"YOU LOVED THE
-- NOW PLAY THE GAME!"
The hows and whys of licensing a card game
by Allen Varney(Originally published in Tuff Stuff Gamer magazine, November 1996. Posted by permission.]
Want to buy a world? There's a ready market. Behind collectible card games like "Star Wars," both "Star Trek" games, "Middle-Earth: The Wizards," and other CCGs -- not to mention X-Files comics, Mickey Mouse underwear, and Spider-Man Fruit Roll-Ups — lies the field of product licensing. Licensing makes card games out of hit movies and TV shows (Star Wars, Star Trek, James Bond films), comics (Marvel, DC, Image), and literary works (J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-earth). Licensing turns major league sports into card games like "Red Zone" and "Top of the Order." Licensing even makes card games out of other games: The Battletech boardgame and the Vampire: The Masquerade and Cyberpunk 2020 roleplaying games became licensed CCGs, as did the video and computer classics Killer Instinct, Mortal Kombat, SimCity, and Wing Commander.
Licensing works. Picture this: In the game store you, a James Bond fan, see both an unfamiliar super-spy espionage CCG and Heartbreaker's "James Bond 007 Goldeneye." Which do you pick up? Or, if you're not sold as easily as that, imagine a store owner wondering which games to order this month. One catalog entry lists Generic Science Fiction CCG; another, a game based on Star Trek or Babylon 5. Which gets shelf space? The obvious answer shows why the future promises many more licensed games.
A license can also simplify a game's design process. For instance, Tolkien's Middle-earth, as seen in The Lord of the Rings and other works, offers "a vast collection of imagery," says Peter Fenlon, president of Iron Crown Enterprises, which publishes the "Middle-Earth" CCG. Middle-earth features multitudes of characters, locations, and items. But just as important, Fenlon says, "Tolkien's very powerful themes -- using power to combat power, the quest for knowledge vs. corruption, technology vs. nature -- all give us a deep conceptual grounding, a natural framework" for game design.
What is a license, and how does a company get one? How does it affect a game's design? Along with its built-in audience and ready-made world, what problems does a license bring? To find out why "Star Trek," "X-Files," and "Middle-Earth" turned out as they did, read on.
How Licenses Work
A license is a contract between two different companies. One, the licensor -- say, the film studio Lucasfilm -- controls rights to a property -- in this case, the Star Wars universe. This company grants to the other, the licensee, one or more specific rights to that property as a license -- say, to produce and sell a card game using characters and images from the Star Wars movies. Sometimes the license runs for a specified length of time or covers a specific territory, such as North America. The licensee usually guarantees a minimum cash payment plus a royalty, a percentage of the revenues the license earns.
You don't need a license to translate a property you already own into another form. For instance, the card games "Spellfire" and "Blood Wars" are unlicensed because the publisher, TSR, owns the RPG that inspired them, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Also, games that use properties in the public domain -- say, the Bible (Cactus Games' "Redemption") or the legend of King Arthur (Stone Ring's "Quest for the Grail") -- need no license. However, a game that uses someone else's specific interpretation of such a work -- the film Monty Python & The Holy Grail, for example -- needs a license.
Licenses cover specified, sharply limited rights. You don't usually get "the Star Wars gaming license," only a license for one specific Star Wars trading card game, or a roleplaying game and supplements, or a children's boardgame. One exception is the Tolkien gaming license: Fourteen years ago Tolkien Enterprises, which controls non-literary rights to Tolkien's works, licensed Iron Crown to publish any paper game based on The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. So the same license that let Iron Crown produce an extensive line of Tolkien-based roleplaying materials also let it create the "Middle-Earth" CCG.
Licenses aren't contagious, like diseases; just because Decipher has licensed a "Star Trek: The Next Generation" card game from Paramount Pictures and a "Star Wars" game from Lucasfilm, that doesn't mean Paramount and Lucasfilm have any relationship, nor can these two studios automatically use Decipher's other properties. If Lucasfilm wants to film Decipher's How to Host a Murder party games, it negotiates that license from square one like anyone else.
Some contracts grant the licensee rights to sublicense particular aspects of the license. West End Games' deal for its Star Wars roleplaying game includes foreign translations, and West End has subcontracted European editions to companies such as Jeu Descartes in France. Task Force Games' Star Trek-based Star Fleet Battles boardgame is licensed, not through Paramount, but through Franz Joseph Designs, whose 1972 license for Star Trek blueprints and technical manuals includes a sublicense for games based on this material.
Getting a License
"Licensing is all about money," says Steve Domzalski, director of card games at Fleer/SkyBox and developer of Fleer's "OverPower" and "Star Trek" card games. "If you've got the money to throw at a license, you can have that license" -- although he adds, "sometimes it's a matter of who gets there first."
Sometimes being first, or even second, doesn't decide the issue. The license for a CCG based on the popular Fox TV series The X-Files went to Topps -- at first. Then the graphics firm of November, Lazar, and Scher (NLS), which had worked with the design studio NXT Games on Donruss's "Top of the Order" and "Red Zone" CCGs, met with Fox officials. NXT president Duncan Macdonell says, "Fox became interested in having NXT Games be the company that actually designed the game. NLS began negotiations with Fox, Donruss, and Topps and eventually reached a contractual arrangement that involved Donruss obtaining the rights to the 'X-Files' game, and NXT Games designing the product."
But that wasn't this license's final stop. In early 1996, Donruss sold its sports card and card-game properties. NXT Games negotiated a transfer of its service agreement to still another company, the U.S. Playing Card Co. (USPC). "We had to return to Fox and request them to confirm that the ['X-Files'] license could be transferred to USPC," says Macdonell. Now "USPC owns the license and is the manufacturer, NLS has done all the graphics, and NXT Games designed the game."
A game license, like a marriage license, signals the start of a continuing relationship. Though the license brings with it a ready-made background and, often, an eager audience, it also brings restrictions that unlicensed games never know.
A representative of the licensor must approve the game at various stages; large companies devote whole departments just to approvals. Sometimes approval is only a formality, but licensors often exert their power to protect the property's integrity. "What you want to do may not be what they want," Domzalski says. Seeing the original version of "Star Trek: The Card Game," Paramount's licensing official objected that Kirk, Spock, and McCoy were dying too easily. So the designers "built Band-Aids into the game" to keep these core crew members alive.
Designers must also balance game play against fidelity to the source. With the "X-Files" CCG, co-designer Macdonell says, "Everyone has a very clear expectation of what should occur. Something weird should happen in the beginning; FBI agents should be sent to an out-of-the-way location; they should encounter mysterious events, unusual witnesses, and powerful adversaries. Our game had to play just like that.
"The major disadvantage of a license is that you lose some of your creative abilities," Macdonell continues. "Our game is designed so that mathmatically we can create thousands of unique cards. However, we can only introduce a new X-File and/or Agent card if he/she/it makes an appearance on the show."
The designers of the "Middle-Earth" CCG faced a similar problem. "We're careful to remain true to the license," says Fenlon, especially in dealing with Tolkien's fundamental themes. Nonetheless, ME:TW co-designer Mike Reynolds says, "We had to create characters and items to fill out the playability spectrum. A lot of our fans find this distasteful." For instance, Middle-earth has dragons, but Tolkien mentioned only two; the "Dragons" expansion invented seven more. According to Reynolds, some players liked this, but others say, "If it's not in Tolkien, I don't want to see it."
Even when these design issues are settled, problems may still lie ahead, because media licenses usually include the property's images -- characters, photos, and artwork. Yet this attraction may lure the licensee into the murky, troublesome area of image rights.
Different entities may have rights to the same property. For instance, Paramount Pictures owns all the Star Trek series, but many actors who appeared in the original 1966-69 series can refuse use of their images in licensed products. SkyBox had to revise about a tenth of the "Star Trek" CCG's photos because even though Paramount had approved those images, an actor shown in them had not. This obstacle sometimes affected card design, as when the first expansion adapted the alien hippies from the Trek episode "The Way to Eden." Domzalski says the designers wanted cards reflecting the relationship between the group's leader and his assistant -- but Paramount could not find one of those two actors, so the idea was scrapped. (In later Star Trek series Paramount secured all approval rights, so that Decipher has not faced this problem with its "Next Generation" card game.)
Usually SkyBox had to change "Trek" cards because Paramount couldn't locate actors, but sometimes an actor flatly refuses permission to use his image. Thunder Castle's "Highlander Movie Edition" and its expansion don't depict Sean Connery, who apepared in the first film, because Connery refused permission. However, Connery had no such approval power in his early roles, which explains why Heartbreaker's "James Bond 007 Goldeneye" game features Connery among its three Bonds.
The biggest problem that can arise from a game license results from incompatible personalities. Sometimes two companies, for any number of reasons or no reason, just don't get along. Decipher and Paramount publicly parted ways in 1995, when Decipher's president complained on the Internet that Paramount was withholding approvals for "Star Trek" game expansions to gain more money. [NOTE: Decipher and Paramount kissed and made up in 1997, allowing Decipher to publish new games based on later Trek series.]
But the licensing marriage can have a happier outcome. Fleer/SkyBox has worked well with Paramount, as has Iron Crown with the Tolkien estate. NXT's Macdonell says, "Many of us have become good friends with some of the people we have been working with. Even when the game has gone its course, there are several people at Fox whom I hope still to be friends with."
A license can also bring support from new quarters. "Because of their relationship with Fox, [communications company] MCI would like to be a sponsor for the `X-Files' CCG," Macdonell says. "This type of sponsorship would not be available as easily without the license."
Rarest and most rewarding is the mutually beneficial license that strengthens the original property. West End Games, through its Star Wars roleplaying supplements, has enriched the Star Wars universe so much that Lucasfilm now accepts these works as canonical; the roleplaying material has shown up on many Decipher "Star Wars" cards. This is the best kind of license, and with luck we'll see more of them in the future.