I meant to respond in more depth to a part of my last segment with Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov, but a cold and a massive time crunch (plus an unstoppable Civ 5 binge) kept me from appending to the video. It’s been awhile since I’ve done a blog post, so I’ll just sketch out my response here instead.
First, a bit of history. As some long-time followers know, I used to be something of a cheerleader for the free software movement, doing cover features for Free Software Magazine and writing articles on it for Armchair Arcade. At the time, I was convinced that GNU/Linux was the future I wanted to fight for, and that anything other than 100% free software was unethical. To put it short, I had drunk the Kool-Aid.
My views started to shift partly in response to an email exchange I had with FSF founder Richard Stallman. Stallman told me that even he didn’t think games ought to be free; just their code. Creative assets (music, graphics, etc.) could and should still be protected. The impression I got was that his fight for free software didn’t include entertainment; just utilities, instructional material, or other “useful” wares.
These views shifted further when I began learning more about how real-life game development worked. In particular, I learned that most games aren’t written from scratch; rather, they rely heavily on proprietary packages, libraries, or entire engines they license. In short, they aren’t in a legal position to make their code free. Arguably, you could insist that developers avoid doing so, but that seems to be imposing an unfair burden on them in my opinion.
My current thinking on the matter is still subject to change. But one thing I’m still convinced of is that we would all be better off if more powerful development tools, libraries, assets, etc., were in the public domain. Yes, I’m aware that it’s now “free” to use Unity and other engines, but there are substantial limitations. These limitations are to the point where it’s not a big deal for most developers, but, ideally, I’d like it to be feasible to create a triple-A game with totally free tools. Note I said “ideally.”
Secondly, I’m convinced that Kickstarter and other crowdfunding options should encourage more games to be free in every sense. All it would take is for the pitch to include whatever compensation they might realistically have expected to earn from product sales. In other words, the campaign would cover not only the costs of making the game, but also the profits they’d be satisfied with. After the game was released, they’d just put it in the public domain or some form of Creative Commons or GNU license. Whatever parts of the code they could share without legal issues could be included with the release.
In addition or alternatively, they could launch a complementary Indiegogo or Patreon stream to fund updates, non-critical patches, or even full-on expansions. Hey, as long as there’s a reliable funding stream to keep a game updated, why should a developer turn his or her back on it?
These are just some thoughts I had on the matter. I suspect that many people would balk at the idea of contributing to a Kickstarter that included potential profits, but maybe not if they considered what they’d be getting. If a developer didn’t have to worry about selling it, they could dedicate more resources to development (and less to marketing). I’d also think the resources they’d be making freely available for other developers and projects would be a tremendous surge for indie development.
What do you think? Would you support a Kickstarter that promised that the finished game, including its code and assets, would be made freely available? Or, as a developer, would you be willing to risk receiving less profit than you might have with a traditional arrangement? This latter point seems troublesome; I’m wondering if perhaps these games are bringing in so much revenue from sales that putting all that upfront would simply be a non-starter.