The Trouble With Ecosystems

How many RPGs do you know which consist of a single book? There are definitely some, plenty of indie games especially are singular works. When it comes to the games most people play, though, you can expect that the core rules are joined by supplements, additional books which expand the game through either deepening existing elements or adding new ones. Beyond that, you may have secondary accessories, things like dice, card decks, and maps which add to the physical experience of the game. Taken together these elements create a product line. When you add additional material made by players and designers other than the original authors, then now you have an ecosystem.

The sophistication of designers when it comes to line management of their games has only increased since the 1970s. Early D&D is a clear cautionary tale along several angles; TSR lawsuits had questionable success when it came to defending the brand, and hostility towards third party and fan works likely drove many good designers off to make their own games instead. When you compare that to D&D now, a combination of supplement discipline and encouraging third party publication through DM’s Guild (but segregating those works from first-party ones), it’s clear that Wizards of the Coast has learned a thing or two. Still, the example of the one corporate-backed RPG in the land isn’t easy to learn from or follow for most designers. The trouble with ecosystems for most designers is that there will come a time when making a game the best it can be and making money with the game will become mutually exclusive goals.

The First-Party Ecosystem: The Product Line

How many books do you need to buy to play a game? This is the central problem statement of designing a product line, and different companies approach it in different ways. No matter the strategy, though, an increasing library for a game tends to drive away new players, especially after that library hits certain size and cost thresholds. On the other hand, though, new supplements are the only way to extract more revenue out of your fans, those who have already bought your game.

The initial supplement model of D&D was based on modules, published adventures. In a way, modules are a great piece of tech for a designer because they add more material to the game without adding additional rules or game elements that players must learn. While modules are still the backbone of many game systems, the publications which really build out a game ecosystem are supplements. Supplements do date back to the first publication of D&D, with ‘Greyhawk’ arguably being the first one. Still, Basic D&D had a relative dearth of supplements; TSR boarded that particular train with 2nd Edition AD&D. The Monstrous Compendium series and the ‘Complete’ splatbook series caused the AD&D back catalog to positively balloon compared to earlier editions.

While what happened with Third Edition D&D wasn’t really caused by its first-party product line (I’ll touch on it more below), Fifth Edition still opted to release significantly fewer supplements than most editions before it, and on a much longer release schedule. This ended up being one of the reasons Fifth Edition is considered more accessible than the other editions of modern (i.e. post-TSR) D&D, but is also the reason that there will still be some sort of shakeup come 2024. The unspoken rule is, of course, that when your game line is too large and too intimidating to new players, it’s a perfect time to release a new edition.

Outside of D&D you see a number of different product strategies. GURPS has a vast supplement catalogue, but the supplements are intended to be separable and, for the most part, only needed for games using their specific subject. On one hand this discipline improved on GURPS 3e when the essentially required ‘Compendium’ books made getting into GURPS an expensive proposition, on the other GURPS now has fractal sublines like GURPS High-Tech and GURPS Dungeon Fantasy where the supplements have sprouted supplements. House system strategies used by companies like Fantasy Flight and Free League aim to keep the product pipeline full while spending less money on actually designing mechanics. And other companies, like Magpie Games, just create fewer supplements and write more games. Masks is probably the most ‘supplement-ful’ Magpie-released game, and it has three supplements. While such a strategy can still create synergies, especially as their games all use similar mechanics, the backlog of unfulfilled Magpie Kickstarters is one way to see that such a strategy also has liabilities.

There are different ways to keep your product going, building a tail without choking the snake with it. And that’s all fine and good. But you have fans, and they’re all going to start coming up with things the minute they have one good session. And some of them will publish stuff for your game.

The Third-Party Ecosystem: Hacks, Fan Works, and Licensing

If you needed another reminder that D&D is the corporate RPG in the world, remember that Third Edition D&D was the first RPG to come with its own portable licensing agreement, the Open Game License (OGL). The OGL was the solution that Wizards of the Coast came up with to one of the hairiest issues in the RPG’s short history: fan and derivative works.

Derivative expansions and supplements started out as fairly accepted in the hobby, and then Gary Gygax started suing people. This is what has created the use of ‘The World’s Greatest RPG’ in current parlance, because Gygax started the precedent of suing companies that would use the phrase ‘Dungeons and Dragons’, as the name could be trademarked but the rules cannot. As such, Old-School Essentials is a 95% copy of an edition of D&D, but as long as they don’t directly plagiarize and don’t name specific monsters that were invented by TSR (it’s a very small list, but includes the mind flayer), they’re good to do pretty much whatever they want. But if you make a completely new supplement with a bunch of completely new monsters and say ‘compatible with D&D’ on it…you’re in a world of trouble.

No company will ever actually be able to stop fan works, even fan works sold for money. The one avenue they have is policing claims of compatibility, as those (unlike the rules themselves) can be litigated under trademark law. That’s something that makes the promise of services like the DM’s Guild pretty powerful. Anyone can make 5e-compatible content (and looking at Kickstarter, anyone does), but agreeing to the revenue split under the DM’s Guild allows you to use D&D trade dress, which can go a long way towards creating the appearance of legitimacy for a third-party creator.

Wizards uses DM’s Guild as their ‘seal of approval’ tool because of what happened with d20. D20 was the trade dress used to indicate broad compatibility with Third Edition D&D, and it was handed out relatively easily to other creators. This opened the door to a deluge of derivative and in some cases just plain bad material, which by the end of the edition’s lifecycle was even crowding out first-party material. The resultant bust shuttered a lot of publishers, and completely changed the landscape.

Of course, the d20 bust isn’t what contemporary designers think of when they think fan works. They think zines, or game jams, or hacks. Indie designers are famously more permissive of derivative works than their predecessors, though it was the very trad Eclipse Phase that first pushed hard on getting Creative Commons licensing into the space. Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) was created with an ad-hoc, no lawyer required license where it was essentially stated in Apocalypse World that anyone could design a derivative game using the mechanics. The only ‘rule’ was to use a small bit of Powered by the Apocalypse trade dress.

The key with this is that in the end it makes you no money. Now, I know many designers don’t care about this, and I don’t intend to put revenue as the primary end of writing a game. The problem is, though, that most games sold are sold by corporations, so their fiduciary responsibility often precludes such licensing terms. I promise you that so long as Apocalypse World is barely in the top five selling PbtA games (if it’s there at all), despite being the first (and in my opinion still one of the best), no larger game line is going to seriously consider such loose terms. Fate is licensed under Creative Commons, it is one of the largest games that is so licensed, and it likely will remain that way.

This is ultimately the trouble with ecosystems; popularity, even when that means selling more copies, will not enable a designer to make more money. Those who make money in the RPG space are those who monetize what they make, both building out a more extensive first-party ecosystem through supplements and enforcing the third-party ecosystem through licensing. It does shine a light on how RPG product lifecycles worked in the 90s and 2000s, where Shadowrun, Legend of the Five Rings, and others would release a core book, pump out supplements, and then wipe the slate clean and start a new edition when the rulebase got bloated and sales flagged. Fifth Edition D&D shows a different approach, but it’s an approach that involves heavy monetization and marketing through a number of different avenues, things that are often out of reach of a single designer or small indie firm.

The other trouble with ecosystems is a matter of eyeballs. Whether a game needs it or not, more books will mean more attention. Consider for a moment a company that Kickstarts every supplement they write. Whether or not you believe this is a good idea or a fair idea, fact is that they’ll sell their core rules in every single Kickstarter. That means a better tail on that core rulebook than the same designer would get Kickstarting separate games instead. As a designer, even if it’s not about money, those eyeballs are worth something. It’s hard to have two breakout hits, a lot harder than having one breakout hit with a solidly written supplement.

The trouble with ecosystems is that games don’t necessarily need them, but designers do. One book with everything you need is better for the player. Five books around one core rulebook is less work for the designer than five different games, will likely sell better than five different games, and will, to a point, attract new players better than five different games. While there are examples of product lines going completely overboard, it’s rarely a bad decision to spend design effort on a supplement for a product that you already know is successful. Whether or not that serves players or the game itself is a whole other question.

In case it is not clear, I am not a lawyer and discussions of intellectual property law contained herein are intended as commentary, not legal advice.

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