Originally Published: Wednesday, 15 March 2000 Author: Matt Michie
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Letting Go of Game Code

Open source is finally penetrating the minds of software executives. However, except for a few notable exceptions games have remained largely proprietary and closed. Is there a niche for open source games?

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Open source is finally penetrating the minds of software executives. However, except for a few notable exceptions games have remained largely proprietary and closed. Is there a niche for open source games?

Even the staunchest free software advocate has a hard time making a convincing case that games should be open source. Indeed, games probably shouldn't be on the same level as underlying libraries and protocols. Most arguments revolve around making the code for the game's engine open, while charging for the artwork, music, and levels. This allows the gaming community to fix bugs, make ports, and maintain the code while letting the game company take a profit. The problem with this model, is many gaming companies also profit from licensing their gaming engines. Releasing their code could have a negative impact on their bottom line.

Most open source advocates would agree that Loki Entertainment Software is a tremendous boon to the Linux community. For many, the only reason they aren't using Linux 100% is the odd game that hasn't been ported. As more games become available, more users can switch to Linux full-time.

Whatever your opinions on open source games, you ought to demand that eventually the company releases some kind of source code. The market window for most games is tiny. If a game has a life of more than a couple of months, it is an exception. After a game has "expired," most companies stop supporting the product and no longer release bug fixes and enhancements. It doesn't take long until you can't even play the game you spent $60 on.

With the Linux DOS Emulator finally making it to the 1.00 release, I wanted to try out several of the games I grew up with. Some were old enough to be stuck on 5.25 inch floppies. With some of the companies no longer in business, there was no easy way to get a copy of the game that I had paid for. Looking around the Internet, I found some sites dedicated to games that had been abandoned by their publishers. Hundreds of games were listed in the download section. However, this seems a certain violation of copyright law.

It seems strange that customers would have to go to extreme measures of having to distribute classic games this way. Even if game publishers waited five years for the game to saturate the market, most of us would still rejoice to see the game open sourced. This situation would allow the publisher to take their profits and allow their customers to continue playing their game long after the greater market becomes bored.

This has several side effects. Customer loyalty improves and more gamers are exposed to a company's products. Those that can program will fix bugs, maintain the code, port to different architectures and operating systems, and release enhancements. It is almost tragic that source code to classic games like Ultima VII has been lost forever. How can the next generation of game programmers learn their craft? Writers learn their trade first by reading other's work and then by producing their own. Coding is no different. Unfortunately, there isn't much game code to read. There is really no good business reason that so much of this code is being hoarded by game publishers. I encourage customers to start demanding that more games are eventually open sourced and I commend companies such as Id Software for taking the lead in releasing code to Doom, and Quake.

Matt Michie is a Computer Science student living in New Mexico. He maintains a small web page at http://web.nmsu.edu/~mmichie.





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