Open Games and Me

So, back in the Day, Steffan O’Sullivan and a bunch of folks on usenet got together to collectively create an RPG. That rpg eventually became Fudge, and in the spirit of community that lead to its creation, S.O.S. declared the game to be open to all comers. Do what you like with it, and if you want to make a commercial product with it, just bounce it off Steffan, and send him two copies. Steffan did say no to one guy, once, and regretted it later, but by and large, it all worked pretty well. A community of independent developers grew up around Fudge, taking it in a number of different directions and producing a number of great products, some free and some commercial. Yet despite the vibrancy of this community (and it was vibrant in its day) there was never a real break-out Fudge hit. Fudge never truly went mainstream.

There was a lot of discussion of this back in the day, and as many theories for why as you might expect, but for me and Fred, it eventually became a very practical issue. We had produced the early version of Fate, and had gotten a fairly positive response, winning a few awards and so on. This was great, and this success can directly be traced to the eventual creation of Spirit of the Century and The Dresden Files, but it put is in a tough position. See, it was all well and good to do a small game on what amounted to a handshake and good faith, but did we really want to put ourselves in the position where we built our house on that foundation? It’s not that we distrusted Steffan, but what if something happened to him?

This was ultimately a matter of risk evaluation. The odds of there actually being a problem were quite small (at least in the near term) but if there was a problem, there was a chance it could be an utter dealbreaker. If we were going to proceed like a real business, we needed to move away from the risk, and with that in mind we started working on a “fudgeless” version of fate. However, while we were doing this, we were not the only people having this conversation, and Grey Ghost Games (who had published the print versions of Fudge) acquired the rights to Fudge in 2004, and began a discussion of how to open it up. In 2005, Fudge was released under the familiar-to-gamers OGL and that allowed us to stick with Fudge as the underlying engine of Fate in SOTC and Dresden.

As an upshot of this, I’m always curious what people mean when they say an RPG is open. While some games are explicitly open (either under the OGL or Creative Commons), other games are much more hand-wavingly open, especially many so-called indies. This can be a bit muddled – copyright issues around games and rules are wonderfully messy in practice – but it also usually means a creator who is positively invested in what other people do with his game. Whatever this may mean commercially, such games tend to offer fantastic opportunities for a budding designer to sharpen their teeth, and we’re lucky to live in a world these days where these things are possible.

It’s a good future. But I want more. But that’s for another day.

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