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You are here: Home Bulletins 2010 Fall 2010 Bulletin The Free Game Lag

The Free Game Lag

by Danny Piccarillo Contributions Published on Jul 15, 2011 11:22 AM
There is one category of software that many see as being unsustainable as free software: Free video games have lagged behind other areas of free software, and the reasons behind this are fairly simple.

GNU Go

Still, even many free software proponents may fail to provide an answer to those who are skeptical about the viability of free gaming. While it is true that software should be ethical, video games need not suffer for it. The business models for production simply need to change, and just like they have for other software, they will for gaming as well. When people ask you how gaming as we know it can exist in a free software world, you should open with your response with, "It can't, but it can be better."

There is a natural tendency for free software to take on more essential aspects of computing first. While subjective, it is clear that gaming is not a top-priority and, as such, has not advanced as rapidly as say, web browsers or word processors. That isn't to say that no progress has been made. Indeed, free gaming has certainly been catching up, but it will take a while to surpass the quality of proprietary games. This should not be surprising or alarming. We will get there in good time. As free software continues to spread, interest will build for free games, and a lack of understanding how such games could support themselves should not—and need not—be a reason to make video games an exception to free software.

GNU Freedink

The state of non-free gaming has gotten so bad, that an effort called The Humble Indie Bundle launched to sell games that did not force you to use a particular platform, and did not use DRM. Through a simple pay-what-you-want model, contributors put down a total of over $1.2M because so many people are desperate to escape the norms that have evolved out of the proprietary software world. Even though it wasn't promised, after being so wildly successful, most of the games in the bundle were released as free software. There is clear interest in what free software gaming offers, and gradually there are more and more efforts to produce these free games.

It's always funny to face the same arguments that have been presented to the free software movement and completely disproven in practice (e.g. Why would anybody produce free software?). The possible incentives for creating free games are as numerous as the motivations for producing other free software. Perhaps a graphics hardware company wants to fund the development of a game to show of the capabilities of their hardware. Perhaps a hospital wants to fund an enjoyable way for surgeons to improve their dexterity. Perhaps a school wants to fund a suite of educational games for students. Perhaps a competitive gaming league wants to fund their own game for tournaments. There are already a few notable examples of free games that are proving business models can be built around free games.

Ryzom

Through a partnership with the Free Software Foundation, Winch Gate Properties Ltd released Ryzom, the massively multiplayer online role-playing game, as free software under the AGPL, and its artwork as free cultural works under the CC-BY-SA license. As an online game, they fund development through subscriptions, so releasing as free software can only help them engage a wider community and gain contributions from anyone interested in improving their software. Still, many games will not require a subscription, and there are plenty of ways for those to fund their development as well.

The possibilities don't end there, and hopefully with these examples it becomes clearer how free gaming can advance with enough interest. Free gaming will never look like the world of proprietary games today. They won't use DRM to prevent you from sharing them, and they won't limit your freedom otherwise. We can look forward to games which are not crippled by antifeatures and are able to build upon each other to develop faster than they would have otherwise. In the meantime, we should keep supporting free games and have confidence in them. We should in fact take it as a great sign when critical questions that were once raised against free software as whole are now just pinned on one subset of software. Now, next time anyone asks about free software gaming, we should have a good answer for them.

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