Tuesday, February 21, 2017

WEG Memoirs: Licensed Games

West End Games offices, 1993.
I’ve wanted to talk about games based on licensed media properties for a while, both from the angle of professional publishing companies and hobby enthusiasts. During its final few years (1993-1998) West End Games focused a great deal of its energy on acquiring licenses and publishing games based on them, to the point some considered it the leader in licensed games. My experience working for West End sheds some light on issues facing professional publishers in producing game product based on popular media franchises. Like many aspects of West End, this endeavor involved a lot of scrambling behind the scenes and a great deal of risk.

History of WEG Licenses

West End’s most popular license remains the D6-based Star Wars Roleplaying Game. Yet the game system itself was based on an earlier licensed game, one centered on the then-popular Ghostbusters franchise. Although Ghostbusters faded from the company backlist, Star Wars blossomed into a successful game line thanks to renewed interest inspired by Timothy Zahn’s new novels and an often aggressive publishing schedule of sourcebooks and adventures that helped define what Lucasfilm would eventually call the Expanded Universe.

Over the years West End tried to replicate its success with Star Wars through other licenses. None ever really took hold for a number of reasons. The World of Indiana Jones roleplaying game struggled under the stigma of its MasterBook game system, which many non-gaming fans found too complex. Efforts to revise the game to the more intuitive, newcomer-friendly D6 System in adventure supplements came too late. I still have my proposal for a reboot of the Indiana Jones roleplaying game using the D6 System in the same style as the successful full-color, hard-cover revised and expanded Star Wars rulebook, but the company’s bankruptcy put an end to that idea.

Other licensed games tied to the MasterBook system suffered worse fates, partly due to complex mechanics and sometimes from speculating that particular media (sometimes not-yet-released) would find popularity with gamer-fans: The World of Species, The World of Necroscope, The World of Tank Girl, The World of Tales from the Crypt (games tied to the MasterBook system all had titles sharing “The World of” format). The first significant break from MasterBook came in 1997 with the Men in Black Roleplaying Game, which used a version of the far more accessible D6 System. Even after overcoming the bias of other staff designers devoted to the MasterBook game system, West End management took years to determine that the D6 System as presented in the Star Wars Roleplaying Game was a separate entity from the Lucasfilm license, that designers could port the system itself to other games, even licensed ones, without signing over rights to the game mechanics. (I refer to the mechanics as the D6 System, even though it wasn’t published as such until 1996, when management slowly came to this realization.) The Hercules & Xena Roleplaying Game, one of the most popular licensed games after Star Wars, used a much-simplified iteration of the D6 System counting die roll successes rather than die face values. Even after West End’s bankruptcy in 1998, remnants of the company continued publishing licensed games using the D6 System, including DC Universe and Metabarons.

For every licensed game West End produced, it unsuccessfully pursued many other properties. These attempts ranged from wishful thinking and preliminary design to full-fledged inquiries and drafts. Casual efforts included looking at the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Mask of Zorro, Babylon Five, Barb Wire, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer franchises (among others I’ve no-doubt forgotten). With The X-Files’ popularity at its peak, West End sought to license that property (and the related Millenium show), but ran afoul of the creators’ need to tightly control the continuity. (I have a vague recollection of writing a demo scenario; I don’t recall if we actually playtested it with D6 X-Files rules, but I later retooled and submitted it to the electronic version of Steve Jackson Games’ Pyramid Magazine.) Management ignored one editor’s interest in several anime series...a year or so before a host of anime-inspired and licensed games appeared on the market. The much-anticipated Stargate SG-1 Roleplaying Game was already in development when West End declared bankruptcy in 1998, thus meeting a bitter, unpublished end.

Licensing Challenges

My experiences with licensed roleplaying games demonstrated that they come with all kinds of challenges for professional publishers:

Speculation Risk: Rather than seek rights to an established, popular intellectual property, publishers sometimes try to predict what upcoming available license might become hot. They negotiate for the rights and develop a game early, hoping publication coincides with the media’s release and capitalizing on its timely popularity. If the property becomes hot the game will sell successfully to hordes of gamer-fans, but publishers run the risk of having produced a game for a property that bombs, fails to garner fans, and disappears from the public eye quickly. For example, West End speculated that Tank Girl would prove a huge hit; although published to coincide with the film’s extremely brief release, The World of Tank Girl found little appeal among gamers. Obtaining the license to a media property with established popularity runs the risk that, by the time the game version releases, the property has lost its broad appeal.

Timeliness: Publishers often race to release product, even the initial roleplaying game book, in time to capitalize on a license’s popularity. Of course true, diehard fans will purchase a licensed game whenever it releases, but turning people with a casual interest into dedicated gamers and hence purchasers of the game rarely occurs outside the property’s window of popularity. Trendy television shows can last several seasons, but after recognizing its fame among fans, bargaining to get the license, and developing product, the intellectual property has most likely peaked and approached the end of its lifespan. Film sequels can only go so far, and production takes so long that every year without a sequel loses a few more fans and dulls the interest of roleplaying gamers looking for the next big setting in which to play. Here’s the general time line. A media property goes hot and gamers want to play in that universe. A company takes time and resources to acquire, develop, and publish the roleplaying game version; but by the time the first product releases the media property might have reached its peak or disappeared altogether and gamers might have moved on to other pursuits (or developed and played through their own versions of the media setting). Few licensed games release in time to take advantage of the media property’s popularity. Those that do tie themselves to successful, enduring licenses, though they don’t always know how long they’ll last….

Cost: The up-front cost to license a media property usually includes a lump sum (sometimes considered as an advance against future royalties) plus a percentage of profits from related game sales. Licensors usually expect a minimum dollar amount in royalties each year to justify the arrangement and ensure the license remains profitable in light of the overall brand. This isn’t all just “found money” for licensors: they have to spend time and effort to review, correct, and approve game material to make sure it fits the property’s continuity and the company’s quality expectations.

Approvals: Establishing a licensing agreement is one thing, working with a licensor within its constraints is another matter. A disagreement between game publisher and license holder over any aspect of a core game book or supplement – setting details not covered by the main media, questionable themes or content, depiction of core elements, art or production quality, among many other factors – can delay publication, frustrate staff, or even jeopardize the licensing arrangement. West End Games’ production manager Rich Hawran built time for product approval into the schedule for every licensed product...and even then unforeseen continuity hassles sometimes delayed projects.

Sustainability: Licenses come with major sustainability risks. To meet the license holder’s contract expectations, publishers must often release a steady stream of product at particular price thresholds. A regular flow of game releases sustains interest in the consumer base...assuming their interest in the original property persists. Product released too frequently or without the appeal to gamers might strain the market, resulting in lower sales. How long can a roleplaying game line remain popular when interest the licensed property wanes? How long does a publisher maintain a licensing agreement? At the peak of popularity for the Star Wars Roleplaying Game in the mid-1990s West End was releasing two or even three, sometimes four game products every month (including the quarterly Star Wars Adventure Journal I established and edited). Usually this level satisfied the market and brought in much-needed revenue to sustain the license and the company; sometimes it over-saturated the market, especially when fans weren’t interested in specific products. The volume of releases might have continued, but the license holder, Lucasfilm, could have ended the arrangement at any time and would have reviewed it anyway as the contract term neared its end right before the release of the first Star Wars prequel in 1999. With game-publishing powerhouse Wizards of the Coast having just absorbed TSR – with its throng of loyal Dungeons & Dragons players/consumers – I doubt West End would have held on to the Star Wars license even if the company hadn’t gone bankrupt.

Pleasing Gamers: Gamers might buy into a licensed game at first, but if they don’t like the game mechanics, they don’t always return for subsequent supplements and therefore don’t support future sales and the overall sustainability of the license. Gamers remain fragmented in their system tastes and loyalties. Publishers probably do best when they use their “house systems” for licensed games, as they tap into their existing consumer base familiar with and loyal to a rules set. When Wizards of the Coast acquired the Star Wars license the resulting game relied heavily on their recent revision of the D&D rules; the consumer base consisted of folks who already enjoyed that iteration of the most famous fantasy roleplaying rules as well as Star Wars fans seeking to engage their enthusiasm for the classic and prequel films. West End took a different approach with its original Star Wars rules, relying on a simplified, d6-only system that focused more on telling a good story than drowning players in layers of complex rules. This brought in both roleplaying gamers and movie fans who could more easily comprehend the rules.

Diverting Efforts from Original Games: Efforts spent bringing licensed games to publication – writing and designing, creating artwork, paying for printing and marketing – are efforts not spent diversifying by developing original games to help sustain the company. When I joined West End in 1993 the company maintained several game lines, Star Wars being the only licensed one. Although TORG was in decline, Shatterzone had just seen publication with subsequent support, with an occasional release for Paranoia to retain rights to the property from the original creators. By 1998 the company was merely dabbling in only two non-licensed games, Paranoia (rarely) and the one-off D6 System: The Customizable Roleplaying Game. Everybody was working on licenses to the exclusion of developing original game systems and settings. Many factors brought about West End’s bankruptcy in June, 1998, but the overwhelming dependence on licensed games – including the resources poured into them – certainly played a role.

Credit Where Credit Is Due

All this in no way diminishes the efforts of licensed game publishers. They’re often held to high standards set by license holders who are used to seeing their intellectual property displayed at the utmost levels of professional quality. They must have comprehensive continuity and thematic knowledge to develop material licensors will approve. Recently released licensed games feature hardcover books with glossy, full-color pages, graphics from the media enhanced with crisp diagrams/maps and excellent original illustrations. They take the setting off in original directions (within the bounds of the media property) to maximize players’ ability to explore that particular universe through the game. Some companies also produce other licensed board, card, and wargames with amazing production values – pre-painted miniatures, interlocking map boards, custom dice, hordes of fiddly components – most at premium prices. A few licenses manage to stand the test of time thanks to dedicated fans and roleplaying gamers; these often enjoy a high level of popularity sustained over the years and include such stalwarts as The Lord of the Rings, Star Trek, and Star Wars.

Licensed games can serve as boons for publishing companies, giving them the opportunity to cash in on popular media properties with high-quality content that expands the setting and engages gamers’ enthusiasm. They’re opportunities for professionals to play in someone else’s universe, produce some excellent materials, and capitalize on catering to the interests of gamer-fans. But the roleplaying game hobby has always cultivated an informal tradition of gamers doing their own thing, taking established games (and settings) and developing them for their local player groups. Sure, they don’t have official rights to their favorite roleplaying game rules and media properties, but nothing prevents them from adjusting them to run their own adventures at home. Some even “file off the serial numbers” and publish similar genre games without all the complications of an officially licensed product. Certainly a topic for a future discussion....


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