Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Roleplaying Games as IP Generators

I haven’t been in the hobby games industry for a really, really long time. When I got out, 3rd edition D&D had just been released (well, actually version 3.5), and everyone was jumping on the OGL bandwagon. Around that time, everyone seemed to be talking about roleplaying games as a breeding ground for choice intellectual properties. And by “choice”, I mean lucrative. As in, “screw your Natalie Portman navel sucking fantasy, I’m too busy nuzzling Megan Fox.”

Now, heretofore, the history of the RPG industry as lucrative IP generator had been pretty poor. White Wolf had managed to get a short-lived vampire soap opera on Fox, but then Spelling Entertainment appeared to screw them with Blade. They had one really good Xbox game, though. People had high hopes for Deadlands; but then that Will Smith movie with the giant mechanical spider came out and seemed to kill the vibe. And FASA had success porting over games like Shadowrun and Crimson Skies to the videogame market. Nonetheless, there seemed to be this expectation in the air that Hollywood would be turning to us soon for their next big movie or TV series.

It never happened. If I had to guess, it’s because we’re so lousy at exploiting our concepts across multiple platforms. Part of that problem stems from the nature of roleplaying games. Really, the most successful games are the ones that are the most generic. Dungeons and Dragons isn’t Arthurian Fantasy, or Tolkeinesque Fantasy, or Vancian Fantasy -- it’s every kind of fantasy. You can play Star Wars, Alien or Avatar using the Traveller rules. And what would a TV show based on GURPS look like, anyway? The point is, the RPGs that garner the most “mindshare” are those that aren’t very specific on setting. I don't see anyone rushing to make a Jorune series.

(Though now that I’m really thinking about it, why isn’t there a Dragonlance or Forgotten Realms TV show? Both are Dungeons & Dragons, but are more specific when it comes to setting. How hard would it be to produce a Tales of Elminster? Every week, Elminster sits at his desk, opens up a dusty, leather-bound book, looks into the camera and intones “now let me tell you the tale of the time…” )

The other part of that problem, however, is that we’re lousy at cross-promotion outside our own little corner of the universe. We don’t know how to take our ideas and put them into other formats. I remember when I was working with a successful game company, which I shall not name. They had a card game, and a roleplaying game, and a miniatures game… They’d done a good job capitalizing on all areas of the hobby games industry. We had a meeting where we were supposed to brainstorm other areas in which to expand. Nothing was off the table. We came up with action figures, novels, posters, beach towels, soap... Oh, and video games.

Exactly nothing came out of that meeting. Were our ideas ridiculous? Some of them were. Some of them weren’t. But I’ll bet if someone had come up with a pilot script for the property, complete with storyboards and concept art, they could have gotten a few meetings in Hollywood. After all, they had tons of artwork laying around. And this company had a metric buttload of money coming in. At the very least, they could have gotten an anime series off the ground; it was a time when everyone was into anime, and it would have been a natural fit for the property.

So what was the problem? Resources. If you've got people putting together a promotional package to shop around Hollywood, then they’re not working on the game. The writer isn’t generating content for the game. I’ve got to put an art director on putting together the artwork, which means he’s not art directing for the game. The sales of the game actually pay the bills. After all, we're a game company. If we're not selling a supplement this month, then we're not generating income.

And once I’ve got the package, I’ve got to get it seen by someone in Hollywood. Do you know how to do that? I don’t. Better to make a game. Oh, and with them, it’s got to be couched as “picture Adam Sandler, with a magic sword, and a talking dog. We’ll call it ‘Sword Boy’!” I'm completely serious about this. Hollywood producers are as dumb as a box of hammers.

We simply don’t have the economic resources to properly exploit our ideas in the marketplace. If I want to create toys for my steam punk setting, then I’ve got to get sculpts and find a Chinese factory and get them shipped here, which means a whole toy division. Plus, I’ve got to break into the toy market, to get carried by Toys R Us, which means hiring a suit who speaks “toy” to the salespeople…. I often wonder why Hasbro doesn’t gin up the action figure department to make Magic: the Gathering action figures. It’s not like it actually costs them anything to do. And how many different sculpts of Darth Vader do we really need (now, with helmet removing action)? It’s not like they’d have to pay a licensing fee….

It says something when the largest, most profitable game company in our industry can’t bring itself to exploit the value of its own intellectual property. (Speaking of which, why the hell isn’t there a G.I. Joe trading card game or roleplaying game? Hey Hasbro, you have a freaking game company. It’s in Renton, Washington.) So I’m guessing the days of talking about RPGs as the next, big source of intellectual properties is done.

1 comment:

  1. The RPG industry sucks at marketing, full-spectrum suckage.

    We almost always promote to the choir instead of new blood. I think the solid-gold example of this is Wayne's story on Fear the Boot about how he went to the Iron Man movie on opening night and got a free copy of the comic. They should have given that out randomly in the 2nd or 3rd week, tried to get some random people. On opening night, all the comic nerds are going to be there. What is the point of marketing comics to comic nerds? What a waste of money.