About Writing Tabletop Games Based on Licensed Properties
Apparently this is becoming Licensed games week on my blog, as I continue to respond to questions about Monday’s post About Tabletop Games Based on Licensed Properties. A number of people had questions and comments about the stresses, additional work, drawbacks, and benefits of working on licensed game projects. I could go on about those topics for hours, but instead here’s a few quick thought snapshots.
First, be aware that you almost certainly won’t own any of the work you do. Work-for-hire is the norm in tabletop game writing in any case, but when you are working on a licensed IP, the IP holder is sure to insist on owning anything related to the IP you come up with. Indeed, you likely won’t even be credited for the ideas you create when they are reused. I know I created the ILH-KK Citadel Cruiser, Hutt battle armor and the Kilian Lords for Star Wars, but when those have re-entered other Star Wars projects, my name is generally no-where to be found.
Publishers can (and should) contract to keep the rights to the game systems and mechanics they create for a licensed game, but any IP-related ideas outside pure mechanics is going to go to the IP-holder. And, honestly, that’s reasonable.
The research requirements can be heavy, but whether they are heavier than typical game writing depends very much on what kind of game writing you’ve gotten used to. If you have mostly been making up things whole-cloth for cartoon universes where revolutionary mice use psychic weapons to fight against an authoritarian spider aristocracy, you may not have had to do a significant amount of continuity research in your game writing. On the other hand, if you’ve been working on games that try to match historical periods, or that have significant game continuity (some game worlds go back more than 40 years at this point), the skills to learn about the setting, match existing continuity, and project ideas appropriate in tone and theme translate well to converting IP-concepts to game design.
The approval process can throw a monkey wench into the process, though that’s more likely to impact a publisher’s process than a writers. It’s essentially another level of editing and development. If you are exposed to it at all (many developers handle approvals themselves, rather than have writers do it), the largest issue is to not take it personally, and to try to learn what the IP owner wants by examining what gets approved, what doesn’t, and what gets approved with changes (and how they are changed). The IP holder is unlikely to have either time or interest in training licensees in how to write for the IP, so learning to train yourself on feedback is a useful skill. (It’s also one reason people who have successfully worked on multiple licensed projects are often sought out for new licenses–the publishers and project leads have reason to believe you have mastered the process of licensed project writing, rather than just having a good grasp of a single IP).
Honestly I have found it’s a skill much like any other writing specialty. It’s stressful the first few times you do it, but once you have an idea of how to tackle it it’s much like following any other structured outline.
And while your name may not be directly attached to ideas you create for the setting of the IP, the increased visibility of a licensed game certainly can get you more attention based on your involvement. My work on the three d20 Star Wars RPG games remains one of the places people recognize my name from, and both fans and publishers have mentioned following my career after seeing my name on multiple Star Wars game books. And on a resume, having been involved with recognizable properties can impress people who may never have heard of The Genius Guide to the Dragonrider, but definitely know what Star Wars and Star Trek are.
And, often the money is better than usual for the writers and editors. Not always, by a long shot, but often enough to make it worth considering branching into licensed writing if you haven’t already.
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