Where are the open source games?

 Where are the open source games?

By Develop

January 31st 2009 at 12:01AM

I am writing this article on an excellent, professional word processing software application that was not developed by a corporation, but by a group of individuals motivated to create a better word processor than Microsoft Word.

In my opinion, they have succeeded; I prefer OpenOffice to Word, especially with OpenOffice’s built-in ability to export and edit PDF files. When I finish this article, I will email it to the editors at Develop with an open source application called Mozilla Thunderbird, and when the next issue comes out, I’ll surf over to the Develop site with a third open source application, Mozilla Firefox.

Then I’ll download the PDF version and read it with Adobe Reader, which isn’t open source at all – but I’m sure there’s an open source PDF reader out there somewhere.

This raises the question: why aren’t there professional quality open source games? Is it the expense? That doesn’t seem likely, as Microsoft undoubtedly spent more in developing the Office suite that includes Word, Excel, Access, and PowerPoint than most game developers spend in developing their games. And yet, the open source and shareware games floating around the Internet seldom rival even the casual games that cost less than £75,000 apiece to develop.

Is it the size of the development teams? After all, every ten years the number of team members required to develop a professional game is increasing by an order of magnitude. And yet, the list of credits for OpenOffice actually run longer than those for Wrath of the Lich King; those for the various flavours of the open source operating system Linux are longer yet. And although games are undoubtedly technologically complex, they’re hardly as vast as the aforementioned operating systems.

While there are a number of open source game development tools such as Ogre3D and NeoAxis Engine, the sad state of open source games is reflected in the fact that the SourceForge Community Choice Award winner of Best Project for Gamers was XBMC, a media player and entertainment hub. This seems rather strange, especially since gamers have been enthusiastically engaged in modding everything from Quake to Total War for more than ten years now.

So, does this mean that the next explosion in gaming will be in open source games? I don’t think so, and the list of credits on the Ogre3D page hints at why. The ten core team members are a diverse lot, and are located everywhere from Guernsey to the United States, the Netherlands, and China. They are, however, all programmers. That’s to be expected in a 3D engine team, but by the looks of most of the open source games, their teams primarily consist of programmers as well. In professional game credits, on the other hand, the programmers tend to be heavily outnumbered by the various 2D and 3D artists.

What is the difference for this imbalance? Are programmers more altruistic than artists? Are they more entrepeneurial? Is there some sort of fundamental left brain/right brain dichotomy? These things may all be possible, but it’s more likely that the two most important distinctions lie in the areas of employment opportunity and operational environment.

For all that many programming jobs have been exported overseas, programmers still remain eminently employable. A programmer’s skills usually translate well from one industry to another; a coder capable of writing 3D engine code will find it easy to write device drivers or web applications even if he has to learn a new programming language. These jobs are not as highly paid as they once were, but they are certainly a living wage, and the programmer whose skills are underutilised in his day job is quite likely to find satisfaction in working on an unpaid programming project in spheres that are closer to his areas of interest.

Artists, on the other hand, tend to make rather less money on average, and very few can afford the time to be creating game art for free. They’re often freelancers and need to spend as much of their productive time on paying work. Although progressional game artists are often very well paid, they are already fully occupied with producing game art and involvement with an open source project would likely be in violation of their employment contract.

Moreover, artists tend to work alone, for the most part, rather than as part of a collaborative process. While game art must mesh well together in terms of the overall appearance, most of the individual pieces are capable of standing alone in a way that simply doesn’t hold true of C code.

In summary, programmers are more accustomed to working together on projects and can afford to do so for long periods of time without being compensated. Furthermore, art tends to retain its value much longer than code, which is quickly outdated, so an artist is going to be somewhat more reluctant about releasing his work under one of the GNU licenses since there’s always a chance that he might be able to sell his work in the future even if there’s no immediate market for it.

It is the art factor that inhibits the development of professional open source games, and because there is no sign that the underlying aspects will change anytime soon, it appears highly unlikely that the game industry will face the open source software challenge currently being faced by the makers of other software applications.