In 2000, Wizards of the Coast published the Open Gaming License (“OGL”, v1.0), a public copyright license that granted permission for anyone to modify, copy, and redistribute content designed for their games - very much similar to open source software ideologies. Wizards of the Coast, now owned by Hasbro, was founded in 1990 and is known for publishing role-playing games (RPGs) like Magic: The Gathering, Dungeons & Dragons, and the Pokemon Trading Card Game. In addition to creating some of the most iconic IP in the genre, their creation of the Open Gaming License is one of the most underappreciated progressions in the gaming industry to date.
At first, the creation of the OGL was a contentious topic. Monte Cook, a Senior Designer at Wizards of the Coast, initially believed that it was a terrible idea, but ultimately recognized how important it was not only for the growth of D&D, but also the industry as a whole. The OGL was published before the 3rd Edition of D&D was released in 2000, and Cook noted that the game needed ongoing support. Thanks to the creation of the OGL, this support came from outside of Wizards of the Coast faster than they could have ever produced it themselves (Monte Cook). This consisted of mechanics that expanded beyond the core rules of the game and allowed for a “fresh” feel to the game. These updates allowed for individuals to find different ways to play that kept long term players engaged and ushered in new players.
The adoption of the OGL allowed for variety, choice, and multiple innovators. Like Cook says, “having more people producing material for your game is good for your game. Not because you have to buy it all, but precisely because you don’t.” Optionality in the game experience (thanks to a multitude of creators having input) allows for a plethora of ideas as players can choose which content to engage with. The OGL allowed for players to make the game their own.
With respect to modding (the ability to modify an original IP to make it slightly or dramatically different), we see a lot of similarities with the OGL, and possibly a more standard license to expand adoption of the practice. Modding has become popular in the video game industry and can range from small changes to complete overhauls of the game. Modded content is immensely valuable and has not only resulted in massive hits (e.g. DOTA, CSGO), but it also has created longevity of the underlying original IP (e.g. Minecraft).
It’s important to note that while modding is a form of user-generated content (UGC), UGC is not always modding. For example, Roblox is a platform for user-generated content, but content is not being modded. Roblox has built their own engine, distribution platform, and economy for people to build their own games and experiences from scratch. Modding is when a specific game is altered and typically requires you to own the game itself.
Modding tools and games have been around for decades with games like Lode Runner (1983) or the Boulder Dash Construction Kit (1986). Modding has been popular in the gaming community ever since. One of the earliest modding communities came with Doom. id Software (Doom developers) boosted their sales when they exchanged the technical foundation to mod with the agreement that mods would only work with the retail version of the game. Minecraft, the most popular game right now to mod, has sold over 200m copies with 140m MAUs (as of April) and has generated anywhere between $200m and $500m a year in revenue since 2012. Microsoft bought Minecraft for $2.5b back in 2014.
Modding, like the adoption of OGL for tabletop RPGs like D&D, has proven to be extremely lucrative for video games. The main reason for modding’s success is that they are typically created by the community or fans of the game that just want to experience something different. There is very little downside to the creators of the game and more reasons for players to buy the game (in line with Cook’s quote above).
Even though modding is older than the OGL, the landscape around licensing, IP ownership, OGL, and modding can be quite confusing to navigate. You can see here how confusing the license landscape is with this post on the official Minecraft forum: Guide to selecting a license for your mod. Even with the benefits of modding, companies like Blizzard (owners of World of Warcraft, the IP that was modded to create DOTA, which then spawned Valve’s Dota 2) have cracked down and began to take away incentives from creators (Polygon), specifically ownership.
Takeaway: the OGL created a leap forward for the gaming industry that continues to this day. In parallel, the decades old practice of modding has proven to be an incredibly vibrant, creative, and lucrative part of the gaming industry. That said, the lines around who owns what can become quite blurry when gaming platforms try to be open to external creation while simultaneously trying to monetize the IP they originally created.
As we just mentioned above, the creation and adoption of the OGL and how it has become integral in the tabletop RPG space is one of the core drivers behind our investment in Role. Tabletop RPG games (like Dungeons & Dragons) are inherently imaginative, as each player is contributing to the story as it progresses. However, this is not where the creativity in this genre ends. The genre has a vibrant modding community where users are constantly able to remix existing IP by changing rules or other components of the game design. In the RPG community, the line is quite blurred between creators and players, which is amazing to witness.
Role’s founders, Logan Dwight and Ian Hirschfeld, are two of the most passionate and knowledgeable experts in the genre. They live and breathe RPGs and were successfully able to build the entire initial platform themselves. Their creative abilities, understanding of the market, and prior experience in design and development make them an ideal team to pioneer in this space.
We’re thrilled to co-lead this $2.75M investment round into Role alongside London Venture Partners, who we greatly enjoy working with in this space. You can read Role's press release about their seed round here on TechCrunch. Great things ahead for this team.