Additional Random Thoughts on Licensing

Posted by on Jan 15, 2011 in Comics, Licensing, Movies, RPGs | 5 Comments

Apropos of my earlier post on Steve Long’s licensed games op-ed piece:

  • Roleplaying games are not very easy to adapt to traditional narrative forms like novels and films because the most important thing about traditional narrative forms are their protagonists and the things they want, but nearly every RPG begins with the premise that the protagonist is something the player develops, and which is not part of the game-as-published. In an RPG, the more you say about how the protagonist needs to be, the more sketchy a proposition your game becomes.
  • Comic books have a nefarious leg up in movie licensing compared to other creative forms because their for-publication format amounts to a film’s storyboard. The numb Suited Human evaluating a comic book property for his production company needs to expend nearly no imaginative effort to see the movie in his mind.
  • Even low-circulation comic books benefit from the point above. Even RPGs with a vastly larger fan-base than Indie Comic Book #4,572 can’t compete with them in terms of scoring a movie license, especially given the massive money that’s been earned in the past by high-impact comic licenses like X-Men and Iron Man. (Never mind that there’s no comparison between the comics in question. The Suited Human making the evaluation is simply concerned that, if the movie fails, he will be able to say, “It wasn’t a stupid decision to make a movie based on a comic book. Look at all these other, massively successful comic book adaptations!” And then, the logic goes, he can’t get fired. Not so much with an RPG adaptation.)


  1. Will Hindmarch
    January 15, 2011

    You beat me to this, Jeff, and just as well, ’cause I think you cut to the quick here. Most RPGs (but not all) are not great vehicles for licensing out to other media, because a world or setting does not a movie make. Look, for example, at the Syfy Channel’s newest D&D movie, called Book of Vile Darkness. The proper nouns that one gets with the D&D license belong largely to things other than protagonists. Your Elminsters are the exceptions that all but prove the rule. (This is, of course, why Dragonlance was ripe for licensing—characters galore—though it didn’t quite get the cinematic treatment it could have.)

    The sad truth is that it’s easier for a movie studio to be inspired by an RPG world, yet create an original story of their own, than it is to attach a multi-million-dollar investment to a brand that people might think of as being outside their comfort or familiarity zone. (I’m thinking of Blade and its post-Vampire: The Masquerade isms here.)

    At the risk of jinxing anything, RPGs with tight situations and pre-written protagonists are probably the best suited for optioning by movie studios or comic-book outfits. What qualifies? John Harper’s Lady Blackbird, for one. I’m likewise building Databank in part to play as a license-friendly property, in part as a design challenge to myself, in part as a portfolio piece, and in part because I think that kind of tightly codified play experience makes it easier (and more fun?) to compare notes after play with other players. (Though licensing isn’t the point; if Databank ends up being just a solid RPG adventure—it might not be regarded as a full game in the classical sense—I’ll be happy.) These are just some of the things that have to get weighed when seriously designing a new game with the hopeful potential to be a larger property.

    And, yes, I feel sort of leery talking about developing properties in this way. My comfort zone is in developing stories and gameplay, foremost, but that’s not necessarily everything to some of the people I’d like to reach. To justify the development time for a new RPG, it seems like a smart thing to do is to think of it as something at least potentially bigger than just its incarnation as an RPG. It’s good to aspire, right?

    And maybe now is when we talk about the transmedia potential of any new game. Licensing is the old technology.

  2. Jack Graham
    January 15, 2011

    First thing pops into my mind here is TSR’s Indiana Jones RPG, which was a perfectly serviceable pulp action/adventure RPG… except for the lack of a chargen system. One had to play Sallah, Indy, Short Round, or… I forget… either Willie, or someone completely lame like the pilot dude.

    Way to go, suited humans.

  3. Jeff Tidball
    January 15, 2011

    “Licensing is the old technology.” That’s interesting, and I like the way that rings, but does that mean you’re a dinosaur if you don’t want to make the comic, the app, the film, and the novel yourself? I’m not sure about that.

  4. Will Hindmarch
    January 16, 2011

    I don’t think licensing makes you a dinosaur. The old technology isn’t necessarily obsolete. Licensing might be the radio rather than the horse-drawn buggy.

  5. Robert
    January 17, 2011

    The opportunity for RPG owners is to use transmedia storytelling and write their own movie script. With transmedia storytelling the movie exists in the storyworld of the RPG such that players want to see the movie because it adds a new dimension (new information? new characters? new history or future?) to the gameplay and non-players want to see the movie because it’s a great script.

    The movie protagonist need not be the player in the game (game protagonist) – he’s a new character that may be mentioned in the RPG but perhaps never played.

    Will’s right – the problem with trying to licence a world is that there’s still nothing that can be sold by the licensor – the world still needs to be condensed into “a game” or “a movie”. With the comic book, it’s no so much that it’s easy to read or that it’s storyboarded, it’s that it’s a story visually told. Too many other stories are told through dialog or thought-processes which seldom translate to the screen very well.


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