"I do not see my future in the gaming industry, so I don't care very much about making money there," Robin Vobruba, a member of the Spring Real Time Strategy engine development team, told me.
The Spring engine began as a fan attempt to recreate Total Annihilation, but it soon became clear that the tools could be applied to a variety of different strategy games. In the intervening years the open source engine has been used to create a whole variety of player-made RTS games including Zero-K, Balanced Annihilation, Star Wars: Imperial Winter, Kernel Panic, and The Cursed.
"Open source development makes it much easier for people who share similar interests and abilities to find each other, even if their interests are very specific," Vobruba said. "Working on a big, relatively unclean, long running, gradually evolved C++ engine, that feels more like a group thing, then being creative."
Working on an engine, however, is a very different undertaking then imagining new levels, quests, and enemy types. "In general, we've been able to add a lot of features that might have been declined in a commercial setup due to negative financial payback.
"For example, we've added very sophisticated and powerful ways of controlling units for players, multi-language capable APIs, several different lobby servers and lobby clients, and lots of skirmish AIs written in different languages. A lot of this work has been done as part of university projects and theses."
Building, hosting, and organizing a game engine from scratch can be overwhelming but there are resources available to help with some of the basics. SourceForge was launched in 1999 to help developers organize and manage their open source projects. Currently SourceForge has about 1200 open source project in their Games category, and has hosted some notable projects over the years, including Frets on Fire, Arianne, Passage, and emulator projects like ScummVM and Visual Boy Advance.
"Collaborative tools like bug trackers, code repositories, and wikis for documentation are very helpful for any open source project," Elizabeth Naramore, Community Development Manager for SourceForge, told me. "With games specifically, something that is also very important is promotion. Indie game developers are competing with some heavy hitters, so getting the word out and getting an active, vibrant community built around the game is crucial to its success."
SourceForge offers a mechanism for users to donate money to developers of games hosted on their site, but there is no fee for using their servers. The site, which operates under the umbrella of Geeknet Inc, (owner of websites Slashdot, ThinkGeek, and Freshmeat) is supported only by advertising dollars. The site has also begun to embrace open source development in its newest features.
"SourceForge has recently open sourced the code that powers our new beta platform for collaboration, called Allura," Naramore said. "This is cleaner, quicker, and leaner than our classic forge and we're very excited about it. The fact that it's open source itself is very important to us and we encourage our open source community to come take a look and join in our efforts to make SF.net better for everybody."
The great connecting truth in all open source projects is that none would exist without the work of their communities. They may not always possess the glinting polish of shapely symmetry of for-profit games, but they have a beauty of conviction, humbly proven by the quiet hours of labor with no hope of remuneration.
"Open source developers in general have a certain passion about what they do," Naramore said. "They are generally not in it for the money and dedicate countless hours of their lives to making their projects better, and making cool things. Whereas most other projects exist to solve problems, these projects exist purely for the fun and enjoyment of it. I think that as a result, the communities are more tight knit -- everyone is there because they want to be there more than anywhere else."
Because there is often not a centralized hierarchy, open source projects can encourage both freedom and trust among its developers. "Developers will work on what they want to work on, which may not always match the goals of the project," Wedel said. "This holds true for me also. If I think something may be a cool feature, I can implement that feature. Working on Crossfire has let me learn things I would otherwise have never done."
For professional developers there is often little more to the choice to go open source than wanting a game they've poured themselves into to live a little longer. "To tell you the truth we haven't discovered any working business model for Myst Online going open source," DeForest said. "It will be up to the community to work together to move things forward because without them there is no D'ni universe."
If our future is indeed to be a collaborative one, the lessons learned from those working in open source games, out of love for an idea, curiosity about a technology, or a desire to learn a new skill, will be irreplaceable.
"It makes it much easier for people who have similar interests and abilities to find each other and work together on a shared vision, even if that vision is narrowly specific," Vobruba said.
"One can learn to work together with people in a non-hierarchical structure, which helps greatly in learning to appreciate different opinions and views, and that may lead to better game in the end."