My first brush with game licensing was way back in–well, I’m not sure I remember exactly. 1994? 93? Something like that. Chameleon Eclectic pitched an RPG based on Masamune Shirow’s Appleseed manga. It was a beautiful pitch–well written, liberally illustrated, bound up, and with a color cover. (Color! in 1993!) We never heard a single word back from them.

Man, this would have been an awesome RPG. Anyone out there want to take it on?

Man, this would have been an awesome RPG. Anyone out there want to take it on?

Since then my career has been interwoven with licensing. Chameleon Eclectic published the first Babylon 5 RPG. Then I went to work at Last Unicorn Games, where Star Trek was our bread and Dune our creamy, delectable, sweet-salty butter. My first task at WotC was writing the bulk of The Wheel of Time RPG. I then went on to work on Call of Cthulhu d20 and Star Wars before I contributed to my first D&D book. When I was in Brand, I oversaw a number of licenses–the d20 Licesnse and OGL, the various computer games, and even the second D&D movie. Well, sort of–we didn’t have any approval rights on that. But Silver Pictures wanted to work with us on it, and among other things I once traveled down to LA to meet Joel Silver in his office.

That was pretty cool, but it’s a story for another time.

Today’s story is more closely connected to my time at Last Unicorn. We produced so much content for Star Trek that we actually paid the salary of a guy who sat at a desk in Paramount’s offices approving our stuff.

The history of RPGs is replete with licensed games that were disasters–books released months or years late; supplements taking forever or simply never getting made; promising licenses starting out strong and then fizzling for no apparent reason (and no lack of fan enthusiasm), taking their small or mid-sized publishers with them. Anyone who’s ever been in the kids’ clothing department at Wal*Mart knows that licenses in other product realms are quite the thing–so why are they so problematic with games?

Here’s why: To approve a T-shirt, a guy at the studio looks at a picture of the T-shirt on his computer screen, and says, “Yeah, that looks good.” Or, “Make the logo a little bigger.” Or, “Do you have to use green? I hate green.” And then he’s off for his daily half-caf double decaf with a twist of lemon.

That same guy approved your license for the MegaBrand RPG. You had a couple of conference calls, and signed the contracts and sent in the check for the guarantee. And then, a few months later, you send him the manuscript for the 320-page corebook. And he says, “Wah? What the f**k is this? I thought it was supposed to be some kind of game or something?”

He’d blocked out an hour or two in his schedule to review your licensed product. And you sent him an RPG corebook. He’s never heard of an RPG before. Congrats: You’re looking at a 4-month delay while he figures out what the hell he’s going to do with this thing. And he hasn’t even considered the idea that you’re going to send him a new book every six weeks!

Remember that guy at Paramount, spending his days poring through Star Trek manuscripts on our dime? That’s why LUG rarely ran afoul of approvals delays with Star Trek; we had actually insisted on him. Totally worth it. (Dune was another story–also a story for another time.)

(Fortunately, nowadays the bigger geek-oriented brands are a bit more savvy about RPG approval requirements (and are more likely to have folk on their brand staffs who are familiar with RPGs in general), so this issue isn’t quite as common as it used to be.)

A week or so ago Monte Cook Games released our Limited License for Numenera, allowing small-press publishers to put out Numenera-compatible products within certain, fairly confining, limits. As the internet (especially the internet of gamers) is wont to do, people began at once speculating about our motives. Why this limit or that? Why a fee? Are we trying to grow the community? Kill small publishers? Encourage licensed products? Discourage them?

The answers are complex, and many of them have been brought up in the online discussions, but here’s one that’s been widely overlooked: Approvals. As so many game publishers have been astonished to find out, approving RPG materials takes time. A lot of time.

And now I’m on the receiving end of that. Guess who has two thumbs and wants to give up hours of his copious free time approving third-party PDFs that might net us, like, fifty bucks in royalties? This guy! Not.

So the next time you’re wondering why MegaBrand’s latest release is late–again!–you now have a likely culprit.

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