Monte Cook Games released the not-open license for Numenera as well as fan guidelines for usage. The Fan Guidelines merit a read, but the heart of the license is that you pay $50 per product, you can’t crowdfund, and your total sales must stay under $2000. Over $2k, you must negotiate terms with Monte Cook Games (MCG).
I admit, the terms of all this don’t terribly excite me, but I suspect that they will work very well for Monte Cook.
When you craft the license for using your games, you are ultimately trying to do several things:
- How do I let people make stuff For my game (Without needing to worry that someone is going to do a Race War RPG with it)?
- How do I make sure I get my cut if something small takes off?
- How can I spread my game?
- How do I serve my existing community?
Different licenses reflect different emphases on these, and those emphases are not always obvious. As an example, both #2 and #3 are potentially motivated by a desire to maximize the bottom line. A lot of lamer licenses try to do all of these things without really prioritizing or making tradeoffs. Most notably, game studios have a bad habit of zeroing in on #2 rather than thinking about the commercial benefits of other approaches.
Monte Cook is in a unique position. He doesn’t really need to give a crap about #3 – growth will be nice, yes, but he has an established audience already. And since #3 tends to correlate most strongly with openness, he has little real incentive to go for any kind of truly open license.
MC also was a very successful d20 publisher, and almost certainly felt the very worst of the ups and downs of the d20 Bubble and burst. I don’t pretend to be a mind reader, but if I had been through that wringer, I’d probably have some more priorities too, like keeping the market from being glutted by trash. Were I of a game design bent, I might conclude that the problem – especially for PDF products, which I hypothetically know intimately – is a very low barrier of entry, especially for really bad products. I might then want to engineer a license that puts in an artificial floor. Nothing too onerous – less than $100 but more than $20. ENough to make some stop before just turning a word doc with some clip art into a pdf and selling it for 99 cents.
But to hypothesize further, I don’t want to give away the farm. What if, somewhere out there, is the next me? The guy who will write the spinoff that gets huge? What would I have done to me if I was WOTC?
I’d put in a ceiling, and beyond that threshold, you need to negotiate. It’s a high enough celling that most products won’t hit it, but if they do, then I benefit. And, importantly, this also means I don’t need to bother with any discussions of licensing with enthusiastic fans with more ideas than business sense.
That last bit is proper genius, and I tip my hat to it. Monte’s fans are enthusiastic, and putting up an automated filter so the discussion doesn’t begin until you can hit a certain sales threshold is a great way to keep that enthusiasm from creating too much work. And more, it gives a polite way to say no to prospective partners. Rather than risk nerd-drama by saying no to someone’s heartbreaker, they can say “Just use this license, and come back to us if it does well”. 
That leads into the fan guidelines. Now, viewed in the abstract, this is kind of messed up. A lot of it is covered (or expanded) by fair use, so why even bother with these guidelines?
Because they’re not guidelines for the game, they’re guidelines for the community. They are the answer to every forum discussion and flamewar that MCG can think of, laid out an explicit set of best practices within that community. If you like Numenera enough to hack it hard but are not part of the MCG community, then I suspect the assumption is that you are an outlier. You can go ahead and do your fair use dance, but it won’t get any traction within the community because they have a very literal chapter and verse to cite regarding how you’re doing it wrong.
And that’s the rub. For all that this flies in the face of open and growth focused license fans, this is all very strongly designed to support the existing fanbase. That is not a common priority because very few games have a preexisting fanbase at the point when they’re developing a license. MCG’s combination of existing fanbase and new IP created an opportunity to change up his approach.
None of which is to say I’m terribly fond of the license. My own taste towards openness is well documented. But I appreciate it. I respect the problems it tries to solve, and I doubly respect that there is a license at all. I very much like being abel to clearly understand a creators intent for the use of their game. Not because I think that creates any obligation in me – If I wanted to make a white label Numenera, nothing would stop me – but because I prefer to respect a creators wishes rather than be forced to guess and then find out I’ve stepped in something. As much as I think openness helps us all, I’ll fully concede that clarity is almost as useful, and this has that in spades.
In the end, I doubt this license is going to set the world on fire, or even do much to grow Numenera, but I think it is going to serve that community well. And that’s a not a bad goal.
- This does beg the question (yes, it totally does, nerd) – Why introduce a license at all? Most practical answer is that fans are going to do stuff anyway, so it’s better to lead than follow. However, I also suspect there’s a very human component to it of wanting to support the fans. ↩
- Openness offers this benefit too, but people still love an official seal of approval, which the Numenera license offers. ↩