Clicking with the public

I am a bit of a gaming geek, on the quiet, and gaming is one the areas in which open source software has never really caught up with closed source. Development models within the gaming industry have remained largely untouched by open approaches until relatively recently, so I was interested to read the following in Eurogamer this week:

“I’ve had this epiphany about how it doesn’t hurt to be open,” says Schafer. “Let people see how it progresses over time, so they feel the way we feel about the game. So they’re really attached to them.”

“You think people are going to reject you or your ideas about the game because they’ll see something they don’t like, but what actually happens is they embrace them more because they feel more included and more like a part of it.”

‘Schafer’ is Tim Schafer, one of the developers behind legendary Lucasfilm point and click adventure The Secret of Monkey Island. These days Schafer runs a games development company called Double Fine Productions, which astonished the gaming industry back in March by crowd sourcing $3.3m (eight times their target) to develop another ‘antiquated’ point and click game.

What interested me about Schafer’s comments was haw familiar they are. Those principles – release your ideas early, be responsive, iterate – are some of the key elements of open development, presented here in that bastion of closed models, gaming. Elsewhere in gaming, too, elements of openness are beginning to emerge. Minecraft, the most successful gaming phenomenon of recent years, while resolutely closed source, used exactly that iterative, responsive model for its development. The game’s original author, Markus Persson, released a version initially that was far from complete, and invited anyone interested in its potential to buy a licence and contribute feature requests. The game has since made over $100m, comparable with traditional AAA titles, but with a tiny fraction of the initial investment. Valve Software’s Steam platform, a kind of online shop and social network for PC gaming, has recently been announced to be coming to Linux. On the face of it this is a bizarre choice, given that fewer than 1% of PCs run Linux, but many are seeing it as a precursor to Valve launching a piece of gaming hardware based upon Linux and attached exclusively to their Steam network. Valve’s managing director Gabe Newell has already made clear that he sees the release of Windows 8 (with its own rival gaming sales platform built in) as a catastrophe for the PC industry. Newell’s argument  seems to focus on the increasing enclosure of the Windows ecosystem. Whereas previously it permitted many rival hardware manufacturers and software vendors to compete profitably, Microsoft’s movement towards a more Apple-style, closed system where they control software distribution and produce their own favoured hardware could well former partners look for new ways to reach the public with their products.

So these trends in the gaming industry

  • direct games funding by consumers
  • responsive, iterative development by games studios
  • rejection of greater enclosure of the means of running games

show fascinating signs that some of the lessons of open development are being adapted and used by the most closed sector of the software industry. I still highly doubt that we will see open source release itself be taken up by the gaming industry to any great degree, but its associated development models seem more and more popular.