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.