it to their licensed properties, but that's no longer really the case. Their two most recent games, Smallville and Leverage, have hacked the core rules so much that they are, in my opinion, barely recognizable as being related to the Cortex system, and were those games to go away tomorrow, it would take considerable work to run them using only the Cortex core rulebook.

To summarize, my concern with licensed games is that when I come back to a system in a couple of years I want to be able to get a new player into the game. There's often no easy way to do that with a licensed game that has lost the license.