About Tabletop Games Based on Licensed Properties

Often, ttRPGs and other tabletop games are based on an intellectual property (“IP”) not owned by the publisher of the game. These are games based on a license, where a deal is cut between the game publisher and the IP owner for a game based on that IP to exist. Many fans love licensed games, and often have a long list of “obvious” licensed games they feel should be made. Some fans think game publishers are stupid for not making such games. Some fans even make their own versions, without ever contacting either the game publisher or IP owner in advance, and are baffled when they are not able to publish their result.

In my more than 20-year tabletop game career, I have worked on numerous licensed games, from Star Wars to EverQuest, Wheel of Time, Black Company, Thieves World, Dragon AGE, Song of Ice and Fire, and more. I have learned this hard truth — licensed Games take MUCH more time and effort to make, contain major additional complications, and a game company has to pay for the privilege of undertaking that additional work and risk. It’s rarely worth it. Not never. But rarely. It varies wildly.

So, this leads to the question: if it’s so hard and expensive, why do game companies keep doing it? And the answers (like most placed where business. Reality, and games interesct) are varied.

Sometimes, a licensed game is made in an effort to boost the visibility (and thus sales) or other games made by the same publisher, or to push some specific marketing strategy. For example, when the d20 System was being rolled out in 2000, there were some licensed books done specifically to prove that the d20 System could do more than just D&D.

Sometimes, the belief is that the property will be so popular that a game based on it will sell an order of magnitude more copies. So if you would sell 2,000 copies of Stellar Battles the RPG, and make $4 profit for each copy sold, but you believe you’d sell 20,000 copies of the Star Wars RPG at $1 profit for each copy sold, the fact you’ll make $20k on Star Wars vs the 8k on Stellar Battles would make the extra risk and effort worth it.

(This is also why licenses normally end–sales dip, renewals of contracts often call for more money to be outlayed, so even if a line made money for years, that calculation changes).

Sometimes it’s about breaking into new markets, or making new fans for the company. If you have only managed to get into hobby stores, but you have the John Wick — World of Assassins RPG to offer, you may be able to sell it in places like Barnes & Noble, or even Wal-Mart. Or if you haven’t even managed to get INTO hobby stores, you may be trying to get a major distributor to pick you up if you have a good license, and hope they’ll keep you when that license ends.

Sometimes it’s a desire to make a game IP look competitive with other IPs. If you can market the Stellar Battles RPG alongside licensed Battlestar Galactica and RoboCop RPGs using the same system from the same publisher, another company might decide that means Stellar Battles is popular enough that they want to pay YOU to make Stellar Battles comics or BIGHEADKO bobblehead dolls.

Similarly, some companies will take on a licensed game to build a relationship with the IP owner, in hopes of securing a different license owned by the same people. In general, the bigger the licensed IP, the more money stands to be made, but also the more cautious the IP owner is about allowing someone to make a game using it. If a game company wants to secure the license for Huge Pop Culture Phenom, the RPG, they may have to prove they can do quality work by first making Cult Almost-Classic, licensed from the same IP owner. This tactic is obviously fraught with additional costs and risks and isn’t common, but I am aware of at least a few cases where it worked, and the game profited well in the long run.

And, to be frank, sometimes the game company has people who love an IP so much they push to get it made as fans, whether it’s a good idea or not. That rarely goes well, but game creators and game company owners aren’t immune to fan enthusiasm. And working on a licensed game for a license you know well and enjoy is much easier and less stressful than working on one you don’t know or don’t care about, so employee enthusiasm is a legitimate element to consider, even if it can’t make a bad idea into a good one.

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About okcstephens

Owen K.C. Stephens Owen Kirker Clifford Stephens is the Starfinder Design Lead for Paizo Publishing, the Freeport and Pathfinder RPG developer for Green Ronin, a developer for Rite Publishing, and the publisher and lead genius of Rogue Genius Games. Owen has written game material for numerous other companies, including Wizards of the Coast, Kobold Press, White Wolf, Steve Jackson Games and Upper Deck. He also consults, freelances, and in the off season, sleeps.

Posted on January 11, 2021, in Business of Games, Musings and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

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