The Free Game Lag

Posted: 2011-07-19

My article in the Free Software Foundation's Fall 2010 Bulletin, The Free Game Lag, was just posted online. In it, I explain why proponents of software freedom should not and need not dismiss gaming as a hopeless effort for free software. The version here includes a section on Blender's free game effort, which was not included in the FSF Bulletin due to space constraints, but you can read that version here. Printed copies of the Bulletin are sent out to FSF members twice a year. If you would like to support free software and the work of the FSF, you can learn more about membership and benefits here:
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. 

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.
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. 
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. 
Yo Fankie! 
Blender, the free software 3D media creation suite, organizes the production of films which are released as free cultural works and also organized the development of a free game based off of one of their films. These efforts help foster the development of Blender and showcase its abilities. They are able to successfully fund these efforts with DVD pre-orders and donations from people who support them. When you have a reputation for producing quality work, people will be willing to support you in making more. The game they produced, Yo Frankie!, may not be actively developed, but it does serve to prove that this model can be very successful. In less than one year and with a very small crew of people, they were able to make a fully functional game with impressive graphics. This is a testament to the viability of free gaming. 
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. 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, we should have a good answer for them.