[MUD-Dev] Open Source Online Gaming

Bryce Harrington bryce at neptune.net
Wed Mar 15 02:45:30 New Zealand Daylight Time 2000

On Tue, 14 Mar 2000, Bruce wrote:
> > On Mon, 13 Mar 2000, Aaron Mitchell wrote:
> > > First of all, has anyone heard of or built a successful business
> > > model in the online gaming industry centered around an open
> > > source project?  I like the idea of open source products,
> > > especially the community development aspects, but still would like
> > > to develop a commercially viable product.

Making a successful business is really tough, no news there.
Online games can also be very hard to create.  And open source
projects are really challenging to establish and manage.  Combining
any of the two is pretty challenging, but all three?  I would have
my doubts...  Commercial backing could make all the difference in the
world for motivating a team to completion.

Community development projects are difficult because the operator
of that project lacks the power to withhold salaries or to directly
intimidate the developer into working harder.  Of course, these are
also advantages.  Turnover rates are high, so even though person X
volunteered to create your combat library routines, he could be long 
gone within a week, leaving your game development schedule in shambles.  

Managing a commercial programming project is often described as
"herding cats."  I like to describe running a community development 
project as "herding lions".  You can beat cats with sticks; you ought 
not use that practice with lions.  Keeping everyone moving in the same
direction is really hard, since they're curious about all sorts of
side things.  And when one of them *really* wants that gazelle, you're
best off just standing out of the way and waiting until they're full.
They want to be given a clear direction of where to go, and a list
of tasks to be done to achieve those goals, yet ordering or demanding
that they do something only elicits stares and defiant fur-licking.

> > No, not yet.  This may merely be an artifact from the lack of
> > completed open source online games, however.  The commercial aspects
> > have been found to sometimes get tangled up with the community
> > aspects; working for free to help someone else earn money is
> > sometimes seen as unfair.
> This seems to be a personal bias.

Hmm, not precisely, but I can't say I've not ranted on this subject at
length elsewhere.  There is nothing wrong with commercial motives,
except in that it usually implies proprietary, which is (arguably) bad
if one is attempting to do development via a community.  I have had many
"commercial oriented" developers come to my current project.  A few have
stayed and helped, some took from the project but did not return
anything back, and most simply passed through, judging themselves better
off doing all of the work independently.  I suspect only the first group
is of any interest in elaborating on, here, so here are three examples
of useful commercial/open source relationships that I have been involved
with so far:

The first is myself.  When I started on my current project it was my
intention to get the project moving along, and then be able to make
money off of it by building up a business around it selling CD's,
operating games, and so forth.  After working on it for a while, I
started trying to assemble the commercial aspect and get some financial
backing, draw up business plans, and so forth.  There were several
things I noticed occurred shortly after starting this:

1) I started making decisions for the project that were less for the
good of the project than for being able to better position myself to
gain the investments.

2) I found myself torn between spending time making the project more
successful and trying to build this business.

3) People sensed #1 and #2, and some people (not the majority, but
enough that it was problematical) either reduced involvement or wanted
to join in doing businessy things.  Some developers indicated a distaste
for the even slight commercial nature and quit.

The time involvement and stress was simply too much, and so since the
business could not exist without the community but the community could
exist without the business, I chose to drop the commercial ambitions.
While it may mean I'll be poor and never escape my day job, at least I
enjoy the work more now and can feel less pressured by the commercial
demands.  I'm sure this brands me as some sort of "anti-commercial
fanatic" but I don't mind being erroneously thought subversive.  ;-)

The second example is Bob.  Bob is your classic old school guru software
developer, with a big-time, openly declared commercial motive to his
involvement.  His intention is to lurk around in the project, offering
advice and some web admin services in exchange for being able to snag
the software for building virtual communities one day.  I think we are
going too slow for his commercial purposes, but he doesn't complain
about that ever.  He's used the team as a recruitment pool to gain
people for various other projects he's working on.  He makes no demands
on the team to conform to his needs, and does not "direct" us in any
way, so he is very easy to work with and get along with, and even though
his aim is to make money off of our work, we actually are pretty much ok
with that.  He's brought in some useful web software and introduced us
to people, ideas, and software that is useful, and is a good guy to
bounce ideas off of.

The third example is John, a cool, gung-ho maverick entreprenuer who
just recently became independently employed, supported by his game
development work.  He has cranked out an incredible amount of code for
us, openly motivated by the desire to use this code for his
commercial-oriented, semi-proprietary server development work.  Whatever
friction there is, it's overcome by the mutual benefits.  He has gained
much better code due to peer review, and we've gained some quickly
developed code.

We've had others who tend to fit one of these three patterns.  Give up
the commercial aspects, hang out and wait until there's something to
take advantage of, or dig in and help get the bits you need for your
commercial project completed.  What seems to work best is if the
commercial interest sees a benefit to itself (tangible or otherwise) and
gets involved to the degree that it helps them, without making demands
(remember the defiant fur-licking?) or requesting compromises.  It's
easy to tell the people who have something real to offer - you can't
force them *not* to offer it.

Anyway, when I say that the commercial aspects can sometimes get in the
way of the community aspects, it's just because of personal experience.
I have seen both good and bad effects.  And my emphasis on the word
"sometimes" is sincere.

Because of this I personally tend to discourage anyone who wishes to try
to run a commercially motivated community development effort.  It is
hard and unlikely to succeed.  Do not waste your time, you will fail.
If you can be discouraged by someone telling you, "Do not waste your
time, you will fail" then you don't have the stubbornness to see it
through.  Anyone serious about doing something commercial will get the
funding to go do it and needn't hassle with open development.

In the above, I would emphasize that this is particular to
_development_.  If the code that you will be making a business out of
already exists, well that is a completely different story.  Community
development works much easier when there is a pre-existing codebase (or
at least, a design or exemplar) to work from.  Give control of the code
over to the community and just focus on building a solid business, in
this case.

> At a minimum, there are a few reasons why one might work on an open
> project.
>  * Genuine love and/or interest in the field of endeavor.
>  * A desire to be employed in that field in the future.
>  * Being paid to do the work.
>  * A need for the software, so you write your own. (Scratching the

Someone has evidently read ESR's papers.  ;-)
Yes, these are reasons why someone might form or participate in
a small open source initiative, but for a large scale
project the long term motivations are very different:
a)  A love of "making things" to share - and not just in the 
    particular field, but anything software or media oriented,
b)  A love of being part of a community, where one can 
    build a reputation, meet and chat with friends, and gain
c)  A desire to gain recognition, approval or just boost the
    ol' ego.
Usually it is a combination of all three.

> > ...working
> > for free to help someone else earn money is sometimes seen as
> > unfair.
> Personally, I think that this mental attitude that a corporate concern
> is being unfair to people by placing their intellectual property into
> open source is dangerous.  That this is often then followed by
> deciding to start a new project to avoid being cheated is also
> dangerous.

You're partially misinterpreting what I said, but that is okay: when an
individual gives a gift, asking only a little in return, and is told,
"No, you must give more than that," it does seem unfair.  And forking,
too, is unfair.  If you are depending on the community's loyalty for
commercial reasons, it can indeed be dangerous - your community could
organize itself, take your code, and leave you in the dust, if it feels
you are not proceding as it wishes.  Like I said before, commercial
oriented community-dependent development is tricky to get into.  It's so
much simpler and safer to keep the commercial aspects well separate from
the community aspects.  Maybe hHire one guy to run the community and
keep him away from the business, and another guy to run the business
whom you keep clear of the community?

I think that the motivation for starting new projects is less driven by
the "free beer" motive than the desire to be able to "create stuff".
People just enjoy writing games.  *Shrug*

Anyway, I again apologize for speaking of open source topics on this
list; I could go on and on about philosophy of large scale open source
game development but since it's not mud related and of little interest
to people here, I'll be lucky if this windy post is even allowed
through.  ;-)


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