Open or Die

OpenNetworkToday, Margaret Weis Products revealed the language for their Cortex Plus license, which comes in two varieties: one for fans, and one for publishers. This is the end result of MWP’s Kickstarter of the Cortex Plus Hacker’s Guide — a stretch goal of which was described in this update as “an open license for Cortex Plus.” The only problem, however, is that this license isn’t open at all.

In practice, aside from some very odd language (including a requirement that publishers make their product available via DriveThruRPG, a separate company that is not connected to MWP in any way), the license actually more closely resembles the Savage Worlds license from Pinnacle Entertainment Group. (And, to be fair, in earlier updates, MWP said that the license would be similar to Savage Worlds — they only later used the “open” term.)

Monte Cook was one of the designers of 3rd edition D&D (the game which launched the Open Game License), and, once he left Wizards of the Cost, he founded Malhavoc Press which benefitted immensely from the Open Game License. In the past month, he released the licensing terms for his new work, Numenara, which has been the subject of criticism and backlash for, among other things, not being a true Open License.

It honestly stuns me that there are publishers who still have not learned the lesson of D&D 4th Edition. The title of this post may put it a bit dramatically, but the simple fact is this: If your system is not truly Open, you are dooming your game to a niche audience, and willingly giving up market share to systems that ARE open.

4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons wasn’t open — and ended up conceding their position at the top of the tabletop hobby games market to Pathfinder — ironically just a re-titled and tinkered-with version of the previous edition of D&D, which WAS open.

And yet, publishers still cling to the old ideas of their IP and their Brand, ignoring the lessons of the past decade.

Since 2000, a system paired with an open-use license, whether the familiar OGL or more widely-applicable licenses like Creative Commons, has become an expected standard for a majority of gamers — it’s driven the success of FATE, Pathfinder, the entire Old-School Renaissance, etc.

It’s a fairly simple formula:

Open System
More material released (both fan and professional)
Wider network for your system
Larger market share.

At this point, there’s been 13 years for people to see this, and to see the fruits of this model doing great things for designers and companies that have taken advantage of it. But there’s still resistance, even in the face of evidence.

Publishers need to become comfortable with the idea that their systems are not their true IP — the expressions of their systems, through their game settings, are where that concentration should lie. The system itself should be viewed as part of your branding — and the more people you can get hawking your brand, the better your position in the market.

At this point, doing things the old way is telling gamers that you’re fine with a smaller audience. Which tells them that they’re not going to find it as easy to find other people to play with, if they use your system. I’m not sure why any publisher would choose to send that message.

8 Replies to “Open or Die”

  1. The thing that gets me about this license, beyond some of the weird quirks, is that MWP is basing a license on a company who had at the time they started doing that license a radically different business environment.

    That would be like me saying that I’m going to write a novel, and use Dickens as a base to emulate from. Or start a car company using Henry Ford’s model as my base. Yes, it worked…during a different business environment.

  2. Also, the SW license will continue being viable for SW because there’s such a vibrant pre-existing community of folks making third-party stuff. C+ doesn’t have that.

  3. True– but even so, I’ve pleaded with Shane to make SW fully open, with an SRD, etc., because I feel that would massively boost the existing network even further.

  4. I noticed that Robin Laws recently put up a Creative Commons SRD for his DramaSystem RPG, which is itself still in pre-order.

  5. Certain parties think they have to protect their creation without cease, not understanding there are parts of their creation they can’t protect under a copyright or trademark. A unique item can be protected, a not unique item can not. Rules mechanics are not unique when you get right down to it.

  6. Exactly. That’s the ironic thing about these publishers that go out of their way to keep their system licenses from being truly open: Under existing copyright law, I don’t need a license at all to produce material compatible with their systems — or even to publicly claim compatibility. I can’t use their logos, or their trade dress, but there’s nothing stopping me from using the system and saying that my product uses that system.

  7. There have already been a bunch of big cases (just not in our small industry) — most recently, for example, failed lawsuits by Lego (in 2005 against Mega Bloks, and 2004 and 2009 against Best-Lock Construction Toys) against manufacturers of Lego-style blocks which claim compatibility. Although those are obviously manufacturing-based, not systemic. If anything, a systemic thing would be even harder to argue, given the fact that there’s a precedent that programmers aren’t violating copyright when they write compatible software that works with a particular OS.

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