Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Taking the “P” out of “IP”

It's no secret that as a rule, I tend to hate licensed or "intellectual properties." Yes, as a comic book, novel, movie, or whatever original media it was it could well have rocked. But build a game out of it, and things start to slide around a bit. And usually, that sliding is downhill.

The Temptation to Slouch

From the marketing perspective, the intellectual property is like gold, baby. People bought the comic book, people watched the movie, they'll probably buy the game too. It's what made Star Wars such a multimedia cash cow: a loyal fan base—remember that "fan" is an abbreviation of "fanatic."

But does it mean better? Hardly. Traditionally in a game it's an indicator of the opposite. Given that the game may become a smash hit based on name recognition alone, there is this tendency toward laziness, to phone in whatever game aspects there are in order to milk that cash cow as quickly as possible. After all, the game's going to sell. Why put in more work than you have to? (Note that the term "more work than you have to" is up for debate.)

The brand manager doesn't necessarily know games; he just knows enough about the cash cow to keep an overenthusiastic licensee from turning it into hamburger. It takes more than correct layout and vivid splashy color pages to make a good game. The game itself needs to be coherent, sensible, and fitting to the source material. This is something the licenser could verify by playing it, if they had the time.

Cases in Point

The good licensed game can happen. It's usually not by accident, though, and involves game designers who are keenly enthusiastic about the material in question. Have I mentioned Evil Hat's The Dresden Files enough lately? Here's probably another place to drop its name: the system is their own house Fate system with great pains taken to adapt it to Jim Butcher's work.

I mentioned Star Wars above, and that's really no accident; Wizards of the Coast has held that license for some time, and done reasonably well with it. Whether it's for the setting or the system is left as an exercise for the reader. Sadly, I've had trouble accepting D20 as a good system for that setting, but that may just be me.

One licensed game which I will admit to not liking is Victory Games' old James Bond 007 roleplaying game. It lacked cohesion, having three different task resolution systems which squabbled like spoiled, hungry children. It may have been a veritable encyclopedia on the source material (or the mutated, customized version thereof), but the game itself was a distraction.

Doctor Who has had multiple treatments over the years, first with FantaSimulations' (FASA) house treatment which was perhaps slightly more solid in system than presentation (which doesn't say much), and the new version from Cubicle 7 which follows the new series with a riot of color. The system seems all right and I look forward to trying it someday. The Story Point mechanism invites all manner of game-related chaos, and this could be considered a good thing, so I approve of that. No, the new game suffers another problem: an utter inability to think outside the box. All characters and game items defined in the game are items from the TV series. I remember some (very few) suggestions of variant plots, and that's about it.

The superhero genre just begs for this treatment. The licensers are just as eager for the income as the licensees are for name recognition. Their treatment has been, shall we say, haphazard?

TSR (yes, this is before Wizards of the Coast used its engulf attack) had released a Marvel Superheroes game. Shortly after that, they released an Advanced Marvel Superheroes game, which included the movement rules that were left out of the basic game. 'Nuff said, true believers.

Now, DC Heroes has had a bit more love lavished on it. The original licensee was Mayfair Games, and they produced a workable, if somewhat quirky system of offensive, defensive, and resistance attributes which would become the spiritual ancestor of several other games (a story for another TORG—er, I mean time). When Mayfair ran into trouble, the license was picked up by West End Games. WEG thought to use their in-house d6 system with special dice, and print the rulebook on comic-book weight paper as a novelty. It wasn't. It really, really wasn't. Later, Green Ronin Games picked up the license and released DC Adventures, which has a fairly solid system firmly rooted in what felt like a well trimmed-down D&D 4e. It should be noted that Green Ronin had a head-start on this book, having already created Mutants and Masterminds. So I'm not sure that should count; it'll take further study of the game to determine just how much of DCA is ganked from M&M.

Speaking of West End Games, remember the old Ghostbusters game? That and their original version of Star Wars had the foundations of their d6 system, the one which that particular ship went down with. It was entertaining for its time, but nobody's picked up that particular license. I think I can cite at least one case where a developer left the license where it was and walked past, though...

When Licensing Met Resistance

And that developer would be Jared Sorensen, who has cranked out many different games beside the techno romp Freemarket. Earlier he'd produced the game Inspectres, which was at least in part a nod to certain handicam supernatural television shows that are certain cable networks. It was also, he mentioned in the book itself, a nod to a certain movie which remained nameless but is most likely Ghostbusters.

See, that's another problem I find with the notion of licensing the campaign from someone else: the licenser has some care for how spiffy and shiny the product is, but ultimately what he, she, or they want from the transaction is the money. And roleplaying games, especially by smaller publishers, well, they tend not to make the really big bank. They can't afford the licenses, so they're left wallowing in obscurity while larger companies can buy the license to the name, more often than not crank out mediocrity, and make more money doing it too. I hate that.

There are probably other games like that, things which could perhaps have been the basis for a license of someone else's intellectual property, which didn't pass muster. Its original purpose would be sandblasted off of the system, the system repurposed, and released as an independent thing which just happens to match the the genre of something else. I admit I'm not sure there are many like that out there; I just assume there are. Can anyone point me at any?

And some games have sought to forge ahead in their own direction so resolutely that they could almost become licensable properties in their own right. When Pacesetter first created Chill, they probably didn't expect it to get republished. Then again, they probably didn't expect to be out of business either.

FASA's Battletech was another of those wholly original games (unless it wasn't; see above), and this one was a hit, sufficiently so to be bought out later by Catalyst Labs. The notion of far-future giant robots was popular with the wargaming set, and it gets mentioned here because there was also a roleplaying game for it, also optioned by Catalyst. I guess it tapped a certain zeitgeist and caught on.

Then there's White Wolf's Vampire: The Masquerade, and caught the zeitgeist running in the opposite direction. It started as a roleplaying game, spun off several sister systems, and made a quick break to television before White Wolf acknowledged that the whole series had gotten so hairy that it had to be trimmed back. Only it seems to have gotten even hairier in the meantime.

There are a lot of other games which have struck their own paths, and some of them are unique. This may be a topic for another day.

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