Dungeons & Dragons publisher Wizards of the Coast shocked the role-playing game industry today with the revelation that anyone wanting to publish material for the new Fourth Edition of D&D, expected out in June of this year, must forgo open licensing entirely as part of their new Game System License.
With the launch of the third edition of the game years ago, Wizards had sponsored an open licensing scheme. This license, called the Open Gaming License, or OGL, was a kind of open source license designed for game publishers. The result was an explosion of third party game companies supporting D&D and also establishing their own separate game lines. Many of these companies became quite large and successful, notably Paizo Publishing, Green Ronin Publishing, and others. There are open gaming products covering every genre under the sun – science fiction, horror, wild west, and anything else you can think of.
Now, however, Wizards has stated that any company hoping to publish products for their new edition must agree to discontinue any current open licensed products and produce no further open products at all – Dungeons & Dragons related or not. In a phone conversation about 4e licensing with Clark Petersen, president of Necromancer Games, a company representative explained this policy and was adamant that it was not going to change. A number of companies are leveraging the OGL for their independent games, for example the pulp game Spirit of the Century; the gaming community adopted the OGL on good faith and more than 90% of the openly licensed games in existence are using it. This “poison pill” clause means that in exchange for any further involvement with the Dungeons & Dragons game line, a company must abandon any past OGL products and vow not to produce any more.
In response to questions about this policy, Scott Rouse, D&D Brand Manager for Wizards of the Coast, says that “We have invested multiple 7 figures in the development of 4e so can you tell me why we would want publishers to support a system that we have moved away from?” Linae Foster, Licensing Manager, also notes “We understand the impacts this license will have on the 3pps, fans, community and industry in general. We respect that companies will need to make the decision that is right for them and their supporters.”
It seems to me that this is the equivalent of Microsoft telling people “if you want to make and sell software for Windows, you can’t make any Linux/open source software either!” Though this move might be legally shaky, especially in the EU, side players in the small RPG industry are often only a couple people strong, and Wizards is owned by Hasbro, making any challenge to these terms doomed from the start. (The buyout of Wizards by Hasbro is likely the source of this change of heart away from open licensing; events like the Scrabble/Scrabulous lawsuit have Hasbro trying to define and expand their scope of IP control.) Some of the more well-established game companies are rebelling anyway – Paizo Publishing, which used to publish Dungeon and Dragon magazines under license from Wizards, had already declared their intent to stay with the open prior version and develop it moving forward instead, effectively “forking” the D&D code base. But even they admit this is effectively a niche play.
This also appears not to be limited to publishing companies, but also to individuals wanting to put content on their Web site or other venue. When asked about individual licensors, Scott Rouse replied that yes, individuals would need to fill out a GSL license agreement and send it in to WotC to participate. Some ten or so years ago, TSR (the original company, which was bought by Wizards and then Wizards by Hasbro in turn) liked to send out “cease and desist” legal threats to people posting D&D-related content on their Web sites. Will we see a return to that? By the letter of the law as much as it’s been revealed to us, some guy on their Web site putting up 3.5e related content and 4e related content at the same time is subject to the same limitations…