Open Sourcing The MMO Game

Posted by Stropp on July 22, 2008

Or, should game developers release the source code and other assets of a game when they go out of business?

dont-worry-open-source It's always been the case that, aside from the employees of a defunct game developer, it's the players who lose out when a game developer turns out the lights in the server room.

Not only do they lose the characters they've created when the game servers go down, they also lose the relationships that they've built up in the game, and the sense of community that MMO games encourage.

Over the years there have been a bunch of MMO games that have closed down. Earth and Beyond, Auto Assault, and Asheron's Call 2, to name but a few. None of the developers or publishers behind these games, to my knowledge have ever released their MMO game as open source -- despite, in some cases, calls from the player community to do so.

A Long History of Open Sourcing Games - Id Software

Id Software, the creators of Doom, Quake, and Wolfenstein have a long history of open sourcing their games. They usually release the source code to a particular game to the community a couple of engine generations later. For instance, Id released the Quake source code when Quake 3 was released.

This was done to allow the community of modders to benefit, and to reward them for their support of Id Software games. The source code was released under the GPL to prevent it from being closed up again in someone else's commercial game, and if a player wanted to play a modified game they still  had to buy the original since the art and sound assets were not open sourced. But still the fans of Id games definitely appreciated this.

Unfortunately, Id Software are the rare exception. Not many developers or publishers open up the source code to their games when they stop selling them. A few make their games freeware, but even that doesn't happen very often.

An Alternative - DIY

Some players not content with being shut out of their favorite game and the refusal by the developers to release the code and assets, follow the do it yourself path. This happened when Earth and Beyond was shut down. There was a fairly large outcry by the fans to get the game started up again. When EA remained silent, a number of the fans decided to create their own server software to emulate the old EnB servers. The Earth and Beyond Emulator project has been going now for nearly four years.

Which in itself is probably the major downside of this sort of project. Open source projects typically take a lot more time than their closed source commercial counterparts. In part that's because there is no real commercial pressure to get things done. But it's also the case that the contributors just simply can't spend forty to fifty hours a week working on it, even if it's a labor of love.

And in the end an emulator version of the game can only ever be enjoyed by the people who purchased the original game since it's illegal to distribute the original client and graphics. By the time the emulator is complete enough to provide the same experience as the original servers, many years have passed and the original players have moved on. It's really only an option for a small number of people, the diehard fans -- note that the EnB Emulator provides a single player version.

Why Don't Publishers Open Source Their Defunct MMO Games?

I guess that's the million dollar question, and there are only a few reasons I can think of why MMOG publishers don't open source retiring MMO games.

  1. They have future plans for the IP and don't want to dilute it or endanger their trademarks. Turbine is still running Asheron's Call, so I can see why they might not want to release Asheron's Call 2 into the wild. It's also entirely possible that they'll have another bash at the Asheron's Call IP at some time in the future. However, it's pretty clear that games like EnB and Auto Assault have gone the way of the Dodo. Even the developers have washed their hands of them, so there's never really been anything holding back the open sourcing of these games.
  2. A third party has some say over the IP and won't allow it. Mythos and Hellgate: London, if Flagship Studios does end up closing, could be open sourced except for the claims made against them by Hanbitsoft. Apparently the Comerica bank also has some claims on one of the IPs. This would make it almost impossible for Flagship to open source these games. They'd have to legally assert ownership before that happens.
  3. Trade secrets and proprietary techniques. A lot of games use third party libraries, some are built on third party engines that are licensed just for that one game. Opening the source may not be allowed, much for the same reason as the previous point. Not only that, but the developer may have tricks up their sleeve that they don't want everyone else to know, perhaps something that might offer a competitive advantage. If making their game open source removes this advantage, the developer may decide against it.
  4. They can't be bothered. In some ways I think this is the most likely reason that more games are not released as open source. There's nothing in it for the developer (which I think is wrong, see below) so why bother going to the trouble?

Several Reasons To Open Source

Despite the arguments against open sourcing a soon to be canceled MMO, there are several good reasons to open source a soon-to-be-closed game.

  1. Ongoing sales of the client. This would have to be one of the more persuasive arguments for a company to release the code as open source. Money. As we've seen with Id Software, opening up the source doesn't mean opening up all the assets, which means that in order to play the game, the players are still going to have to buy the client. The developer/publisher still makes sales without having to go to the expense of running servers.
  2. All the work of development doesn't go to waste. Developers tend to make a large time and emotional investment in their creations. Take it from me, every project that I've been involved with that's been canceled has left me feeling disappointed, and I'm not even a game developer! Software and game development is as much an act of creativity as it is a science. No one likes seeing their creations abandoned. Releasing the soon to be defunct game, allows it to live on in one form or another. Immortality FTW!
  3. Building up player goodwill. Closing a MMOG down doesn't usually make for happy players. Unhappy players may feel burnt after shelling out for the client and also feel upset that they've lost all their hard played characters and gear. Allowing the game to continue, run by someone else, may go a ways to alleviating that angst.
  4. It's the right thing to do. Even though there are no promises made that the servers will remain open forever, players have a reasonable expectation that that shiny MMOG will be around for the long term. With games like Everquest, Asheron's Call, and Anarchy Online hitting their seven and eight year anniversaries, a one or two year run (Auto Assault, Earth and Beyond) isn't even short term. If a company is going to close a game after just one or two years, they've let their players down and should strongly consider making the source code of (at least) the servers available.

Going Half Way

So, there are some good reasons for a company to open source the game that it is soon to retire, and there are a couple of good reasons against. What to do?

If opening up the client is not an option, open up the server code. This would allow the open source community to take the software, install it on a community server and open it up to the fans. Other players might want to grab the source and create their own private servers, perhaps with different rule sets for PvP and the like. The life of the game could be extended for years, supporting a thriving community.

A non open source option could be to sell the whole thing to a smaller niche oriented company. A game that isn't profitable for a large company could be wildly successful for a niche game publisher. And the game survives.

A third option, if the server source is unable to be released, is for the developer to encourage and provide support to an emulator project.

What Do You Think?

As always, I'd like to hear what you think about this topic. Would you play a canceled game that had been revived as open source, or would you just prefer to go on to the next big commercial game? Would seeing a developer open source a canceled game change your opinion of that developer? In what way?

I'd also like to hear from any game developers who might be reading this. What do you think? Would you prefer that your game be consigned to cybernetic oblivion, or would you like to see it continue? Would you even go so far as assisting the open source project in your spare time?

Do you have any other reasons for or against open sourcing a MMOG?

Please leave a comment and let us know.


  1. Michael B Said,

    You make some decent points, but you miss the reason why it’s not done:
    1) Ongoing Sales – this hardly matters unless sales remain STRONG. A game makes it down to the bargain bin in a matter of months, years if it’s an exceptional game. Once it hits the bargain bin, the amount you’ll receive is minimal. So any extra money will be minimal
    2) Development work – it does go to waste, all the time. You hope that people will have fun with it, but even the best of games have a steep drop off in interest after release. Even games like Day of the Tentacle, X-Com, widely viewed as classics, get scant downloads on freebie sites. While gameplay doesn’t age much, graphics do, patches become unavailable, operating systems change, etc. Ironically, stuff like VMWare/Xen/etc will make it easier
    3) Goodwill – honestly, gamers are fickle. I’ll remember the developer (Irrational, Bioware will almost always get my money), but remember that most gamers are probably teenagers, and so the entire fanbase will cycle every few years. So there will be a few people who swear “I’ll never trust them again”, but give em a year and they’ll forget. You never would get them “back”, anyhow.
    4) It’s the right thing to do – yes. But there’s red tape to deal with, not to mention the realities of getting the current version of the source code out of a tree once it’s been decommissioned, etc.

    There are two main reasons not to release it:
    Another hit at the pie in a few years, however nebulous, is still possible. How many games have been rereleased for cell phones? That number is going to climb as cell phones get better screens, etc. Just wait for the MMO for the iphone/instinct/winmo.

    The MAIN reason? These days, third-party libraries. EVERYONE uses them. There’s the graphics library, the physics library, the network library, the AI library – all of these are fee-based, and good luck getting those released. Back when it was a handful of people, sure. But now? Damnably difficult.

  2. MMO Clerks » Open sourcing your MMO Said,