Not so open, a Bioware take on open source

Dave Levy
9 min readAug 20, 2014

This article represents some thoughts on how copy-left and permissive licences create value. It uses the story of Bioware and it’s use of the D&D™ and Forgotten Realms™ games & mythos as an example. There are two recent news items that make this current: that the community repository for Neverwinter Nights has just shut, and that Wizards of the Coast have just released Dungeons & Dragons V5 rules as a free to use .pdf, a small but significant step to a freemium business model. The story shows how an initially traditional author-publisher business model, leveraged a pre-made community, grew it and latterly enabled it. The point of this story is the way in which community and value grew, becoming significant author contributors and the way in which Bioware responded and learnt although some might say not as quickly or as generously as they might.

Another motivation is that I included a version of this story in a professional presentation on intellectual property law, open source and collaboration and it didn’t fit; it took up too much time. I used this story to explore the alternatives to All Rights Reserved, and looked at how they did and didn’t use licence engineering to build community and leverage their fans and customers to create market value. Arguably, it became one of the first games as a platform even if accidentally.

Bioware & AD&D, a case study in permissive licences

Bioware is a Canadian based video/computer games engineering/authoring company. It produced a series of games based on the “Dungeons & Dragons” rules; the Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale and Neverwinter Nights game series, released between 1998 & 2009. These games are all based on the AD&D rule set which Bioware licensed from Wizards of the Coast. This ensured that a large number of people understand the fictional milieu, the nature of the story where an avatar travels with dis-similar companions to collectively fulfil the quest or story line, and the rules and thus systems of magic and physics. The original game, published as an expensive series of books, often known these days as PnP for pencil and paper meant that the story was jointly developed by the dungeon master and the players; stories weren’t enclosed as they have to be for video games and the dungeon master just made stuff up if the players took the story to unexpected places. The fantasy world setting, the Forgotten Realms was also licensed, once more creating the ability to co-opt a ready made fan base…

Dave Levy

Brit, Londoner, economist, Labour, privacy, cybersecurity, traveller, father - mainly writing about UK politics & IT,