About a year ago, in a conversation about libre games (”free-as-in-freedom” games) on the GNU Social network (I am on the Quitter.se server), I pointed out that there are plenty of free game engines out there now, but had to ask if there are “any serious game studios using them?” Sadly, at least for now, the answer seems to be no. I suspect at least part of the reason for this is a common misperception about the nature of computer games that was summed up nicely by user gjb-dupe in a thread on HackerNews that was linked in our GNU Social conversation:

“Those are in fact compensation, but not compensation for consumption which is a primary concern for any software which depends on novelty of experience, for example, video games.”

There are, in fact, two quite separate aspects to computer games; the software engine, and the artwork, including graphics, music, sound effects, cut scene video etc. Now, it’s true that the commercial value of game artwork depends to some degree on novelty of experience. Although gamers will continue to play a favourite game after they’ve clocked it (completed it), they’re unlikely to pay money for it again, and like blockbuster movies, bestsellers in the gaming industry tend to make the bulk of their money in the first wave of sales after the game is released.

But if game software depended in any way of novelty experience, how could companies ever sell more than one commercial platform game, or top-down real-time strategy game, or first-person shooter? It’s true that the engines underlying genre games evolve, adding new features, improved realism, new gaming mechanics (a recent example is support for VR). But it’s also true that the “same game”, or at least its sequels and reboots, can be released years later, running on top of a completely different software engine.

When gamers buy copies of big-budget commercial games, the software has to be included, but that’s not what they’re paying money for. The real commercial value is in the artwork, particularly the title, game world, story, characters, settings, and visual styles, a lot which is covered by trademarks as well as copyright. That’s why a company can make a top-down, real-time strategy game like Warcraft, then spin it off into an online, open world, 3D game using a completely different software engine (World of Warcraft), and still make bazillions in sales. That’s why it makes sense for a company like ID Games to throw the source code  for the software engines of Doom and Quake “over the wall“, even while developing new games based on these popular franchises, using completely rewritten or even entirely new software engines.

For all these reasons, game companies don’t need proprietary ownership and control over the code of gaming engines any more than movie companies need proprietary ownership and control over the code of media players. As well as the software freedom benefits free code licensing offers to gamers, I think there are real benefits open source collaboration can also offer to game-makers, with no real loss of value to them:

  • Groups making a bunch of different games in the same genre, requiring similar game mechanics, can collaborate on the underlying software engines. By pooling their development resources, they can improve the quality, and extend the capabilities of the software their games run on (”many eyes make bugs shallow” etc).
  • At a deeper level, open source collaboration on engines can also lead to sending bug fixes and new features upstream as “patches“, to improve modules that are re-used in software engines, and other software components used in computer gaming.
  • In an age of internet-connected gaming platforms (console as well as PC), being able to offer long-term support for game software actually increases a game’s commercial value (and its resale value). An open source development community supported by vendor-neutral for-benefit corporation (a “Foundation”, or a “Trust” in Commonwealth law), or a social enterprise, is more likely to be able to keep supporting a game engine into the future than game companies, which go bust and get acquired.
  • Each game company benefits not only from the work of their own devs on the game engine they build games on, and the work of other game companies using the same engines, but the unpaid work of hackers improving the software as community contributors, and other software freedom supporters doing unpaid work to support the development of libre game software.
  • Free code game engines under ongoing development are more likely to be cross-platform, which means the games built on them will automatically run on a a wide range of platforms. This, in turn, broadens the potential market for a game, and allows it game companies to focus their developers’ time on making great art and engaging gameplay, rather than having to spend time to “port” their game to every platform they think people might buy it for.

I think it’s essential for the software engines to be free code, for all the usual reasons relating to user rights and protections. As a CreativeCommons advocate, I prefer games that at least allow free distribution, and I love the idea of games that license their art under a license that matches the spirit of their software license (eg GPL/ CC-BY-SA, or Apache 2.0/ CC-BY). I definitely support the development of libre games, and projects like the Liberated Pixel Cup.

But I also think that *right now*, convincing companies to free their code (or use free code developed by others or both), and maybe use a CC license with a Non-Commercial and/or No-Derivatives clause for the artwork, is more realistic than convincing game companies to release their games as free culture, for two reasons. One, because as others have mentioned in a recent thread on the Trisquel forums, ARR (All Rights Reserved) artwork can’t compromise the user’s computer in the way proprietary software can, and two, because at least for now, it’s easier to make that case from the point of view of the companies’ interests. If we can prove its possible to build thriving game development businesses using free code game engines and non-free CC licenses, and that people who run those games on GNU/Linux and other free code operating systems will still pay good money for good games, we have a much better chance of convincing game developers that they will keeping paying even if the artwork if free-as-in-freedom too.

Filed March 31st, 2017 under Uncategorized

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