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.


BlackDiamond said...

As a store owner, licensed games are met with extreme skepticism. It's a "throw away" product that we'll stock for a while until the initial interest wanes and then drop like a hot potato. There is a palpable sense that the timer is ticking when these games are on the shelf.

Although Serenity was one of our best selling games ever, nobody actually played it and when supplements came out, its true nature shined through. It was a fan book in game format.

Also check out Steve Long's article "The Licensing Trap," which talks about how licensed products are a creative dead-end for game publishers:

Fulminata said...

I believe that article is what kicked off the current round of "bashing." I've seen many of the points in it argued against, and have some problems with it myself.

I don't think that RPGs have ever been that great a source for original IP, and have always had a strong licensed element. Call of Cthulhu being one of the oldest.

Of the three original properties he mentions, Shadowrun, Deadlands and Legend of the Five Rings, I don't find any of them terribly original, although I still have a soft spot for Shadowrun. There's a reason none of them have seen any great adoption outside of RPGs.

Outside of Glorantha and Tekumel I can't really think of an IP created for an RPG that really stands out as something special, and those were both technically started before their respective RPGs were created.

For the most part original IP in RPGs has been either generic, an obvious mashup of "let's take X and add magic", or a "borrowed" IP with the serial numbers filed off.

The problem I have with licensed games is the legal baggage that comes with the license. I don't think it's often worth it. I realize it's partly because I insulate myself from certain elements of pop culture, but lately I haven't even been aware of certain IP until they've been licensed as RPGs. Dresden Files and Leverage being two prime examples. Never heard of either of them until the RPGs were in development.

J. Griffin Barber said...

I am with you on almost all your points, Fulmi.

I have seen a few games that have some very original settings and even systems. Eclipse Phase comes to mind as a pretty original IP.

Fred Hicks (Evil Hat Productions) said...

I'm pretty confident a lot of the value of the Leverage RPG will manifest in a more generalized Cortex Plus product at some point. And with the Dresden Files RPG, much of what we do there will likely manifest in more perpetually available Fate products down the line. (It also helps that Evil Hat has a very positive relationship with Jim Butcher, which means we may be able to keep the DFRPG available for quite some time.)

Even so, your points are well-taken, though I still I remain a fan of licenses for a variety of reasons I don't have the time to get into here. I'd also observe, however, that something being non-licensed doesn't necessarily provide a greater guarantee of it not suddenly vanishing at some point.

Fulminata said...

That's good to hear! I will probably pick up Leverage at some point despite my concerns, but would love to have a Cortex Plus rulebook available.

One of the reasons I only mentioned Dresden Files briefly is because I figured you're in a fairly enviable position in regards to your relationship with Jim Butcher, plus the rules themselves are covered under the OGL, so if something was to happen to the license, the rules could still be extracted and made available, and almost certainly would be.

Now that it's been mentioned, I suppose this is also a decent solution to the problem. If a game's rules are covered by the OGL, then there's a lot less concern over the license going away because anyone could extract the rules and make them available.

FYI: I ended up reading some of the Dresden Files books because of the RPG rather than the other way around. I was completely unaware of the series until I first heard about the game being under development back in 2007, and decided to check it out so that I'd be aware of what the game was all about.

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