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Hackers, Slackers, and Shackles 347

blacklily8 writes "What is the future of free software development for games? Is it possible? Will the games ever equal or surpass their proprietary competitors? Why should we care? After thoroughly researching the free and open source software model, and interviewing both indie and free software game developers, author Matt Barton decided that the future is indeed very bright. Stallman is quoted here saying that game engines should be free, but approves of the notion that graphics, music, and stories could all be separate and treated differently (i.e., "Non-Free.")"
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Hackers, Slackers, and Shackles

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  • depends.. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by gl4ss ( 559668 ) on Sunday January 09, 2005 @03:14PM (#11304974) Homepage Journal
    on how you look at it.

    nethack has always been superior in quite many aspects when compared to commercial games, partly because no commercial game can take that kind of risks in pissing off the gamer.

    'free' games can continue to fill the niche segements pretty well.

    and then there's the 'simple arcade rehash' genre - free games fill that tremendously well as clones of classic arcade games has become easier and easier to write as years pass.
  • by ralinx ( 305484 ) <ralinx@gmail.com> on Sunday January 09, 2005 @03:17PM (#11304991)
    stallman wants all code to be free... but he wouldn't mind music and art to be non-free?

    in what way does a coder differ from a graphics artist? according to stallman's views, should a graphics artist not be able to freely obtain the art of a game so he could modify it, without having to pay for it? after all, that is what he demands of software. it has to be free so a coder is free to change it without having to pay for it. does he have double standards?

    note: i like free software, but i don't feel that every piece of software that i use should be free. i just think it's a little bit odd that stallman is using double standards.
  • Hard To Do (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Nurgled ( 63197 ) on Sunday January 09, 2005 @03:19PM (#11305011)

    It's hard to have a Free game which matches the quality and depth of today's main commercial offerings due to the need for artists and other such people who (for whatever reason) are less keen to do hobbyish projects.

    I think the only way that this is going to start is if developers put together good graphics engines, up to the standard of the latest offerings from Id and the Unreal guys, and have commercial developers work from these as a base rather than licencing from the commercial vendors. With the GPL-licenced Quake engines we are already some way there, but of course they are (as they come out of Id) already a generation or two behind and need some work to get them up there.

    There's also the problem of convincing the commercial development houses that having their game code source available (which would be necessary for GPL compliance) won't hurt because the art and other content will be the product. The main show-stopper here is that you can't really do copy protection in an open-source product, and right now every commercial offering has copy protection.

  • by shaitand ( 626655 ) on Sunday January 09, 2005 @03:26PM (#11305057) Journal
    music, art, even fiction books are all part of the arts and cannot be compared to non-artforms like software and technical matter. They are completely different animals.

    You discover the optimal software algorithm, there is already a right answer before you ever compose it. Nobody discovers art and withholding art does not hinder the progress of mankind like withholding technology does.
  • by MutantHamster ( 816782 ) on Sunday January 09, 2005 @03:26PM (#11305058) Homepage
    While, I haven't RTFA yet, that won't stop me from offering my opinion. Which is that art and music are entirely different from code. I think his point about graphics and music and such is so that someone won't steal an entire game and rename some of the characters so they can pretend it's theirs.

    It's kind of like, if I made a movie. I wouldn't mind you using all my techniques for special effects, (or CGI as it's called today) and filming, etc. But you'd be a big douchebag if you stole my script and just "expanded" on it to make your own movie.
  • by Daxx_61 ( 828017 ) on Sunday January 09, 2005 @03:27PM (#11305061) Homepage
    Won't simple economics dictate that one person will not spend a good portion of his life working on games, when he could be working on games for money? That will ensure that people have to pay for good(more complicated) games, and compensate these people for the staggering amount of effort that must surely go into designing a good game.
  • by 0xC0FFEE ( 763100 ) on Sunday January 09, 2005 @03:32PM (#11305092)
    The thing with code is that, over time, you come to rely on it. You want tools to remain available to you to perform your daily tasks.

    For example, you want to continue using compiler X 2.95 say for however long you want witout having to pay for a subscription or without being vulnerable to deficiencies. Same thing with other programs like email readers, browser and more fundamentally an OS.

    So there is a need to take measures to keep the code free and available, unencumbered by legal or economical conditions. Conditions that would/could, ultimately, be a loss to its users. In fact, the thing with free software in general is that reliance on free software is safe because it cannot be taken away.

    No such need or dependency with music...

  • by hahafaha ( 844574 ) <lgrinberg@gmail.com> on Sunday January 09, 2005 @03:34PM (#11305094)
    I quite agree. Music is a finished product and it can't have new "features". Software can.
  • Independent Games (Score:5, Insightful)

    by lutskot ( 658962 ) on Sunday January 09, 2005 @03:38PM (#11305124) Homepage
    The gaming industry is in many ways very similar to that the film industry sans the overpaid actors.

    This leads me to think that we'll have a similar trend in games in the future as we do in films today. The industry will be splitt between high-budgett, spectacular games such and Halo 2 and Doom 3, while a smaller market of independent films will emerge created by people who feel that games can be an art form, and not just entertainment.

    I know there are small independent game conferences allready, but we still do not have anything like the independent film festivals which help get the films out to their audience.

    As for licenses, I agree with Stallman in that the game engine, which is more cases can be thought of at generalized software should be free, while the artistic part of the projects need to be considered as custom work and could remain non-free.
  • by Solr_Flare ( 844465 ) on Sunday January 09, 2005 @03:43PM (#11305147)
    Agreed, that is the most likely scenario because, in many ways, it is already like that to a lesser extent. Games, like movies, tv, music, and books, are just another form of entertainment(albeit a more interactive form). As such, the general rules and trends of the entertainment industry will likely apply to a certain extent.
  • How naive. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by r ( 13067 ) on Sunday January 09, 2005 @03:57PM (#11305213)
    From the article: "In short, "open sourcing" projects like Half-Life 2 would likely lead to much better games, which would result in much better sales and happier end-users."

    This is like saying GM should open-source the blueprints for all their car engines. It's ridiculous. Valve put untold millions into HL2 development, and there's absolutely no incentive for them to just open the source, and there's a strong disincentive: if they were to open it, everyone could just build a highly competitive game on top of it without paying a cent. And what's gonna pay for the programmers? The original game's sales? Will they be high enough given the man-hours that went into the engine, especially since the new competing games would likely cannibalize the sales of the original game?

    The HL SDK already opens up most of the engine (sans some of the graphics and networking, I believe), and budding game programmers can cut their teeth on that (that's how Counter-Strike came about). But since it's still copyrighted, and the new game requires licensing with Valve, which helps them recoup the costs of developing it in the first place, and fund the development of the new engine.

    To ignore the economic constraints of development is breathtakingly naive.
  • by CrackedButter ( 646746 ) on Sunday January 09, 2005 @04:07PM (#11305260) Homepage Journal
    You can produce, enlightenment, understanding, emotions, inspiration, ideas and more art, with art.
  • by nathanh ( 1214 ) on Sunday January 09, 2005 @04:43PM (#11305509) Homepage
    most game software is a balancing act between competing resources and is therefore an art.

    Writing software that balances several competing resources is engineering.

    I think that some software can be artistic in the sense that it is written creatively but that has nothing to do with it being a "balancing act between competing resources".

  • Re:How naive. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by nathanh ( 1214 ) on Sunday January 09, 2005 @04:46PM (#11305524) Homepage
    This is like saying GM should open-source the blueprints for all their car engines. It's ridiculous. Valve put untold millions into HL2 development, and there's absolutely no incentive for them to just open the source, and there's a strong disincentive: if they were to open it, everyone could just build a highly competitive game on top of it without paying a cent. And what's gonna pay for the programmers? The original game's sales? Will they be high enough given the man-hours that went into the engine, especially since the new competing games would likely cannibalize the sales of the original game?

    This is like saying Linus should open-source the source code for Linux. It's ridiculous. Linus and his merry band of programmers put untold millions of hours into Linux development, and there's absolutely no incentive for them to just open the source, and there's a strong disincentive: if they were to open it, everyone could just build a highly competitive operating system on top of it without paying a cent. And what's gonna pay for the programmers? The original CD sales? Will they be high enough given the man-hours that went into the kernel, especially since the new competing kernels would likely cannibalize the sales of the original kernel?

    To ignore the economic constraints of development is breathtakingly naive.

  • by styxlord ( 9897 ) on Sunday January 09, 2005 @04:47PM (#11305527)
    And the practical use of computer games (when compared to art and music) is?

    I don't see any difference between music, art, software. All three are creative expressions, just the canvas is different.
  • You don't. (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 09, 2005 @04:49PM (#11305545)
    Instead, you go play something fun.

    Nethack has no visual appeal. No music. A shitty interface. It's "depth of gameplay" consists of getting killed over and over until you learn about all the things that can kill you.

    It's a huge investment with no payoff. If you want to enjoy the sense of accomplishment you get from doing something hard and tedious (the ONLY appeal of Nethack), go and learn something useful.

    If you want to play games and have fun, there are a thousand better ones out there.
  • Re: Hard To Do (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Alwin Henseler ( 640539 ) on Sunday January 09, 2005 @04:54PM (#11305563)
    I think the only way that this is going to start is if developers put together good graphics engines, up to the standard of the latest offerings from Id and the Unreal guys, (..)

    The tools, engines (and operating systems to run them on) are already there, see for example this database of 3D engines [3dengines.net], many of which are free/open source.

    But for a succesful game project you need not just good coder(s), but graphics artists / musicians as well. I don't really see the difference between code and artwork here, it's the same thing: put in a lot of hard/creative work, with something other than money as reward. So coders are there, but where are the artists?

    I have often wondered, but think I figured it out: in the modding community! Ever notice how many mods / maps / models / skins get made for popular 3D shooters? Can you even count the number of UT/Q3 mods or total conversions? There's your working-for-free highly talented artists! And quite a number of them too.

    So why are they working with commercial 3D engines, instead of free software projects? Ideas welcome, but I suspect an important reason is just plain popularity. There's way more copies of Quake3 than of Tuxracer or Bzflag around. And the reasons for that? Lack of a free/OS 'hit' game? Software industry inertia? I wouldn't know, but lack of a good, free 3D engine surely isn't THE problem here.

  • Re:Disagree (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Riddlefox ( 798679 ) on Sunday January 09, 2005 @05:02PM (#11305595) Journal
    Hmm, it seems to me that if you look at the game modding community (such as Half Life modders, UT modders, and so on), there are lots of people who can generate pretty good looking models of weapons and players, generate new maps, and so on. It seems like coding is the difficult thing to do.
  • Re:How naive. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by grumbel ( 592662 ) <grumbel+slashdot@gmail.com> on Sunday January 09, 2005 @05:29PM (#11305764) Homepage
    The difference here is that Linus basically started with nothing, he didn't had a huge business depending on selling Linuxs to the masses and didn't invested millions to build it, nope, he just had a few thousand lines of code floating around on his disk, wouldn't he have published it, it would have most likly stayed like that.

    Valve on the other side does have invested millions into producing the game, so how exactly would OpenSourcing help them? In the best case you would see some forks and games making use of the engine, but Valve would still standing there with a few millions of bucks in the minus. OpenSourcing works good when you have enough money to not care or can make money out of support contracts (IBM) or if you start from scratch (Linus), but it really makes little sense when your whole business depends on selling boxed versions of the game.
  • by LWATCDR ( 28044 ) on Sunday January 09, 2005 @05:43PM (#11305833) Homepage Journal
    There are only like 8 stories everything else is based on one of those.
  • Re:Hard To Do (Score:2, Insightful)

    by ptlis ( 772434 ) on Sunday January 09, 2005 @05:53PM (#11305876) Homepage
    But then we have to ask ourselves how much of this theoretical $1M was used to develop a new engine or purchasing the rights to use one developed by another company? Now think how much the game would cost to develop if there was a game engine free to use and all they had to do was customise it to fit the specific requirements of that game... That $1M game might now only cost $500K to develop, in which case the number of units need to be sold for it to make a profit is halved, that or they could still spend the full $1M and use the extra money to hire more artists/writers/mappers and such meaning the finished game is larger, more interesting and of a very high level of polish. Either way the developers wins, and there is the potential for the gaming public to win too.
  • by mrchaotica ( 681592 ) on Sunday January 09, 2005 @06:54PM (#11306174)
    The practical use of computer games -- or rather, the practical reason why their code needs to be Free -- is that they do stuff! They have the same issues as regular software: you need the code to fix bugs, port to other platforms, etc. Even if you do stuff like that, it's the same program.

    On the other hand, the artwork and story of the game is complete within itself, and doesn't need to be tweaked to work correctly (aside from maybe doing things like making higher-resolution or higher-polygon-count versions of things). Moreover, if you change a work of art it necessarily becomes a different work of art, because the only reason for doing so would be to add your own creative interpretation to it.

    Software is creative, but it's not art, just like how engineering is creative but isn't art either. The difference is that it's built for a purpose rather than to tell a story or evoke an emotion. Your graphics library (or whatever) is art when reading the code reveals universal truths about human nature, or at least provokes deeper emotions than "damn, this code sucks" or "wow, that's a cool algorithm!"
  • IAAGD - My 0.02c (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 09, 2005 @07:00PM (#11306207)
    If I use a fly swatter instead of bug spray to kill a bug, does it make the bug any less dead?

    Just because programmers are involved in making games doesn't mean that models for OS or Application Software translate over. It's like saying that because I draw art at Marketing Inc. in Illustrator, game artists should use Illustrator too. I mean, what's the difference? We're both artists making art, right?

    There are lots of reasons why gaming in the Open Source environment doesn't work at the moment.

    * The people making the games are programmers. Now, this isn't a bad thing - programmers just want to have fun too. However, it does mean that even basic game design concepts like iterative design, balancing or positive/negative feedback gets ignored in favor of "I need to implement OBB collision" or "I need to port this to an OS other than Linux so that the mainstream will actually play it". Nothing wrong with that from a programmer perspective, they're fun challenging programming tasks. They just aren't "Make the game fun and iterate on the design" tasks, which should be someone's priority when making a game.

    But I hear you yelling "The whole point of Open Source is that anyone can join in! Designers can just jump in anytime and work with a team of other Open Source developers on SourceForge!"


    * The budding designers who want to design can't, because there isn't an engine for them. I wanted to make a quick prototype of a game idea that I had. I looked around, and every engine was either too simplistic, BASIC based and kludgy, complete engines with too much overhead for prototyping, or graphics engines with great 3D rendering but no consideration for actually Making Games.

    Having said that, I know some friends who are making just this - the game engine for designers who care more about iterative design than specular lighting. I'll put my 0.02c on them being insanely successful when it gets announced/released.

    * I don't care if your game is Open Source or not. Seriously. There's no benefit to me as a player. Just because you've made some racing game with a penguin, I should proclaim you as the second coming of Miyamoto?


    How about this? Instead of sitting on your asses and preaching, how about you take a leaf from the books of people making successful mods for FPS's, and assemble a decent team first.

    How about you write a design spec, prototype the game, then once you've iterated over the design until the game is fun and you have a team of artists, programmers and content creators, you go through and implement your planned game?

    How about once you've done that, you get some external people to iterate over it some more, then announce that you have a game? Then, if it's a good game, people will declare it's awesome, and you can be a successful game developer first, OSS poster boy second.
  • Re:How naive. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by waveclaw ( 43274 ) on Sunday January 09, 2005 @07:08PM (#11306250) Homepage Journal
    Engine blueprints are not like software and tt is not always in the best financial interest of a company to charge for traditional products.

    You mentioned:
    This is like saying GM should open-source the blueprints for all their car engines. It's ridiculous. Valve put untold millions into HL2 development, and there's absolutely no incentive for them to just open the source, and there's a strong disincentive...

    But then you turned around and said:

    To ignore the economic constraints of development is breathtakingly naive.

    Form those of us who've actually developed software and taken classes on economics, these statement are very naive. For all projects, the return on investment varies throughout its lifecycle. This contraint is often overlooked by shortsighted money grubbing middle management in the pursuit of next-quarter's margins. As mentioned in the article, which you obviously did not read, game software that once garndered much money for each small (post-release) investment reaches a point at which few profits can be obtained with even large investment.

    With your competitors producting higher quality engines (for which you are getting zero royalties) and using newer storylines, you product cannot compete. In this situation, it makes sense save yourself the cost of distribution while ensuring people see your logos and discover the quality of your work. Corner isle loss leaders at supermarkets are the same idea. In the case of software, you are getting free adversiting, marketing and publicity from an existing product by releasing the source code.

    If you had read the article, you would understand that companies such as Valve are moving away from selling cars like Half-Life 2 to renting fleets of vehicles with systems like steam. For GM, keeping a blueprint seceret is not possible since the engine has to pass safety inspections. Very few peices of software have such mission critical natures. GM pays an engineer to make and sign off on their blueprints, but so do software companies that make 911 telecom software. Once built, it is very easy to reverse engineer a car engine. For the purposes of patents and publishing rights, the detailed methods of engine operation may be widely published with only a working prototype. Binaries of game software are easily encrypted and copy-protected. Usually such protection is kept until it interferes with enough of the customer base and generates enough bug reports to warrent removal.

    According to modern studies [dwheeler.com] 95% of all in-house software fits the criteria for F/OSS [dwheeler.com] release policy. Those fortunate enough to adopt service models, like content distribution via Valve's Steam [steampowered.com] or support offerings like RedHat's Enterprise Linux [redhat.com], are getting continual revinue which scales very well. (I'd much rather pay the taxes on $0 million in sales now and $4 million in income over the next 5 years than $500k from sales now with nothing to show for the next 5 years.)
  • Re:Don't Think So (Score:3, Insightful)

    by DeepHurtn! ( 773713 ) on Sunday January 09, 2005 @07:28PM (#11306339)
    I think the point is that games wouldn't be *completely* free -- only the engines would. This might -- might! -- be workable. As many people have pointed out here, developing a game engine from scratch -- or licensing one -- is very, very expensive, and adds a helluva lotta time to the development cycle. Let's say a few companies get together to develop a libre engine that they will share, and it catches on, building a community of developers. They could conceivably get a solid engine for much less than the cost to develop it purely in-house or to license one, focusing their development cycle on (still proprietary!) art, story, etc. The companies get a shortened and much cheaper dev cycle (allowing either higher profits or a lower price point) and the community gets a good engine that will allow for high quality indy games.

    From the consumers point of view, the lowered barrier to entry would be a great thing, but might be what would scare off existing companies from participating. But they'd probably be able to keep indy games, even of a high quality, restricted to a niche market due to their superior marketing muscle and ability to invest in things like "name" voice talent, more artists, professional writers, etc.

  • Re:How naive. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by BlueWonder ( 130989 ) on Sunday January 09, 2005 @09:40PM (#11306934)
    This is like saying GM should open-source the blueprints for all their car engines.

    Car engines already are "open source". Once you have bought a car, it is legal for you to take the engine apart, modify it, use parts of it in another machine you build, study how the engine works, even use the thusly gained knowledge to build you own engine. If the enginge breaks, you can try to fix it yourself or have it fixed, and neither action will cause you to be called a pirate.

    "Open source" or free software tries to alleviate the heavy restrictions that a law (copyright) puts on software. An analogous law for car engines simply doesn't exist, so you already have all the rights with respect to car engines that free software gives you with respect to software.

  • by bbc ( 126005 ) on Sunday January 09, 2005 @10:27PM (#11307167)
    Again, you are using gobs of free software that people have spent "a good portion of [their lives] working on" to make your point. Surely, you can see the problem with that?
  • by period3 ( 94751 ) on Monday January 10, 2005 @01:32AM (#11307957)
    How does this argument address the freedom to copy and to share?

    I believe I should have the right to freely share with my neighbour. I also believe I have the right to draw mustaches on all the characters if I so choose.

    These freedoms are not exclusive to software. I don't believe it's about "hindering the progress of mankind" or anything so grand as that.

    I just want the simple rights I take for granted with my tangible goods.
  • by Cryptnotic ( 154382 ) * on Monday January 10, 2005 @03:31AM (#11308362)
    So many ways to die suddenly and unexpectidly.

    Some of the other replies seem to be trying to give you advice on how to "win" at the game. I'll offer a counter-proposal: You basically understand the game already. The game isn't really played in the context of the execution of the nethack binary on a computer. The game is actually acquiring arcane knowledge to forstall death. The knowledge acquisition part of the game is played on Usenet, message boards, IRC, and Slashdot. It is possible, theoretically, to acquire the arcane knowledge via trial and error in the game, but this is so time-consuming that no sane person would try it. Examining the source code to the game, contrary to some people's opinion, is not cheating. It is merely another option in the game to acquire the arcane knowledge required. Also, it won't entirely help you, since there's some randomness to it.

    The whole game, ultimately, is a metaphor for the life of a hacker. The hacker acquires arcane knowledge (either by learning from a master, trial and error, or inquisition). He uses the arcane knowledge to advance himself in life through his career. Ultimately, he either dies or achieves independance and can retire.

    It's more complicated than that, of course, but that's basically the jist of it.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 10, 2005 @04:10AM (#11308451)
    There's just one fundamental flaw with your supposition. There are game engines that are free (F/OSS), and "effectively" free (Commercial games with editors). The barriers to entry couldn't get much lower.* The problem everyone's dancing around is the acknowledgement that it's the artistic element that's missing from F/OSS games. Not a technological one. The next step is reconcilling the OSS philosophy with the artistic philosophy. And if all the talk around here represents out there? Then it never will be completely resolved.

    *The only one that's high is developing game engines from scratch (as opposed to modifying preexisting ones).

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