Free gaming has long been in a state of inertia. There are many developers who create free games, and those developers are to be commended. But why is it so difficult for free games to win over players? I intend to explore both the importance of free games, and the difficulties they have faced in winning users.
Quite simply, free games are important for exactly the same reasons other free software is important. We see exactly the same manipulation of data, be it personal or some other sort, in games as we do in other software. The biggest difference to my mind is that, while normal software tends to deal with data in a way we can easily see and relate to, games tend to do so in a more subtle and detached way. While we may hesitate to enter our credit card information into a web form, we may not hesitate when presented with an official-looking form inside of a game we have played many times.
I would also posit that free games are even more important for different reasons, namely the importance of creative freedom. With non-free games, the ownership of the world and the characters is firmly established as being with the company that produced the game engine. With free games, while the game engine is very clearly free software, the characters and story would also, likely, be licensed under a permissive license.
However important, it has been immensely clear to free game creators that users are either not interested or not able to play the games. Why is this happening? Why are free gamers nowhere to be found? Are they simply too immersed in whatever games they play to find time for freedom?
First, I think, the largest amount of hype a game gets is around its beginning. In the non-free world, games take that energy and save it, using promo videos and press releases to sustain the user’s interest in the game. This provides them with a loyal, excited fanbase that will, at the end of the cycle, buy the game. In the free software situation, however, the game is often *already released* when the first hype wave hits, however small that wave may be. This means that the excitement over the game is no longer contained, it is set free into the game world, and released. When the game is finally released, it won’t be an event to the players anymore, it will only be an upgrade.
Also, non-free gamers have a perception of games that is unrealistic. Their idea is that the story plays a large part in the entertainment, and that the story should thus be kept a secret, so as to increase the suspense. There are a few different problems with this perception. For one, the story is at least some part of the entertainment, but for every hour spent developing the story, I guarantee that five further hours were spent on making the story possible in the game world. The game engine is just as much a part of the entertainment, if not more. Also, there is an issue with the idea of secrecy. While it may be necessary for the player to remain in the dark in order to entertain themselves, that doesn’t mean a total-media-blackout. Most of the Internet is familiar with “spoiler alerts”, so that source of spoiler is often not relevant. As for the source code itself, I look at that particular situation like a book. If you really feel like skipping to the end, nobody is stopping you. But for those of us who want to read the whole thing, we can restrain ourselves.
Hype is the only standing problem from above, at least the only problem I found to be worth examining.
In the free software world, hype is difficult to maintain. We try to use press releases and blog posts to help, but the largest part of the hype will come from word of mouth. If your community is small, then, you need to keep them energized.
There may be some difficulties in particular cases, where the project owner is not interested in hearing the suggestions of the community, or where some of the community might be less than welcoming to new members. In these situations, it is up to the community to change the situation. Start a fan site, start an IRC where the community rules, and start developing a fork of the project, if necessary.
As with most of my articles, I want to leave you today with some concrete ideas of where to go from here. Since I am speaking mostly to gamers, I will encourage them to check out Minetest, a mining simulator similar to Minecraft; ToME, an RPG with roguelike aspects and a nice interface; and many other small games in your distribution’s repositories.
Thanks for reading, and go freely.