Today I’m looking at what makes a license valuable. I’m not talking paid licenses for settings like The Walking Dead or the Marvel Universe of Superheroes (that is for a different day). Today I’m just looking at free system licenses. D&D 4E, Pathfinder, Traveller, and Savage Worlds just to name a few. What makes some licenses more valuable than others?
The short answer is money. The publisher’s ability to make money on a given license is what makes a license valuable. In the short run, this means: are the players open to buying material from a publisher that is not the main company? If I produce a PDF today, will the audience buy it in sufficient numbers to pay the writer, the artist and anyone else involved? In Pathfinder’s case, this is definitely true. The Pathfinder audience is open to buying material from a company that did not produce the system. Other systems are open to buying products in varying degrees. My understanding is that D&D 4E players are not as interested in material produced by anyone other than Wizards of the Coast. The exception to this is adventures. I hear over and over again that GMs are not satisfied with Wizards’ adventures and are looking for outside help in this. Having said that, I am doubting whether that is true considering that Goodman Games produced two adventure supplements in the past 12 months. Other licenses like Icons consistantly have products on RPGNow’s Top 15 so that audience is open to buying material not produced by Adamant.
On a more long term basis, this means that the license needs to be friendly to the publisher. The old d20 license, the current Pathfinder license and just about every other OGL based game allows for the continuation of sales by the publisher once their compatability license expires (and yes, they all will expire someday) without the logo on the cover. This ability to sell to the audience after the end of official support adds value to a license. The D&D GSL (Game System License) is one of the exceptions to this. There is no underlying system license that is separate from the compatability license so when the GSL ends, the publisher has to scrap all their unsold books. This could be today, tomorrow or 10 years from now. No one knows. It is that uncertainty that has kept many established publishers from signing the license. That kind of uncertainty makes a license less valuable.
Another publisher friendly provision that adds value to a license is the ability to customize a game. Elves are a prime example. D&D 3.x defined elves as being slightly shorter than a human, slender and aloof. Every company in existance has changed elves in some way to make them distinct from other companies and to make them more inline with the publisher’s preferred version of elves. Paizo’s Pathfinder has elves as taller than human. Castlemourn made elves glow in the dark. The D&D 4E license doesn’t allow for variations like that , disallowing companies from redefining something anything Wizards’ defined. So if Castlemourn wanted to change 4E elves, they would have to rename their elves to something else. A restriction like this makes a license less valuable. Reason being, you have to make sure that every instance of “elf” in the book is specifically called a “glow elf” or whatever the publisher chooses to call it. While not a huge deal, it can lead to some clunky sentences and potential problems if a reference is missed by accident.
This extends further than that. Green Ronin used the core system d20 system and made the first edition of Mutants and Masterminds years ago. The d20 license allowed them to put the d20 logo on the book. The license was flexible enough that they were able to do that. This allowed them to tap into the same pool of customers while going in an entirely different direction. This flexibility makes a license more valuable. Most license allows their systems to be used for different genres, but Savage Worlds is one of the few that is widely accepted as being really cross genre.
Lastly, something else that adds value is how the parent company treats the licensee. A listing on their website and a place on their forums where the 3rd party publisher can discuss their products is considered the minimum. Some parent company go so far as to mention their licensees in their blog, giving a spike in sales. This kind of promotion adds significant value to a license. Some allow books beyond the core book to be used in their material and a few even grant early access to their upcoming material, allowing the licensee to produce material for that add on that much sooner. These also increase value considerably. The flip side to that is a company that doesn’t allow anything beyond the core book (or a select few beyond that book) to be used.