I’m an avid open source software user and would-be contributor and a Linux user. Software patents seem completely backwards to me, and I’m a strong proponent of open source licensing.
That said, I think open source is generally wrong for games.
First, let’s do a simple exercise: make a list of the open source games that you really think are great games. I suspect most of you will have trouble putting one game on that list. Now, cross out any games that are really just clones of commercial titles. How long is your list?
In my case, there are no games on the listⁱ. There are a lot of open source games I’d like to love, but most of them are plagued by a lack of originality or sub-par implementation. Clones of great games (e.g. Lincity, Freeciv) are hard to enjoy because they fall so far short of the games they’re emulating. Original games are plagued by slow development and slower updates, as the project is passed from developer to developer.
I think the basic problem is simple: Games are art.
Games are an artistic media created with a single purpose: to elicit pleasure in the users. Whether the game is a shooter, an MMORPG, a real-time strategy game, or a horror-thriller, the end goal is to entertain us. They do this through a complex interaction among game mechanics, user interface, world design, and presentation.
In a commercial game, these elements are all balanced by an overall “designer” or “producer”, and are individually directed toward a specific goal. Collaboration among the crew is (hopefully) fostered by clear, positive direction and (again, hopefully) a reliable paycheck waiting at the end of every two-week period. Those in the crew with little say in the production of the game are rewarded with monetary compensation; those with more say may also reap the benefits of seeing their creation — their “baby” — slowly come to life. On the other hand, the strong, top-down production of commercial games often involves creating games around price points, schedules, and profit margins, and as dudecon has pointed out previously, this often gets us games that look great, but offer little originality.
In an open-source game, one of these creator rewards is removed: no one is pulling a paycheck. Or at least, very few someones. That means everyone working on the game is looking for the “nurturing” benefit, which in a large-scale production is not something that can easily be had by every member of the crew. If you tend too far in that direction, the game has “too many cooks” and will suffer from infighting. On the other hand, if the original creator rules over the development with an iron fist, his crew will have little room for creativity and no monetary reward, so they will leave. As a result, “successful” open source games are typically limited to small projects that can be accomplished with a production crew few enough in number to (more or less) evenly share the creative rewards.
This is why I love the (relatively) new “crowdsourcing” model for independent games. Planetary Annihilation, for example, got over $2,000,000 from their Kickstarter project and other donations, which will allow them to successfully employ a production staff willing to follow direction and directors capable of leading a team. Subset Games got $200,000 — 10 times their initial goal — and delivered a solid, enjoyable product. Crowdsourcing games feels, to me, like commissioning a piece of artwork.
We haven’t decided how we plan to license Fledgeling, but I encourage you to look for ways to support the kind of game development you appreciate. If you like what you’ve seen in the indie game market, go fund a new project, or buy a release indie game. Let’s encourage the crowdsourced game movement, and empower artists to deliver products we’ll enjoy.
ⁱAs a postscript: if you feel like I’ve committed an injustice by failing to appreciate your favorite open source game, feel free to shoot me a link. As long as I can install or compile it in a modern installation of Arch Linux, I’m happy to give it a chance to prove me wrong.