The Game Archaeologist: Where are all of the open-source MMOs?

Recently we had an interesting question come in from reader and Patron Rasmus Praestholm, who asked me to do a little investigating: “What (if anything of substance) exists in the MMO field that’s not only free, but open source? The topic of open source came up briefly in a recent column, where Ryzom was noted to have gone open source at some point. But have any serious efforts actually gotten anywhere starting out as open source?”

As some graphical MMORPGs pass the two-decade mark in video game history and are being either cancelled or retired to maintenance mode, it’s an increasingly important topic when it comes to keeping these games alive. Not only that, the question of open source MMOs involves the community in continued development, with the studio handing over the keys to an aging car to see what can be done by resourceful fans.

But has anything much been done with open source projects in the realm of MMORPGs? Is this something that we should be demanding more of as online gaming starts using more accessible platforms such as SpatialOS? Let’s dig a bit into this topic and see what we turn up.

What is open sourcing?

So what is “open source?” An open source software is a game or application that is willingly licensed to the public, free of charge, to use, modify, and redistribute by, well, pretty much anyone who wants to under minimal terms. Usually (but not always) there is an agreement attached in which the user will not be able to charge money for his or her modified creation or use specific assets that remain under a proprietary license, but other than that, it’s anything goes.

The idea of open source is, frankly, a wonderful one. In gaming, it often involves software that is past its prime but still has a dedicated following, but there are plenty of massive and fresh open-source projects too that you’ve surely heard of, like Firefox and Linux and WordPress. The open source movement has ensured some projects like games are given over to the community with the studio’s blessing to be modded, upgraded, and even run on players’ own servers. For video games and MMOs, this could mean better graphics, new art, different rulesets, or what have you.

Because it’s done with the studio’s full permission, there’s usually no issue with legality when it comes to open source MMOs. This blessing and freedom makes open source projects a holy grail of sorts for players who want to modify and run their own games without worrying about a nasty cease-and-desist arriving one day to shut it all down.

Open sourcing overlaps greatly with the modding community, as both share a lot in common. For example, Neverwinter Nights (1 and 2) were created to be modded and operated by players, some of whom created their own persistent MMO worlds to be enjoyed by friends even today. Open source games go a little beyond what mere modding can offer, opening up the full guts of the program to anyone with knowhow to tinker.

The open source projects

Aside from the aforementioned Ryzom (which doesn’t seem to be open source now that it has a firm owner and dev team behind it), there are a few other games that spring to mind, starting with Meridian 59.

Following the reacquisition of the ’90s-era MMO by the original creators, Meridian 59 was released to the community in 2012 an an open source game (you can read more about the history of that game in a previous column).

“After many years, the source code for Meridian 59 has been released to the public, allowing fans and curious developers the chance to download everything that goes into the classic game,” the owner posted five years ago. “The source code allows the ability to find information on the game and how it works, and also comes with tools such as the room editor needed to create new content.”

Since then there has been a little movement on the M59 open source front, including an alleged attempt to greatly update the graphics, but nothing complete has come as a result yet.

Unfortunately, there’s not much else out there in regards to recognizable MMOs that went open source. We were hoping to see an Asheron’s Call private server option (which smelled a lot like open sourcing) back before Turbine scrapped the franchise entirely and left fans with nothing.

Back in 2015, Wurm Online offered a standalone version called Wurm Unlimited that allowed players to create, modify, and operate their own private servers. Again, it’s not pure open source, but the ability to get one’s hands deep under the hood to adjust and modify the game gets it within the ballpark.

I think it’s worth mentioning Glitch here. While the original studio couldn’t hand over the full codebase to the community, it did hand over a shockingly huge pile of assets (including art and music) for free that fan projects such as Eleven and Children of Ur are using to recreate the game in their own fashion.

The further back in time you go, the more likely it is that you’d be able to find more pure open source options, particularly in the text-based MUD era. Many MUD codebases, such as EmpireMUD and Evennia, are all free for aspiring dungeon masters to use at will. Crossfire, a 1992 graphical multiplayer game, is another such project and a topic deserving of its own column some day.

The dark side of MMO modification

If Rasmus was hoping that I was going to turn up some major, previously unknown MMORPG that had gone open source over the years, I am bound to disappoint here. The truth is that despite anyone wishing to the contrary, MMO studios aren’t often willing or even able to hand over the code (particularly if there is a licensed IP attached). Studios never know when full games or even some of the assets contained in them could be sold or used in the future, so why give them away for free? Sure, there’s some goodwill involved and maybe a shared passion for games and their continuity, but that seems rare in this industry.

This means that if any of the above open source projects aren’t appealing, aspiring modders — particularly ones attached to specific MMORPGs — turn to “closed” source tinkering, which otherwise known as emulation. Emulators (or emus) are virtually the same thing as open source games, with the exception of their illegal status. The emulator community does not have the studio’s express consent to modify and redistribute the game, but the parties involved in these cases do not care.

Sometimes emulators are seen as more morally grey in their being, especially when employed to resurrect abandoned or cancelled MMOs that can no longer be played anywhere else. Other times they are whipped up to offer free versions of subscription games or to restore online games to a specific era (i.e., “vanilla” servers).

Emulator project teams will often validate their work with the attitude that if the actual owner isn’t piping up, then there’s this unspoken permission (“turning a blind eye”) to go ahead with the game. Keeping emulators free to play is usually important, as charging a fee crosses a line that quickly invokes legal repercussions.

Emulators will continue to be a hot topic as long as they exist, I suppose. Copyrights, freedom, and desire keep clashing and mingling in each of these cases, but it’s foolish to delude ourselves into thinking that emulators share the same blessing and legal sanctuary that open source games do.

The future of open source

In regard to the future, I’m out of ideas. Ideally, I would love to see studios take an altruistic stance when they abandon or cancel online games. It seems like such a waste that games such as Ultima X Odyssey or Project Copernicus will never see the light of day, buried forever under a mound of legality and dubious ownership. It is truly a tragedy that the many canceled MMOs will rot and decay instead of being preserved by those who love them the most.

While I covered both open source MMOs and emulators here, I do want to end by mentioning that more and more communities are turning to a more viable (if expensive and time-intensive) third option, which is to create “spiritual successors.”

City of Heroes is perhaps the greatest example of these. The devoted community clamored for and even offered to purchase the rights from NCsoft, to no avail. And so they turned to creating their own spiritual successors (Paragon Chat notwithstanding), creating a batch of MMOs in the same vein such as Valiance Online, City of Titans, and Ship of Heroes. Through these, the spirit of the original game — though not its actual code and art — might endure, a modern MMO is made, and legal ownership is fully in the hands of the creators.

It should also be said that with all of these options, skill, money, and expertise at modifying and running such games is required and might be out of bounds for many MMO players. This makes such games passion projects for an extreme minority. Still, it is a very interesting topic to contemplate, and I would love to see more movement on this front in the future!

Believe it or not, MMOs did exist prior to World of Warcraft! Every two weeks, The Game Archaeologist looks back at classic online games and their history to learn a thing or two about where the industry came from… and where it might be heading.
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43 Comments on "The Game Archaeologist: Where are all of the open-source MMOs?"

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David Vraniak

http://mistwalkers.wikia.com/wiki/MistWalkers_Wiki

Free private server of one of the original MMO’s The Realm. Feel free to check it out!

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kgptzac

Same reason paintings and novels aren’t open source. If we are to treat video games as an art form, then we should not expect creative artfulness is something to be open sourced.

Minimalistway
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Minimalistway

There are “open source” novels and paintings, photos, my own photo collection in Flickr is free for all, many copied them and used them in websites, some people just want to give their work for free and let others copy it, modify it, even sell it.

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Alex Malone

As a software engineer myself, I both love and hate open source.

I love it because it’s free. I can get the software for free, it gets updated for free and it allows myself and the company I work for to remain competitive.

I hate it because the documentation almost always sucks, and whilst updates / new features do get released regularly, there is no schedule and no guarantee. The developers are almost always doing work in their spare time, for free, so they naturally work on what they find most enjoyable, not on what is necessarily needed. Getting support is also usually a pain in the ass.

Were someone to go ahead with an open source MMO, my suggestion would be to have a core team in place to begin with who act as the decision makers. Other developers will be free to join the team and submit code, but everything should be tested and approved by that core team before being released on the main branch. Developers would still be free to branch off from the main bit of software and take it in their own direction if they so choose.

In this way, the base game would probably still be tightly controlled by that core team, but future content could come from anywhere and just need to pass some sort of consistency test. So, if it was a fantasy game but some developer submitted a new patch that added robots with laser eyes…..yeh, probably best to keep that out of the main game!

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Schmidt.Capela

Another one to add is FreeSO. It is a fully open source re-implementation of the server and client of The Sims Online, using the Mozilla Public License; everyone is free to download the code for it, tinker with it, and even use it — or parts of it — in other projects, even for profit projects.

One caveat: the art assets of TSO aren’t included in the FreeSO client. Instead, it requires the player to have a The Sims Online install, and reads the copyrighted assets from that install.

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Paraxes

I will say it time and time again everytime I see this type of articles pop up – it’s in my opinion the best piece of content your site offers. Often well researched, talking about games a lot of people never even heard of let alone have played. Never stop doing these!

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Jeremiah Ratican

Hey what about a follow up with the guys from Planeshift? http://www.planeshift.it/

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Cervator

Nice catch! Not sure how I missed that one, since it is one of the FGA groups of games I’ve checked out from time to time myself (Battle of Wesnoth is another, and one of my favorite open source game examples)

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Green Dragoon

I think you might have missed one. I believe the MMO Myst Online: Uru Live was released as open source under the title Open Uru.

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Denice J. Cook

Er, the first thing that would happen to whatever game went open source is rampant exploiting and hacking…oh, did I say that out loud? ;)

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dustin-sedlacek

I dont know why Steam or Unity never tried to build a project like this.

Unity has a decent set of tools to use. I can think of a dozen ways to make an open source MMO viable.

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Jeffery Witman

For an open source, community run MMO to succeed it would need a maybe, and cheap, viral marketing campaign to get users. Marketing is half the work when it comes to getting users into MMOs these days, and a community project wasting money on ads seems ridiculous.

Even a cheap, easily modded MMO engine that could be licensed/bought and used to make whatever kind of MMO you want would be insanely useful to get more people working on such projects.

I remember the huge mod communities for so many other games, and see how many people tried to be game creators in Neverwinter with their story creator mode. Then there’s all the emulators like SWGEmu that have been going for over a decade. The community is out there, but the combination of legal troubles, the lack of reliable tools, and the high battery to entry in creating from the ground-up keep it from happening.

Also, who has time to spend working on such a massive project for free?

Crow
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Crow

Also, who has time to spend working on such a massive project for free?

At the moment, we have a lot of people who had passions or TES and FO modding being super clear that they’ll stop if money is involved.

The best example is the creator who said she liked doing mods because there was no pressure. When you add money to the mix you’re asking for trouble so she’s done with Bethesda game modding.

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Jeffery Witman

Profit motive can screw up the motivations of projects and the people involved in them. I can understand that. I mean more like, after working and adulting all day, choosing to take on a huge project like that is far less appealing for most people, especially if you like playing MMOs for leisure, which also tend to take up lots of time.

Crow
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Crow

If you think any team exists without a desire to profit I have a short-sell you should DM me about.

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Jeffery Witman

There’s literally terabytes of open source software out there, and more being made through various communities on a regular basis.

Crow
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Crow

You simply do not ever give up an owned anything. Doing so is, generally, stupid and leads to loss of finances.

That’s why we don’t have more “open source” MMOs.

If “open source” were actually important in terms of development, the open-source MUD/MUSH/MOO world would have become our pantheon of MMORPGs with graphical updates.

A good friend of mine started his coding career as a kid by contributing to mostly-open MUDs and MUSHs. As soon as he started making money he wouldn’t even consider unpaid work. Neither would any of us.

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Castagere Shaikura

Neocron 2 is open source now. Realtek handed the code over to fans too.

Tamanous
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Tamanous

Not many open source mmorpgs made from scratch.

CRAP TON of mmorpgs using premade assets built on top of open source engines.

The emulator market is massive.

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Cervator

Thanks for taking on my suggested topic! :-)

Yeah I tempered my hopes for research finding much of interest these days. As Crow noted, in the olden days, the open source spirit was the way, and has increasingly been overtaken by commercial strategies, with major companies running most the MMO market.

There isn’t anything fundamentally wrong with making money, although there are better or worse ways (looking at you, lockboxes!) to do so. But it does sadly lead to a lot of buried projects that could’ve been so much more.

I think thanks to improvements in tooling we’re closing in on turning full circle: small teams can succeed at MMO scale now (like Project Gorgon), which used to be impossible beyond the complexity of traditional MUDs. Slightly larger indie teams can work niches now (like Camelot, Crowfall, etc) in part thanks to proprietary frameworks/engines like Unreal/Unity or SpatialOS.

Maybe next up more open source tooling will appear to support projects of such scale. For anybody interested in some deep archaeology seek out Project Darkstar (unrelated to the FFXI emulator Darkstar Project..) which was an MMO scale game server project by Sun Microsystems (makers of the programming language Java), sadly cancelled by Oracle after they bought out Sun. And note it was started in 1999! Imagine what we might have today if it had succeeded – it might have eventually compared with something like SpatialOS, but it was started thirteen years earlier.

Still, populating a persistent world with enough unique content to keep a large player base engaged for years is still a huge challenge without some serious funding. I’m curious to see if enough interested people might band together one day to give it a try (almost like the “Continuation Corporation” Arnold mentioned), and will be doing my little part in trying to get there :-)

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MesaSage

MMO’s don’t go open source because most of them are held together on the back-end by chewing gum and duct tape. Not only does it take a tremendous amount of expertise in a variety of disciplines, it takes a lot of babysitting. Any Publisher, including the biggest ones, that tell you different are lying.

It’s naive for anyone to consider a volunteer effort for anything but the simplest of backend systems with low population counts. How certain WoW emulators got as big as they did is a mystery to me because the barrier is high.

This is why I don’t put stock in a single one of the ‘tribute’ MMO’s around COH or Glitch. Unless they raise serious dough and hire some help, they won’t ever ship.

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Jeffery Witman

Maybe it’s not as bad when you’re not doing it for profit and don’t have three levels of management breathing down your neck to FIX IT NOW even if it’s ugly and causes more problems later.

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MesaSage

No, that’s not it. At all. And if you don’t have the mentality of “fix it now” you’ll never survive in the MMO world.

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Cervator

Can somewhat confirm that the pressure is off in a non-profit open source project, where the quality often ends up being more determined by the volunteers you get – we’ve been able to arrive at some sweet architecture, automation and customization that’s beyond what I’ve worked with professionally, as things get prioritized differently.

However, that doesn’t really cover the “fix it now” if you don’thave the people you need, and that could take years to change. Slow and steady may eventually have a chance at winning the race, but it sure can take forever :-)

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Arnold Hendrick

@Justin Olivetti – Obviously, the pious but misguided hope that retired games will go “open source” has not come true. Companies that spent their manpower and money on a game, by their very corporate nature, cannot give away what they invested. Bean counters will tell you that the business risks outweigh the rewards for anybody except a small, privately held corporation. When a company gains major outside investors, goes public, is purchased, merged or dissolved, the net business effect is to prevent the open sourcing of any project of that company. In short, the business environment that allows the creation of MMOs works against open sourcing of the games. I suppose an article once or twice a year is a useful reminder of that fact.

Even if a game did go open source, it needs to be accompanied by the engines, tools, and supporting services used to run it as well as build it. This includes the all-important server side systems that are often ignored by both gamers and the press, but are just as critical as the client code. In short, just prepping an MMO for “life support” is not trivial.

A more practical approach for maintaining aging games would be creating a “Continuation Corporation” devoted to keeping old games up and running. Instead of retiring a game, its subsequent operation could be licensed to Continuation Corporation, which would take over operation, relieving the original publisher/operator of that burden. Those who mourn the demise of older games should give serious thought to such a venture. You might not rescue every dying MMO, but there are many old geezers that may need life support in the next five years.

We all have memories of great MMO experiences from the past, especially our first few games of the genre. Playing an MMO is both personal, interactive with others, and participation in a unique culture. Perhaps the best way to record this for oneself and posterity is to write a personal/general history. Those who lived it can remember and enjoy it, saying “I was there when…” Future generations and read it and say, “Oh, that’s what ‘playing’ an MMO meant.”

Crow
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Crow

Turbine had promised AC servers. Oh wait, that never happened.

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Ashley Bau

“Companies that spent their manpower and money on a game, by their very corporate nature, cannot give away what they invested”

I have seen this assumption a few times but I have not seen anything to actually back up that this is the case. While it doesn’t happen often, and even less so for MMORPGs, there are a number of comparable scenarios that suggest otherwise. For example, blizzard recently giving away starcraft for free. Is that not giving away what they invested? Another example would be bethesda’s free release of dagger fall. Additionally, EA is constantly giving away free games (I personally have picked up 5+ games from it I believe) that it owns via its on the house program. The on the house program might be an incentive to get people to install origin but other than that EA stands to gain exactly nothing from the program.

Additionally, even where games are not open source there are a good few that allow and support community modification and sometimes player run servers.

To me, all of this seems to suggest that the concept of making games open source is not as impossible as some think. I do however think that the reason we don’t see it very often is due to business interest in keeping tight control of their property (even when they have little or not intention to use it) and a disinterest in putting effort into making it happen.

Moving forward I really hope to see much more go open source or I expect we will lose a lot of games and game history. I don’t know that your more practical approach will be more practical over time, it will add up and will not be sustainable. The games need to eventually be relinquished for it to be reasonable to maintain them.

Crow
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Crow

I have seen this assumption a few times but I have not seen anything to actually back up that this is the case.

$$$. The numbers, financials, interests, etc., show that this isn’t something anyone is interested in. Hell, we now have Youtubers who complain about how the works they stole from other artists who created them for nothing are being stolen by others. We simply lack respect for original works.

I have great pride in people who do things like crack old game code, but we all know how thankless it is to do so. Mostly, those people get attacked and DDoSed.

So to answer this, what is your model where a company creates an open-source game and they make profits? The answer is that they don’t, and that is why it never happens. It isn’t an assumption at all. It is the bare, clear reality of how this is about profits and dollars.

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Cervator

As far as the open source + profit path goes then there are indeed very few viable options, if any right now. New sites and services like Patreon might allow for some limited potential. A game could be open source but the main community would also host a main server and link that to Patreon tiers or so. Income goes to cover expenses plus code bounties and such to help fund further development.

A few modders do things like that at present. They primarily mod, but also host a server for fans to play on and interact with them. It is still small potatoes at best right now, but the environment is still maturing. I have hopes, though primarily just patience right now to let tools improve further :-)

Crow
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Crow

At the moment, sites like Patreon are simply a better way to do a sub.

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Ashley Bau

Uh, you don’t seem to understand. I am talking about going open source LATER. So basically every currently working model? I mean are you unfamiliar with doom? Doom released its source code for public use in 1997. Do you think Doom made no profits? How about the starcraft example I gave? Or daggerfall? All of those games were highly profitable and then handed out for free in one manner or another. So yes, it is an assumption because it is quite possible to have a very successful and profitable project go open source in the long run after it is past its prime to keep that software alive.

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Pandalulz

Starcraft only just now went free, and that was just because Blizzard will gladly sell you the new improved version that will actually run effectively on newer hardware for $15. Companies will gladly give out old games once they’ve recouped their costs, but only if it’s going to earn them the goodwill that gets you looking to buy their new shiny. If there isn’t a new shiny, the product will just go into the vault where it’s worth more as future IP. And none of those people are going to give you the raw uncompiled code so you can release your own slightly modded version of their thing. That makes more work for them up front (for example, no devs left to do the work to release private AC servers), gains them no money, and creates an IP control conflict in the future if they ever decide to revisit the IP.

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Ashley Bau

Bethesda released dagger fall for free with no updated version for sale or even any notable releases on the horizon for around 2 years. You say these things like they are rules, they are not as can clearly be seen by the fact that alternative scenarios have played out. I am not unaware of the difficulties/reasons why this doesn’t happen often. However like any art medium, video games deserve to be preserved and that needs to happen somehow.

Open sourcing the games after they have lost the vast majority of profitability (many of the games companies sit on aren’t and won’t be sold any more) can and should be a viable and accepted approach. If the licensing of the ip is handled correctly there should be no more threat to the ip rights than there would be for any title where player tinkering and custom content is present in modern settings (you don’t see bethesda’s right to elder scrolls or doom by mods, source ports, etc. do you?).

Thats the bottom line for me, I know why its something businesses don’t want to do but it IS possible and should be encouraged, specifically for games that risk fading into obscurity (there are games that are lost already as a result of poor management).

Crow
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Crow

Bethesda released dagger fall for free with no updated version for sale or even any notable releases on the horizon for around 2 years.

First, it is “Daggerfall” and second, are they giving away their games? No. They aren’t. They’re giving away old, barely running on Win10 games because they know no one is going to be pissed about Daggerfall.

Hell, take a course in base marketing. Bethesda does it very, very well.

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Ashley Bau

How is that NOT giving away their games? Did they make the game? Yes. Did they give it away? Yes. ?????

Also as stated, they released it for free with no other releases around it. If anything it was a general good will gesture.

AGAIN, I am not saying they should be given away up front. I am saying the should be relinquished to the community AFTER the period of financial viability.

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Pandalulz

Sure they gave away the compiled code for Daggerfall, they didn’t give away the source code.
And the problem is that even in the event that the company closes down and files bankruptcy some unknown time in the future, that data is still financially viable for liquidation like in the THQ closeout. Assets are always financially viable.
I would love if all the code ever written were publicly accessible like a library of congress type thing, but it will never happen.

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Ashley Bau

Thats really a matter of perspective on what is considered financially viable. Konami didn’t even bother to keep track of the code for silent hill 3 despite them deciding to release an HD version of it (which is why the HD version of it is completely broken, they had to work from beta code instead of the actual release source). While technically there is some value to pretty much anything, there comes a point where that value isn’t great enough for a company to really care (which is why you get many titles doing nothing and/or completely disappearing).

If the company itself doesn’t care about the property enough to preserve it, I would say thats a reasonable point to let someone else preserve it for you. I mean, that property COULD be making them money THROUGH licensing but they CHOOSE to make nothing from it.

Crow
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Crow

It still makes no sense to give anything away for free. That’s just where this remains.

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Schmidt.Capela

Since the article is about open source…

Ever heard of Red Hat? S&P 500 company, $2.4B in revenue last year?

They are in the software business. More specifically, they give away all their software under open source licenses, going as far as purchasing other companies so they can release their software for free, and make money from related services: support, training, consulting services, etc.

It’s not the only case. Linux — which might not have displaced Windows on the desktop, but is the absolute leader for powering smaller smart devices — is given away for free, and the entity that manages it is doing really well. Android is given away for free, which propelled it from joke status into the leading smartphone system in short order. There are many professional-grade productivity software being given away for free, full access to the source code included, and the entities that control those projects have been around for a long time.

And this doesn’t even get into other reasons for giving things away for free. In online gaming there is more revenue nowadays from F2P than from more traditional B2P and subscription models, you know.

Giving things away for free can be a very profitable venue, if you do it right.

Xijit
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Xijit

UO is basically open source at this point … What with all the private servers and mods and data mining and what not that has gone on.

Crow
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Crow

This is just rich.

MUDs were open source. Through the late 70s and 80s everything made was derivative. Everquest was 100% derivative of MUSH code and… just wow.

If we want such, we need to be something that doesn’t make companies money. As long as we can be consumers, we’ll never, ever be partners.

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Wanda Clamshuckr

I’d like to see Vanguard’s code released to the public. I mean, why not. SOE ditched it years ago, so let someone else pick it up and nurture it back to health. If you sunset a game, then you’re tossing it in the trash bin, imho.

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Paul

I, and many others, would LOVE to see VG turn open source. Unfortunately I don’t see it happening. The biggest reason being that the game contained code (Unreal Engine) that didn’t belong to SOE, but was only licensed to them. As such it isn’t all theirs to give away, even if they could be persuaded to do so.

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