Steve Long on Licensed RPGs

Posted by on Jan 13, 2011 in Business, Design, Licensing, RPGs | 11 Comments

The Indie Press Revolution blog posted an op-ed piece by Steve Long about licensed RPGs yesterday. You should read it. Steve argues that in the last decade the tabletop roleplaying hobby as a whole has been creatively diminished by the tendency of publishers to produce licensed games rather than creating new settings for their games.

Steve’s analysis is thoughtful, contains Actual Facts, and as an extra special bonus, explicitly tries to head off the obvious misinterpretations that trolls and flamers are likely to spew in response.

Steve admits a great deal of creativity in today’s indie and story-games communities, but discounts them on the basis of their narrow appeal:

Story games tend to be narrowly focused on a specific type of story or game play, and to have little (if anything) in the way of an associated setting/intellectual property. They’re extraordinarily innovative in terms of rules design and game theory… but rules and theory don’t play at all outside of the narrow confines of the hard-core RPG community.

I think that this speaks mainly to a market issue rather than a creative one, and is related to the rise of MMOs. The majority of tabletop roleplayers in the ’80s and ’90s wanted a mechanical experience that’s now better served by computer games, and so today those people mostly play computer games instead. They’re not bad or wrong, they’re just getting what they want more effectively elsewhere.

The players who remain in the tabletop world today are, by and large, those who are not as well served by computer games because they want to scratch an itch other than the bashing of doors, killing of monsters, and upping of levels. These players have made story games more popular in the last decade because they provide the experience those players want. But these games can never be as popular (in terms of sales) as the marquee RPGs of the ’90s because so many of the people who were buying RPGs in the ’90s have moved on. The pool of buyers is just plain smaller.

I don’t think that the niche mechanics of today’s story games makes them less apt beds for IP development at all; comparing them to Shadowrun and finding them wanting discounts the significant change in the marketplace between then and now.

I don’t know if full disclosure warrants it or not, but I’m currently the line developer for Green Ronin’s Dragon Age RPG, which—obviously—is a licensed game.

Like I said, though, read Steve’s piece.


  1. Gareth
    January 13, 2011

    “The majority of tabletop roleplayers in the ’80s and ’90s wanted a mechanical experience that’s now better served by computer games, and so today those people mostly play computer games instead. […] games can never be as popular (in terms of sales) as the marquee RPGs of the ’90s because so many of the people who were buying RPGs in the ’90s have moved on. The pool of buyers is just plain smaller.”

    Careful now. Say stuff like that, and you’ll end up getting piled on in flames on multiple forum sites. Gamers do not like being told that they’re a shrinking niche.

    Trust me. I’ve seen it happen.

  2. Will Hindmarch
    January 13, 2011

    I have two serious independent (i.e., creator-owned) RPG projects lined up for the coming months. One is a story game with virtually no built-in setting whatsoever. The other is a pretty straightforward RPG with an attached setting and story arc that classify as a new IP, I think. I’m planning on completing and releasing both of these games because they represent two sides to RPG development and functionality, and I want to be better versed in both those sides.

    Neither approach is necessarily demonstrative of a shortcoming of the hobby, either in a market sense or in a creative sense, though. Or so says I. That said, it’s true that RPGs should be viable test beds for new IPs, like comics are, and may serve some value as such. However, when was the last time that an RPG licensed “up” rather than “down.” How many RPGs have actually been turned into larger or more lucrative franchises in recent years?

    I can think of a few examples that have been tapped for MMOs or movies… but the fact seems to be that RPGs aren’t seen as a rich field of IP development right now. I have further opinions on why this is… but that’s probably a whole other post of its own.

  3. Jeff Carlsen | Apathy Games
    January 13, 2011

    This trend is going to continue unless the overall size of the RPG market grows exponentially, and begins to look like the videogame industry. This is because licenses rarely translate well between mediums. Videogames that do very well are the ones that are designed from the ground up to be videogames. RPGs are not different.

    This is most likely to happen around a masterfully crafted setting and system that has both mainstream appeal and a digestible product strategy. It also will very likely not look like RPGs do today.

  4. Daniel M. Perez
    January 14, 2011

    You know, it’s not that Steve doesn’t have a point, it’s just that it seemed to have come out of nowhere to pile on people who are doing something that he himself upholds in his essay, having fun with what they do.

  5. Russell Bailey
    January 16, 2011

    “Neither approach is necessarily demonstrative of a shortcoming of the hobby, either in a market sense or in a creative sense, though. Or so says I. ”

    So says Will, and so I agree.

  6. JDCorley
    January 16, 2011

    “Those games I don’t like are really bad for everyone, and demonstrate how bad they are as people. By contrast, the games I like…”

  7. Frederick Hicks
    January 22, 2011

    I’ve had a couple people say to me they felt like Steve was “aiming at Evil Hat” with that article. I don’t feel that’s so, and I don’t need folks to step up and defend me even if that’s so. I’m all growed up and can defend myself!

    Plus, I work with Steve on a weekly if not daily basis, doing layout for Hero Games. If there’s a problem between us I surely do not see it!

    I do think Steve making a few good points in there about what the hobby market is interested in these days, but I think those points get considerably muddied by the grabby-headline idea that Licensed Games Are Creatively Void. (Especially after a couple years where I think some of the more exciting moments of game design have happened inside licensed games.)

    On that point, I think Steve’s missing the mark. For me, a license is like a creative writing exercise as opposed to a blank page. Each has its own challenges, but the former — the writing exercise — has, with me, often produced better writing than the blank page.

    To put it another way, restriction breeds creativity.

    That’s not to say that licenses can’t be handled lazily. Absolutely, observably, they can. There’ve certainly been licensed games that have shown little to no inspiration, and if the folks working on them genuinely had passion for the IP they were licensing, it did not come through.

    But when they’re handled with passion, with rigor, with drive — something really incredible comes out of it. My college-years-and-beyond gaming revolved almost exclusively around a licensed product: the Amber Diceless RPG. Hugely formative, and a strong example of a well-handled license back when licensed games weren’t all that common. And dear god, the incredibly rich creativity *spawned* by that game in its community (the like of which I’ve never seen since). If there were shackles there, I didn’t see them and didn’t experience them. The “restrictions” of the license acted more as springboards for participation and ownership of an entertaining IP. We had much of that in mind when it came time to work on the Dresden Files RPG.

    No slight intended, but when I contrast this with an original IP that grabbed a lot of people but never grabbed me — Exalted — the original IP doesn’t really come close. This is in part, I think, because the original IP had no strong, pre-existing community of shared knowledge and interest before the game showed up. I just plain did not want to read vast volumes of gamebook fiction in order to understand the world. I wanted to, say, have read the Amber novels and feel like I was ready to go.

    Which is the other big positive of licensed games, honestly. Shared knowledge is incredibly potent. It’s automatic community, even when that community doesn’t agree about which parts of that shared knowledge are good and which are bad (everyone had their own version of Amber that sung and their own version which sucked). And with a by-comparision marginal hobby like tabletop gaming, that existing fandom community outnumbers us.

    Which isn’t a depressing truth, for me; it’s an exciting one. That’s opportunity. A chance to bring just a few more people in to our little tabletop obsession because the game is one more way to experience the fandom, and importantly, a way to feel a sense of ownership about it in a way that’s not much different from writing fanfic.

    Have you SEEN the size of the fanfic community? Untapped veins of gold, there. I know a few folks from within the Dresden Files fandom who’ve never really played an RPG before but have written plenty of fanfic. They’re gearing up to play their first RPG, ever, soon, and it’s the DFRPG.

    Without a license, our hobby simply wouldn’t be adding those people to it.

  8. Zooroos
    January 27, 2011

    I cannot help but to agree with Fred here. Though it’s true that old licenced rpgs presented oftenly weak representations of their respective IPs, I think that was because the hobby was still young and most design and system implementations were strongly influenced by one particular game (D&D).

    Now the hobby has acquired a considerable design/theoretical ‘corpus’ from their wargaming origins up to the more modern indie trends, and all of this to me speaks about a more thoughtful approach to licenced IPs and a better representation overall of the spirit of same IPs.

    Great blog by the way Will!

  9. Will Hindmarch
    January 27, 2011

    Every attempt I’ve made to argue that the fanfic community could be potential gamers—in discussion, not in business, where I’ve made no serious attempts at this argument yet—have been met with hand waving and dismissal. “If they wanted to be gamers, they’d be gamers already,” is what I hear. I’d love to find out that river can be bridged, though.

  10. Fred Hicks
    January 27, 2011

    In my opinion, it can be bridged (and has been before, by Amber DRPG, the play of which actually spawned it — and for a while supported a zine that published it). But you first have to not be someone so dismissive as you report, Will — and then, you need to be a member of (by adoption or creation) of the fan community of which the ficcers are a part.

  11. Steve Long
    February 8, 2011

    Just to be clear — I definitely wasn’t aiming at Evil Hat in particular when I wrote what I did, or at any specific other company or person. As Fred rightly observes, I can mock him all I want just when we’re discussing the layout of the latest Hero book. 😉


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