Under the Hood – License to Game

License to Game
By The Warden

We live in an exciting and terrifying time, depending on where you stand in the entertainment business. For the consumer, it’s incredibly exciting as innovation and an ever-growing open market allow companies, both large and small, to provide new forms of entertainment through different mediums. For the producer, be it a studio, publisher, or what have you, it’s terrifying because change is expensive and risky. Just look at the number of studios who backed HD-DVD and you’ll see why.

Of course, you’re not reading an article on this site because you’re a movie buff. You’re here because you’re a RPG geek. Publishing’s decade of fear is now, just as the previous one was the decade of fear for the music industry, and RPGs fit right in the middle of it. It’s about more than just being able to produce a nice print copy of your game, supplements, and adventures, it’s about PDF, tablets, online subscriptions, and all those tired subjects all us bloggers love to preach: the apocalypse or evolution of modern gaming. For a while, I thought the music comparison to the publishing industry was a bit stretched. Now I find it incredibly fitting when it comes to the gaming industry – there’s no one right answer. To quote the Facts of Life, “what might be right for one, might not be right for some.”

Enough of what we think, today’s about how publishers are preparing to tackle these issues of change. A vast majority of RPGs released or upcoming are licensed products, a game based on existing and popular material made with consent and co-operation from the property’s owner. Four publishers in particular excel at these licenses and draw a majority – if not all – of their RPG sales from licensed products. Take a look at Green Ronin, Margaret Weis Productions, Evil Hat Productions, and Cubicle 7 to see what I’m talking about and you have close to a dozen examples of licensed – and best selling – RPGs. The One Ring, a licensed Tolkien RPG, cracked the Top 5 RPG list on ICv2 last month, while The Dresden Files RPG claimed the ENnie award’s heart in 2011.

Green Ronin Publishing has recently posted a triad of interesting articles on the very subject in their Round Table, including publisher Chris Pramas’ account of the process of gaining a license. Currently producing Dragon Age, DC Adventures, and A Song of Fire and Ice, he’s also been involved in other licensed RPGs through his own company and during his time with Wizards of the Coast (Star Wars and World of Warcraft) making him perhaps the best qualified person to discuss the topic.

“Typically, a license requires an advance and royalties. The advance is money up front that proves you are serious, and then the royalties are the percentage of your sales you pay to them in exchange for the license. It’s called an advance because you are pre-paying the first chunk of the royalties. Some licenses also have a guarantee. That’s a minimum amount of money due over the term of the license. Guarantees can be dangerous because if the line does not perform to expectations, you can end up spending a lot more than the royalties due.

“Another thing to negotiate is the length of the agreement. Most that I’ve seen tend to start with two or three years and then have an additional period of a year or two that happens automatically as long as both parties are happy with the agreement. Some also have limits for how many products are covered. For DC Adventures, our license is specifically for four books. We tried to negotiate a broader license, but the advance involved was simply untenable for a company of our size. It is good to know your limits.”

–   Chris Pramas from the Green Ronin website

On the surface, obtaining a license may seem costly compared to devising your own material from scratch, but there’s something that licensed game gains which your creation will struggle to create: instant recognition. What’s funny is while we scoff at movie studios for remakes and reboots (don’t get me started on why we need a new Spider-Man origin), finding out there’s a licensed RPG for Marvel Comics sends the same geeks into a frenzy of joy.

Is it easier to design a licensed RPG? It seems the answer is both yes and no, according to some of the particulars given by Will Hindmarch, developer for the Dragon Age RPG at Green Ronin.

“Thedas, the world of Dragon Age, is a big, dynamic place designed to accommodate stories, games, and other adventures of many different styles without surrendering its particular atmosphere and themes. Like a lot of the worlds that appeal to us gamers, it’s built to have room for many stories.

“This kind of fictional universe is sort of like a compilation album, with lots of different voices singing songs in the same key, with some shared instrumentation. Individual songs can strike out in new directions, and no one song is necessary to understand all the others, but every song should sound like they belong on the same album, more or less. So it’s our job to harmonize with what makes Dragon Age distinct and compelling without just imitating what’s come before.

“We don’t make books of lore, reflecting what’s happened in other media, we make a game for players who want to capture or recreate their own Dragon Age-style adventures. My job, as developer of the tabletop RPG, is not just to capture and contribute to the Dragon Age vision, it’s also to deliver an experience that builds on Chris Pramas’ vision of gameplay and supports the kind of adventures our players want to create in their home campaigns.”

–   Will Hindmarch from the Green Ronin website

It’s a magnificent shortcut allowing the mechanics to cut straight to the chase without needing incredible explanation or context. Simultaneously, it needs to work in tandem with the original material. If you’re playing Batman in DC Adventures and he doesn’t feel like Batman, then it’s an absolute failure and despite being one of comicdom’s most popular characters, everyone has their own take on the Caped Crusader.

Here’s a bigger challenge: Superman. While some of his “powers” have been toned down over the last couple of decades (check out www.superdickery.com for some examples of major cheese), he is without a doubt an incredibly powerful hero. If your group wants to play the Justice League, someone will raise their hands for Superman. That character needs to function like Superman without dwarfing all other heroes or else the players’ suspicion of disbelief is broken. Try creating an all-powerful class or character in any other, non-licensed game of your own creation and the forums will be crawling with rants about your broken mechanics. Licensed games almost literally play with double-edged swords: they can break the mould set down for original RPGs while simultaneously restricted to those made by the original material’s owner.

Some licenses have merely borrowed on the setting for inspiration, allowing the publisher opportunity to demonstrate how their existing and original RPG system can function in a wide variety of settings and genres. This was common in the d20 heyday as that system’s versatility and popularity made it the likely choice for publishers to bypass creating a new mechanic and a new setting. Today, licensed games often require a unique mechanic (The One Ring) or massive variations on a universal system (Marvel Heroic RPG using the Cortex Plus system developed by Margaret Weis Productions).

There’s no question using a licensed product to boost your exposure and sales reduces the risk involved in releasing a new RPG to the crowded market, though without any actual figures – including licensing costs – we may never know exactly how much benefit is gained from this contracts. When Hollywood started producing big budget films with $100 million productions in the early 2000’s, it was a huge risk but seen as “the way to go” and wasn’t a better guarantee until the world market was tapped as a mean to offset the increased production costs. For all we know, licensed RPGs barely break even on the spreadsheet, but succeed by putting the product’s name (and its publisher) atop the lists of popular games available.

What value will it have towards the future of the industry and the game? Are we potentially robbing ourselves of RPGs as a unique storytelling opportunity and slowly drifting towards its as a simulation? Will my nephew want to play a mechanized warrior in a space fantasy future fighting aliens or will he want to play Iron Man? Does licensing devalue the medium of role-playing games as a form of storytelling and is that more important than keeping the medium alive through popular trends? Or am I just trying to wrap up this editorial on a note of doom? Only time will tell.

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