Open Gaming Licenses: Past, Present, and Future

Warning: This post has a lot of talk about RPGs, business, and licensing and thus may be baffling and/or tedious for some of you. If this type of thing is not of interest, you probably want to just skip it.

These are interesting times for companies that make use of the Open Game License. While many games have now been released under the OGL, the big one has always been Dungeons & Dragons. I had been pretty sure that WotC would just close off 4th edition, but was surprised to hear in August that they intended to release it under the OGL. Their specific plan was murky until last month, when they announced a two-stage rollout. Companies could publish starting in August if they bought a development kit for $5,000. Otherwise, no publishing for 4E by third parties until January of next year. The actual details of the new OGL remained unknown though. Green Ronin and many other companies signed NDAs and waited for WotC to deliver the new license for review.

That wait continues, but an interesting fact came out this week. This new license is not going to be called the Open Game License, but rather the Game System License. From previous discussions with WotC, it had already become clear that the new license would be more restrictive than the old one. This move confirms it. It sounds like the new license will not be the next iteration of the OGL but a completely new license. This makes it clear that WotC had some issues with the previous OGL and is trying to learn from previous experience. So what are those issues?

1. Stand Alone Games Don’t Help WotC
In the early days of the OGL, everyone used the d20 logo and that prevented the creation of stand-alone products. If you wanted to use the d20 logo, you had to point back to the D&D; Player’s Handbook (or later, other WotC core books). At the time publishers thought you had to have the logo to make a successful product. Then variant games like Mutants & Masterminds and True20 Adventure Roleplaying began to appear. These games built off the SRD but became games in their own right. One of the stated goals of the OGL was to help WotC sell core rulebooks. If people are buying stand-alone games, that doesn’t help to sell WotC’s books. We’ve already heard that the new license won’t allow such games any more, though it cannot prevent the continuation of games already on the market. This is an understandable move on their part, though one could argue that some of the most innovative design work of the d20 era happened in those very games and that GSL restrictions may not lead to the same advancement of the state of the art.

2. The License Should Be About D&D; Support
When Ryan Dancey was selling the idea of the OGL at WotC in 1999, one of his points that was third party publishers could provide support for D&D; in areas that WotC itself had difficulty doing so profitably (most notably adventures). There was indeed a wave of adventure products, led by Death in Freeport and Three Days to Kill. Soon third party companies started taking on bigger projects and expanding out into sourcebook territory. Then they ranged farther still, into genres that had little to do with swords and sorcery. Several years later Charles Ryan, then in charge of the D&D; brand, said that WotC was going to start doing more adventures because the third party companies weren’t providing the type of support WotC had originally envisioned. The GSL will thus be more explicitly about supporting D&D.; There may be limits on the types of products allowed, similar to the “no miniatures” provision of the old d20 STL.

3. Strip Mining is Bad for the Environment
With the original OGL WotC put up something called the System Reference Document, which contained most of the rules for D&D.; It could be copied or modified by use of the OGL. People asked if it could be republished as is, and in a FAQ WotC replied that those who thought they could make money doing so were welcome to try. I doubt anyone really thought that people would but naturally this is exactly what happened. There were “pocket” and various PDF versions of D&D; core books published by other companies, and some companies saw their own books re-released by other publishers as well. An ex-Guardians of Order employee recently noted, for example, that “within days of d20 Mecha coming out and being released on SRD, other companies were selling clones of the product, sometimes with better production values…”

Another thing that happened was that some open game content was taken from its original products and given away for free on various websites. This is legal under the original OGL but it was a development that many publishers weren’t so happy about. They were, of course, trying to make money from their work and someone else giving it away for nothing was not considered helpful. One example of this that has cropped up a lot in recent conversation is what happened with GR’s True20 game. The True20 rules originally appeared in the Blue Rose game and we eventually decided to release them on their own as a more generic rule set. Before the True20 core book was even released, we were queried by someone who had taken all the rules out of Blue Rose and wanted to give them away on his website as a True20 SRD. We answered that if we wanted there to be a True20 SRD, we’d do one ourselves. With our core book not even out, we really were not hot on the rules being given out for free. He agreed not to make the site public for a year but since then the rules have indeed been available. We took no hostile action in this case. We were asked a question and we gave our opinion. We did not try to impede the effort, we sent no cease and desist letter, we didn’t pillory the guy on the internet. Nonetheless, other folks have accused of all sorts of things, from working against “the spirit of open gaming” to being big bullies to benefiting from the OGL without giving back. One designer (ironically enough, a WotC employee) even accused us of using “ignorant and deceitful tactics”. This despite the reams of OGC we’ve released, the sharing of content between us and other publishers, and the entire M&M; Superlink program that lets companies publish branded material compatible with our best selling game for nothing.

I don’t think it’s too surprising then to hear that WotC has some different plans this time around. The SRD will more of a reference guide that lets you know what’s open without putting text files of the rules up. They have said that the new license will be designed to encourage creative extensions of D&D; rather than the wholesale reprinting of OGC. I will be curious to see if the GSL also has something to say about the giving away of open content on the internet.

4. Did We Say Perpetuity?
The original OGL is forever. It can be updated but it can’t be revoked. I’m sure this is a big reason why the Game System License will be released as a brand new thing, rather than an update of the existing OGL. What sounds good now maybe doesn’t sound so good 8 years down the line.

The thing I’m really interested to find out is whether the GSL will have a clause that forbids its use with the OGL. I think this is entirely possible. It would the mean that you couldn’t take previously released OGC and use it in a book released under the GSL. A book like the already announced Tome of Horrors 4th edition would not be possible under this restriction. This would make things clean and easy for WotC, but would probably cause a lot of chaos in the world of third party publishing.

Clearly many changes are in the wind. Until we see the Game System License we won’t know all of them for sure. No matter what I’m positive publishing under the original OGL will continue (that’s how we’ll do M&M; and True20, for example). A year from now the publishing landscape will likely be quite different though. I think the big question is whether any of the prominent third party publishers will decide to just skip 4E and the GSL and continue to publish 3.5 material. I think Paizo is best positioned to pull this off but it would be a gamble for sure. As for WotC I guess I continue to be surprised they are making this attempt at all. I seriously wouldn’t blame them for saying, “This is a huge headache with few tangible benefits for us, so 4E will not support 3rd party publishing.”

So far 2008 has been nothing if not interesting in the world of RPG publishing.

16 thoughts on “Open Gaming Licenses: Past, Present, and Future

  1. With the rumblings of 4th Edition, and the various other incidents so far in 2008, I can’t help but feel there are dramatic shifts that are only just beginning to show themselves. I suppose I am waxing sentimental, but the loss of my favorite CCG, Warlord: Saga of the Storm, was a blow to my gaming environment. With the premature death of Dark Heresy (I scored a copy, wheeeee!) I feel like there is another slap in the face.

    Then there is 4th Edition D&D.; I have mixed feelings about it, and I suppose in some ways I think it is a good direction they are taking. I say this as an outsider to D&D;, a person that didn’t really play it because of the extraordinarily dorky image it almost seemed to cultivate. Again, I could be waxing sentimental, but my experiences with AD&D; colored my opinion of the game. I enjoyed the ludicrous and exploratory nature of Planescape so it was hard to accept the bland and flavorless 3.0 family right from the start. The gates to hell were opened with the SRD and OGL, and suddenly we were awash in everybody’s jerk dreams of their basement campaigns revealed like dirty laundy. This is a crass analysis, and I apologize of course because in a lot of cases the stuff was good, but realistically it was just too much and too little at the same time.

    As an aspiring game developer, I am keeping my eyes and my ears peeled on how the environment unfolds from this point on.

    Thanks for the post of course Chris, I use your blog as one of my avenues of keeping up to date on the gaming world.

    -Garett Kopczynski

  2. There’s another factor that I’d like to hear your professional opinion on.


    This is mostly an uninformed-guess on my part, but I think the question isn’t if we’ll see an OSRIC-like version of 4th Edition, but when.

    I won’t speculate what WotC/Hasbro’s response might be.

  3. Keenelarp, you say jerk dream as if it were a bad thing. The OGL and SRD allowed many people who would otherwise not be able contribute their vision of a game to the market. The merit of this is good, despite whether the actual products were good or bad themselves. The market will bare what it can, and the more people who can contibute, the greater a chance that a gem of a product will find it’s way to the market.

    That being said, once bitten twice shy, it is very unlikely the D&D; 4th Edition and the GSL will see the level of support that d20 did when it first came out.

  4. Even if they are careful, WotC has the deep pockets, and the even deeper pockets of Hasbro, and a frivilous lawsuit that has no baisis could still put a company under.

    As a shareholder of Hasbro I would expect WotC to sue anyone who tired to Osric the current editon.

  5. Chris,

    I think there is one tangible benefit to WotC of licensing 4E. It creates a business ecosystem in which contributors become professionally competent with the core 4E game system, and writing materials for it. WotC’s need for freelancers varies, but when they need them, they don’t have several weeks for someone to come up to speed with some rather esoteric writing skills. Licensing 4E helps certify and maintain contributors until WotC needs them.

    Licensing fills the role of the minor leagues; not a lot money in it for the parent club, but its a pretty good way to get your next generation of ball players.

    Greg Gorden

  6. I for one sincerely hope that Paizo doesn’t sign on to the 4th Edition bandwagon. My local play group dislikes almost everything they’ve heard about 4E, and we think it would be a terrible shame to face a future with no new OGL/3.5E products.

    Even if 4E were more palatable, a lot of the attitude copped by the 4E designers over the last few months is a little off-putting, a distinct tone that this game is only for cool kids, which does not necessarily include us.

  7. Hey Greg,

    WotC has indeed benefited from the training provided by 3rd party companies. If you look at the folks working on 4E, many of them previously wrote books for Green Ronin. That’s not just freelancers, but many current staffers as well. I think Dragon and Dungeon used to fill the role of farm system, but now that they have gone digital I’m not sure that’ll continue to be the case.

  8. Greg Gordon mentioned 1 important benefit of allowing 3rd party 4E products, cultivating freelancers. But an even bigger one IMO is the necessity to get as many players as possible to make the leap from 3.5 to 4E, and that will be made much harder if the entire 3rd party gaming industry is locked out of creating 4E content, but still has 3.5 and the OGL available to them. Together, all those publishers could swamp WotC in content produced each month, and make it far more viable for players to remain with 3.5. Since several of those 3rd party companies, including GR, can rival WotC for quality of content, splitting the RPG community like that should be a real fear for WotC. If all or the vast majority of publishers stop publishing 3.5 and switch to 4E, I think many more players will too, since D&D; 3.5 will no longer be getting new support.

  9. I’m neither a game industry pundit or lawyer but one thing that’s occurred to me is that w/ the current OGL, what’s to keep someone from creating a mirror of 4e after it’s been released? Seems to me that someone could easily create a 3.99e (see Monte Cook’s new “Book of Experimental Might” as an example.) and while not exactly copying the 4e rules, they could quite easily emulate them. Couldn’t they?

    It just seems to me that WotC sort of opened Pandora’s Box when they released the OGL / SRD. I’m not familiar w/ how a company protects its IP, but in the day and age of open source it’s an increasingly difficult issue to cover under current law.

    I dunno…maybe I’m way off base here.

  10. Quillion, why would you expect Hasbro to sue anyone who tried to OSRIC the current edition?

    First place, even with deep pockets, judges don’t like frivolous lawsuits designed to use the legal system as a weapon against the plaintiff’s competitors; such actions can backfire hard.

    Secondly, lawsuits aren’t cheap. Even if you have deep pockets, you’ve got to pay attention to whether it would be worth what it’s going to cost you to get rid of a very minor competitor. And really, GURPS gets ten times as many google hits as OSRIC, and only three out of the first 20 hits are for OSRIC the RPG. I doubt OSRIC even comes up on the radar.

    Thirdly, T$R is still remembered as such. If WotC/Hasbro starts suing companies without good cause, you’re going to turn off part of your core audience.

  11. Gamer Dude – you are indeed not off base. In fact, there are quite a few folks currently doing exactly that – using the OGL to craft games that take the good from 3.x, chuck the bad, and add some improvements.

    In my own campaigns with 3.x, we ditched Challenge ratings on sight, got rid of Staggered at zero HP, ignored Flat-Footed AC, and simplified the combat sequence among dozens of other changes. Some of the things that are happening to 4e are the result of feedback from folks who made these mods long ago. Effectively, some groups are already playing at least some parts of what will be 4e.

    WotC’s original intent is backfiring – rather than unifying the gaming world under one set of rules, they gave the world the keys to the car. Some have driven the car into the wall, while others have gone the distance. Now, WotC realizes they’ve pretty much given away the core of D&D;, so they’re changing the design of their car and starting a new racing league with new regulations so that they can get back on top again.

    However, there are enough competitors around (amateur and pro) with enough spare parts and ingenuity to support their own racing series without any input from or control by WotC at all. So, expect some folks to put on challenging road races with finely tuned machines and others to do little more than paint smiley faces on their demolition derby cars.

    WotC now knows that while they have the muscle to attract players with brand identity and pretty paint jobs, the underlying structure of the system is no longer theirs to control. The cat is out of the bag. Some will buy their products for look and feel alone, but the audience is critical and would rather drive something that’s fast and reliable over something that’s overpriced and flashy.

    How’s that for pushing the analogy envelope? 🙂

    Your notion of 3.99e is already a reality in some groups and will grow in popularity even (and maybe especially) after 4e is released.

  12. wow…people really are freaking about 4th Edition. I guess that’s how it was when 2nd become 3rd and 3rd became 3.5. I never cease to be amazed by people’s inability to accept change & adapt.

  13. Orion- I understand the merits of SRD and OGL. I appreciate their existence in the sense that it does allow people a chance to realize their desires. Like I said, I was just making crass statements on the subject. This is only because I am criticizing the end results in a lot of cases. I actually prefer the analogy used about the keys to the car and crashing. Kudos to Some Old Guy for that one!

    I am only hoping that 4E perhaps makes a more interesting car from the start, and will hopefully push people away from creating endless “dungeons” and instead cultivate an environment where the game is either reinvented, or rehashed entirely.

    An example is Greg Stolze’s “REIGN, a game that resparked my interest in fantasy settings. I’d like to see more developments in that vein than I would another campaign world. Of course, this is all what I would want, and I know this is not what everyone else wants, but it’s all I know sadly.

    Cheers to anyone though that does try. I will, in the end, appreciate that effort.

  14. “Change and adapt” isn’t really the issue here. For many designers, including ‘fandom’ designers, the issue is “can we even do this AT ALL?”

    4E looks to be more and more restricted. I certainly can’t do ‘Spychanger City’ under it. It seems unlikely that I can’t do any other of my setting material (such as Pulps, or Materia Arms) either. In fact, it looks like that if I’m not making ‘generic adventure module #252’, then I cannot use 4E, period.

    And even if I AM making such a module, WotC gets to tell me what I can and can’t do with it.

    This isn’t an issue of the MECHANICS of 4E, but of how the license is approached. For many small-time contributors, the likes of which are all over and the like, 4E really doesn’t seem to make any sense.

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