OSS Gaming: Ready for the Big Leagues?

Whether you’re talking about the Wii, the Xbox 360 or the PlayStation 3, the video game industry is on a record-setting pace for revenue in 2008. Consumers have scooped up billions of dollars worth of game consoles, accessories and big-budget titles. With sales set to top US$22 billion in 2008, according to The NPD Group, gaming looks as though it’s weathering the ongoing economic downturn well.

However, high-priced platforms and multi-million dollar games are not for everyone. There is an alternative to the realm of big-bucks publishers and monolithic developers like Electronic Arts — open source gaming.

“In general, there is a rapidly and constantly growing list of games for Linux and open source software users,” said Jay Lyman, an analyst at The 451 Group.

“While the degree of openness may limit the options for those seeking purely open source software, the general theme is more, better, and of course best of all, free,” he told LinuxInsider .

An Open Society Online

Open source game development is most active online, according to Chris Melissinos, chief gaming officer at Sun Microsystems, which recently held a daylong conference on open source gaming at the Austin Game Developers Conference.

“We had technologies in from all over the place covering 2-D, 3-D, IDEs (integrated development environments), tools, physics systems, best use and practice of open source technologies in major companies. We had everything. We talked about the use of open source technologies in AAA titles and up-and-coming technologies that are starting to be used more and more,” he told LinuxInsider.

The open source gaming space is hitting the market at the “exact right time,” Melissinos said.

“Because of the rising cost of games and the interest of the general public in game development, all of this is hitting at exactly the right time. Open source seems to be a tremendous road into the games industry and help protect game development from a cost perspective,” he added.

Open source game development, once the sole purview of amateur developers with time on their hands and ideas in their brains, has blossomed into an area that major game makers are looking at seriously. Well-known game developers and publishers have begun using open source software to build at least part of their multi-million dollar titles in recent years, and that has cast light on what is happening in the purely open source gaming community.

Bullet, an open source physics engine along the lines of Havoc, was used to power “Grand Theft Auto IV,” according to Melissinos.

“I’d bet many of the most hardcore gaming enthusiasts would argue gaming for Linux and open source games are limited. However, these free and open source games are pushing the established players to innovate while lowering prices and limitations to availability,” said Lyman.

What Do Open Source Games Offer?

When it comes to the actual games, there are a lot of opportunities for gamers to become involved in open source game communities. However, they will find that many games available are largely Java-based games.

“There are a lot of gaps. There is no really solid soup-to-nuts solution to do everything in the open source gaming world, at least not in 3-D games. In 2-D games, there are pretty good solutions. There are lots of pieces, and they are gradually starting to come together,” said Jesse Schell, assistant professor of Entertainment Technology at Carnegie Mellon University.

Open source games offer players the opportunity to join in the development of the game as part of the open source community. Another major benefit of playing open source titles for gamers is, naturally, the price, or lack thereof.

However, open source does not always equal free when it comes to gaming.

“People think of open source as being ‘free.’ There are companies that principally build their product using open source technologies and not only give part of the game away for free but are also able to charge for it,” Melissinos pointed out.

Runescape, for example , is a fairly well-populated, browser based, massively multiplayer online game (MMO). Runescape allows players to join in the online havoc for free, or they can bump up their game play with additional quests and skills, a larger world and other enhanced features for a few dollars more.

Open source games may require a smaller outlay of cash than proprietary games, and Melissinos sees an advantage for OSS games in terms of quality control.

“The reality is there are just as many bugs, just as many problems, just as many incomplete features in so many of these products. The advantages of open source is that [developers] can see the code, go in and very quickly manipulate the code to fix problems on their time scale,” he explained.

Where the Games Are

Users can find games of all kinds, whether they’re into first-person shooters, racing, strategy, or kid-focused titles, said The 451 Group’s Lyman.

“Many of the open source games available are similar to popular PC game titles, too, only they are free. While they may not be quite on par with their paid competition, they are definitely catching up fast and already feature cutting-edge 3-D graphics and gameplay in some cases,” he noted.

Among Lyman’s favorites are “Alien Arena,” “Tux Racer” and “Super Tux.”

“In terms of communities, these games do have them, particularly the newer and more popular ones. These communities do not rival the size of [‘World of Warcraft’], but I would bet that many of the ‘WoW’ and other big-game folks are also playing open source games and involved in other gaming communities,” he explained.

For open source game developers, creating a community is often a key step. James Daniels is a game designer and CEO of Three Rings, an open source MMO game development firm that launched “Whirled” in 2007. In the “Whirled” environment, players can chat, change avatars, decorate rooms and play games. Most importantly, however, users can also make items they can then sell online for real money.

“We released a lot of our games for our new project, an open platform for making games, as open source because we want people to have a good example and take them and modify them. We’re trying to create a way that indie developers can create flash games that are multi-player that have virtual worlds associated with them and have a microtransaction-based economy,” Daniel told LinuxInsider.

“We’re trying to raise people’s game and encourage them to make more sophisticated types of games,” he added.

Three Rings is also home to “Puzzle Pirates,” “Bang Howdy” and “Game Garden.”

“Open source developers are able to spend their time writing new and different games instead of rewriting code that already exists,” Daniels said.

As with anything online, open source game fans have created lists of top games. Lyman recommends the “Top 25 Linux Games for 2008” list as a good starting point.

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