389COM: Games and Open Source - Part 1

Dr Carey Pridgeon, DR Nazaraf Shah

Created: 2017-07-20 Thu 18:28

Games Lecture One

State of the onion

  • There are 503,637 projects on Github locatable with the search tag 'game' (last year there were 354,421).
  • But in spite of this clear indication that open source developers enjoy writing games, there are still no AAA quality revenue generating Open Source games.
  • We will try, over two lectures, to examine why this is the case.

Potted history of Games development

  • During the 1980's and early nineties, the emergence of home computers meant that thousands of people could develop games themselves.
  • Many fortunes were made, and many iconic games series were born.
  • The perception that being a programmer means being wealthy stems from this era, although even then it was only rarely true. Most games produced, even during this supposed golden age, were absolute garbage.
  • The idea that the source code for these games could be revealed, or given away had simply not occured to any commercial games developers at this time.

Open Source and Games - 1

  • Version one of Nethack was released by Mike Stephenson on July 28, 1987. a Rogue-like Dungeon crawler that is extremely hard, and still under active development.
  • This was never a commercial game, so it likely never occured to Mike that he shouldn't share the code.
  • Free software was in its infancy, but lots of people shared code routinely, just not in an organised way.


Open Source and Games - 2

  • Nethack has been very influential in the three decades it has existed. I've tried several times to get good at it, but I'm just not.
  • It has also always been free, with contributors gaining reputation and employment based on the quality of their work, not making money from Nethack itself.
  • No commercial game has enjoyed such longevity, or attained a comparable level of code quality.
  • Nor has any Open Source game, of which there are many.

Open Source and Games - 3

  • Many people have written Open Source games for fun.
  • Id software have released the source code for all their games once they have moved on. Source code only, not game resources.
  • Attempts have been made to duplicate commercial games using all new code, sometimes these have been stamped on hard.

- Open Source and Games - 4

  • Simcity has been the inspiration for several open source games (linCity, OpenCity).
  • Freecraft, a Warcraft 2 clone was killed by Blizzard in June 2003 for trademark infringement.
  • Blizzard also killed an attempt at an alternative Open Source Battlenet service called bnetd by threatening to sue anyone involved.

Cast off games

  • Some software houses have released entire formally commercial games as open source.
  • Laudible, because it does give new games developers an opportunity to legally view commercial game developers code, but the reality is that these are games that have run their commercial course and retain no opportunity for someone to make a living from them.
  • In fact, if anyone did manage to find a way to make money, it's likely the copyright holders would step in and demand a major cut anyway.

Clones - 1

  • Some very old games, some which made their millions in the eighties have been cloned (duplicated in their entirety). Manic Miner, Chuckie Egg, Space Invaders, Missile Command.
  • However the problem remains that while entertaining, these are not going to make anyone a living now.

Clones - 2

  • Recreating classic games is a good way to cut your game development teeth, since people know what to expect, and can therefore apreciate a good rendition.
  • It's important that the games be old enough to not be currently on sale, nor should you sell them, since old games are almost always still owned by someone.

Examining the problem - 1

  • So why has no-one ever managed to create a commercially viable Open Source game?
  • People have managed to use open source tools to make closed source games, so the tools exist for a totally free project, the limitation is not software based.
  • The traditional games industry often views attempts at interoperability with their products as promoting piracy.

Examining the problem - 2

  • Current AAA games cost multiple millions and several years to develop.
  • Minecraft, a program initially written by one man, became a worldwide sensation, and was bought by Microsoft for Billions.
  • The idea that succesful games must inevitably cost millions to develop is clearly flawed.
  • Mobile games are now dominating the games industry, and AAA developers don't seem to be near mastering that.

The Traditional games industry - 1

  • Warning, vast oversimplifications follow.
  • Since it's emergence in the 1970's, the traditional games industry has grown more complex and centralised.
  • The AAA industry has gained, through acquisition, most of the most popular franchises.
  • As each iteration of mainstream games appears, changes have been less significant, and innovation/risk taking has been less appealing to them.
  • Gameplay innovation has been replaced by graphical ones, and even that is beginning to stagnate.

The Traditional games industry - 2

  • Microtransactions and in game stores have been borrowed from mobile and web based games and put in games that previously had, and needed none, to further increase revenue.
  • They have not thus far seen Open Source as a valid avenue, since any such game, if true Open Source, would easily slip from their control if mis-managed.

The Console Market

  • As it stands today, the Console market is not available to Open Source games.
  • Console games also tend to be the primary focus of releases, with PC releases being ports. This may be changing, I don't buy many new games that were on a console.
  • Hardware is not the issue, at present Console manufacturers are activelly hostile to the Open Source world. This is possibly due to a lack of perceived revenue stream.

Mods - 1

  • Mods for commercial games have existed since Id software actively promoted community contributions to their FPS game Doom in the nineties.
  • Not at first however, initially they were against it, quite angry in fact. John Romero seems to have been the driving force in changing their minds.

Mods - 2

  • Mods have led to careers in gaming they may still, but it seems the feild is a bit crowded.
  • Id sought to hire many early community developers, and there are examples of mods becoming full games. (Counterstrike, Desert Combat, Team Fortress).
  • Steve Polge created an AI mod for Quake Reaper Bot in 1997 that essentially began the rise of AI NPCs in games that we see everywhere today.
  • Mods are however predominantly 'free' products that enhance non free products.

Mods - 3

  • There are current attempts to monetize modding, but these seem a present to be mostly aimed at producing a new revenue stream for AAA games companies, so not really relevent.
  • In general I would say modding should be avoided in favour of working on your own unique IP.


  • Lots of games, have been funded through Kickstarter.
  • Kickstarter game projects reward contributers with, among other things, early game access, a say in game development, and extra features, either exclusive, or just earlier than non contributors.
  • How would this work if all the code, and game assets, were free to anyone all the way along?
  • The advantage of a succesful Kickstarter campaign would be an initial cash lump sum.
  • It seems to me that Kickstarter favours the closed source model.


  • Contributers to Patreon projects generally expect to be funding something which has reguler output.
  • I have mostly encountered it on Youtube.
  • There would be no initial cash lump sum.
  • Patreon Does seem to favour a more open model, since no-one gets exclusive content, but they do often get a say in subjects covered.

Game Funding alternatives - 1

  • One Time Purchase.
  • Since an open source game couldn't use DRM (even if that did work), the piracy endemic in the One Time Purchase model world would kill any potential revenue stream.

Game Funding alternatives - 2

  • Episodic purchase (expansions/DLC).
  • This model shares the same weakness as the One Time Purchase model.
  • It's probably not relevent, because the DLC could just be released as a new main game build.

Game Funding alternatives - 3

  • Subscription.
  • Usually associated with a persistant online world, so not universally relevent.
  • Would definatelly require seed funding, since subscriptions couldn't start till the game reached initial release.

Game Funding alternatives - 4

  • Sponsorship
  • Usually in the game development world this involves a loss of creative control.
  • However it is the most used method of Open Source funding, and in this area, loss of creative control is not common.
  • A game using this approach would sell itself to sponsors as a 'value adding service'.
  • Email, web browsers and social networking have been used in this regard.
  • But there would always be conditions.

Obligatory XKCD


  • Copyright: Randall Munroe - XKCD
  • Mirrored in my hosting to avoid bandwidth stealing

Licence for this work

  • Licenced under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International by Dr Carey Pridgeon 2016
  • (Licence does not cover linked images owned by other content creators)