Open gaming is a movement within the tabletop role-playing game (RPG) industry with similarities to the open source software movement. The key aspect is that copyright holders license their works under public copyright licenses that permit others to make copies or create derivative works of the game.
In 2000, when this interview was conducted, open gaming was an unknown concept.
Ryan Dancey was in charge of business and marketing for TSR (the company that had created Dungeons & Dragons, and had been publishing D&D products for a quarter-century), then newly acquired by Magic: The Gathering publisher Wizards of the Coast. TSR had made a string of bad business and marketing decisions, the D&D franchise was foundering, and Wizards of the Coast was undertaking to save it and turn it into a profitable property again.
The way they were going to do that was by releasing a new and in-many-ways-improved edition of the game. The design decisions that went into the 3rd edition of Dungeons & Dragons are complex, and need not be covered here. But Ryan Dancey felt quite strongly that there was a critical business decision to be made—one that would determine whether not only D&D, but the entire tabletop role-playing games industry, would succeed or fail.
And his inspiration for that critical decision was—
Can you briefly summarize what the Open Gaming Movement is about? Where did it come from, and what does it mean to the average gamer?
Sure. Prepare yourself for a big gulp of business theory.
In about twenty years ago, a guy named Richard Stallman was a grad student at MIT. During his time there, he participated in a community of software developers who shared code between themselves and were at the cutting edge of computer programming. When those people started to leave the university and go into private enterprise, they stopped being willing to share their code, because the standard corporate philosophy is to keep secrets rather than share them.
Stallman thought that was a mistake. He feels that the best way to get good software is to let everyone see the source code, and be able to make changes to that code if they think the changes necessary. Stallman in fact considers this a “natural right”, up there with the right to free speech, the right to assemble and the right to practice a religion. He’s a little on the extreme side, but his overall idea has been proven (at least partially) to be very compelling..
Stallman left MIT and started an organization called GNU. Old-school programmers are a funny bunch, and one thing they like are nonsense acronyms that are self-referencing. “GNU” means “GNU’s Not Unix”. Trust me, if you don’t get the joke, you’re not missing anything. The GNU project was designed to create a completely “Free” version of Unix, and all the tools and utilities that a person would need to use a computer without having to use any “closed” or proprietary software. To facilitate that effort, Stallman authored a document called the GNU General Public License (known as the GPL).
The GPL is the first use of a novel legal concept which has come to be known as the “copyleft”. A “copyright” is a way of restricting the rights of others to use a given work. A “copyleft” is a way of forcing everyone to allow anyone to use a given work pretty much any way they want to, and not be able to restrict those rights.
The GPL is the foundation of our ongoing attempt to create a similar license for gaming, currently known as the Open Gaming License.
Fast forward a decade to an undergraduate Finnish computer programmer named Linus Torvalds. Torvalds creates a small computer operating system called “Linux” and releases it to the public via the GPL. Using his original code as a base, thousands of programmers all over the world begin to extend and develop the system, and in a few short years, it becomes as capable, robust, stable and usable as the best Unix versions. In fact, Linux takes a larger share of the worldwide server marketshare than Windows NT, despite everything Microsoft does to combat it.
Surrounding the creation and development of Linux itself, a whole community of programs thrives under the loose umbrella of “Open Source”. Linux drew that community the attention of a lot of really bright people who have delved into the phenomenon and come up on the other side shouting “Eureka!” It turns out, that for many types of problems, “Open Source” development tends, on the whole, to be a better process than traditional, closed source development.
There is now a new, viable model for creating complex systems, using standardized protocols and interfaces, that are shared by many people, with many independent sub-components that have to work together.
Like role playing games.
Dancey goes on to talk about the theory of network externalities; how marketing and sales activity in a market affect the market leader; the effect of diversification on a market’s success; and more. The entire interview’s very much worth a read.
Now, 17 years later, we know that Dancey was right. Tabletop gaming is stronger than ever. The Open Gaming License has allowed companies like Paizo to build extremely successful businesses in the TTRPG market, has led to a flourishing of games and game systems, and an explosion of independent publishers and fan materials, released publicly, legally, for remixing, rethinking, and improvement by other fans and by publishers alike. (The OSR—“old school revival”—movement has been one of the most interesting effects of the OGL, allowing fans and independent publishers to rediscover, resurrect, and re-invigorate the game systems of 30, 40, 50 years ago, which otherwise would be consigned to historical footnotes and fading nostalgic recollections.) Wizards of the Coast, too, is doing quite well, and the D&D franchise is as healthy as ever.