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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