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    Free and Open Source Games

    by Gail Robinson
    November 2, 2007

    Our Technical Director, Amanda Hickman, is not a formal Idea Lab blogger, so I’m posting this on her behalf. This won’t be the last you hear from her on the Idea Lab. —Gail

    As the Gotham Gazette prepares to launch our first Knight-funded news game, I’ve been thinking a lot more about their requirement that we produce our games using free and open source software.

    It is only fair for me to start with a couple of observations about where I’m coming from: I think that software freedom matters, a lot.

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    As a Circuit Rider at the LINC Project I watched a lot of organizations being priced out of upgrades to software they’d suffered through beta versions of. I watched small grassroots organizations struggle to find a functional membership database that fit their budget, while large counterparts were reaching for extremely expensive off-the-shelf packages that still didn’t really meet their needs. I got involved with the Nonprofit Open Source Initiative because I was (and am) fundamentally interested in helping organizations work in a way that doesn’t just lock out groups that don’t have the financial resources to keep up with software advances, and that does allow them to truly own the tools that they are building their work around.

    So I was impressed when I heard that Knight was asking grantees to develop games on free and open platforms. I think it shows a lot of foresight. I’ve heard a lot of folks grumbling about how Flash is the industry standard (it is), and about how much easier it is to just pick up a box, install Flash and get started. That if you aren’t an expert on free and open source software and programming this is just one more hurdle that will discourage people from getting started down the path towards making their reporting more engaging. I don’t buy it.

    We had a hell of a time finding a programmer who could build what we needed without Flash. It is the industry standard and most everyone I talked to who has experience building the kind of games we’re working on uses Flash and wasn’t interested in changing that when Flash works just fine. I think we would have had a harder time coming up with other options if I wasn’t already connected to a number of online communities specifically committed to helping nonprofits use free and open source software (NOSI and May First People Link among them) where I could count on getting thoughtful answers to my questions.

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    The developers we settled on, a local interactive shop called Isotope, are primarily a Flash shop. They’re readers of Gotham Gazette, genuinely interested in our work and excited enough about working with us that they were willing to try something new and build the game in a software platform they’ve never used before, but it took us a lot of legwork to find them. That might sound like a plea for Flash, but the truth is, I believe that our work will pay off in the long run. For one thing, the guys at Isotope (who are working in OpenLaszlo) have added to their repertoire and now there’s one more OpenLaszlo developer out there. For another thing, we’re planning to release the source code for our game, so next time someone wants to write a garbage game about their own town they’ve got a place to start from, and they can see how we approached the problem in LZX. That is about how most people learn Flash: they look at code snippets that people have published and try to build from them. So by using OpenLaszlo, we’re contributing to a community of OpenLaszlo users and making it a little bit easier for other people to pick up the language.

    Which brings me to another thing we’ve been hearing over and over: the day of the local newsroom is passed. Media consolidation means that your daily paper isn’t your local paper and national news chains can’t be bothered to with local coverage. It will be up to local web sites to pick up the slack in local coverage.

    One thing about proprietary software in general is that it is a lot easier for a big budget news corporation to absorb the cost of software licensing than it is for a much smaller organization that can’t pull in national advertising bucks. Building community around software that is free and open source means that we’re helping keep interactive news content a viable option for these little local sites that we’re counting on to cover our local politics.

    Gotham Gazette has consistently tried to serve as a model for local independent news sites with a small budget. Over the years we have received countless requests for information, advice and guidance from people hoping to replicate all or part of what we do. We’ve always tried to help, and we see this game as part of that effort. Using more free and open source software is consistent with our values as a publication when our software choices make it easier for civic groups to launch good news sites.

    We’ve been asked a few times whether a game made without Flash can be as good as a Flash game. Very soon, we’ll be inviting all of you to see for yourself.

    —Amanda B Hickman
    Technical Director
    Gotham Gazette

    Tagged: free software gotham gazette openlaszlo
    • Kudos to the Knight for the free software requirement!

      And to the Gotham Gazette as well: I’m particularly excited about the flash challenge.

      As someone who regularly is called in to help people with things like video streaming on the web and other multi-media related web-projects, I very happy to see development work happening on a free software alternative.

      I think the requirement for free software is an inspired and amazing decision on the part of Knight. All grant money has strings attached – it’s great to see some strings that will have a positive impact on the world.

    • More huzzahs from the free software community (or, as we’ve been calling it at Agaric in bland offend-everyone-equally fashion, open source free software).

      Just wanted to add what I wanted to say in Toronto when audience members brought this up, and complained that Knight didn’t want to give them money for closed-source software— Flash is an outlier. It is a perfect example of software that is an industry standard, without strong free software rivals yet, because it is “pretty open.”

      It shows the benefit of open standards in building a community.

      A strong community, of course, is a signature feature of free software. But that is only a side benefit of the main event: freedom and control. Are you using something that can never be taken away from you? Building something that can never be withheld from humanity?

      Knight grants don’t outlaw the use of proprietary software, obviously- many ideas don’t involve software development, and here we are blogging on Movable Type when Drupal would be so much better ;-)

      But if money is going to go into funding software development, it better be for something that will belong to the world, not to any single entity.

    • I agree with the open-source requirement as well.

      Funny thing, though. A few moments ago I was looking at two sites:

      Indianapolis Museum of Art
      http://www.imamuseum.org/

      Harvard Science
      http://harvardscience.harvard.edu/

      Both are build on Drupal (open source) and both use Flash on the front page. :~)

    • Thanks for bringing this up, Amanda. And congratulations to Knight for their foresight.

      Count me as another who appreciates the free software requirements. Many public-assistance grants in the non-profit tech world don’t understand the importance of this. Instead, they end up throwing resources at a project which either entrenches the existing dominant proprietary infrastructure, or supports yet another proprietary challenger. Why should non-profit monies enhance the bottom line of proprietary companies whose only commitment to the world is to extract money from it?

      In the networked world we live in, proprietary tools and infrastructure are dangerous because their use depends on the continued benevolence (or appeasement) of their proprietor, who can decide to disable (or just fail to update) their tools at any time, at their discretion. There are many reasons why a proprietary group might decide to abandon a tool, and most of these don’t take account of the effect that such an action might have on any but their largest (read: deepest pockets) customers. Why should we build communities around tools owned by these groups?

      By making the requirement for free software explicit, Knight is explicitly asking for more community engagement with non-proprietary tools and infrastructure. They’re ensuring that their grants fund real development of the public commons. This is a laudable goal, and these steps taken toward it are most welcome.

    • Hello,

      Thanks for the positive comments about OpenLaszlo. It would be nice if you could made the links live: http://www.openlaszlo.org

      It’s worth pointing out, I think, that if you use OpenLaszlo you have the choice of compiling to Flash or to brower-native DHTML.

    • Strange. I thought I had included a link to OpenLaszlo.

      For what it is worth (a lot, if you ask me, but I already said that) we’re compiling to DHTML.

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    • Here is a big list of Open Source Games.

      http://fossgamer.110mb.com/index.html

    • Flash is one of the leading design elements in contemporary web development.
      Concerning open-source requirements, it has a list of adventages and disadvantages, so it is not easy to find any right solution.

      http://www.alierra-software.com

    • At the Game Developers Conference 2007, http://www.GameBrix.com delivered a browser based platform to collaborate, build, play, and publish online flash games without the need to install software, downloads or plugins. The user generated games platform provides templates based game builder to custom game generator.

      Anyone with or without programming knowledge can use the free resource at http://www.gamebrix.com to build and publish custom games or adver games. No programming knowledge required.

      Check out the games at:

      http://www.gamebrix.net/game.php?gameID=3003

      http://www.gamebrix.net/dunk.html

      http://fs1.gamebrix.net/game.php?gameID=479

      No more excuses. Build your own flash games at http://www.GameBrix.com. Its free

    • It is an interesting debate on proprietary Vs open source software for game creation. We took a different stance at Gamebrix, we created browser based tools to create casual flash games so users are not tied to software downloads and installations. We also took away the need for programming so that anyone can create a game and save it in Flash format. Those who know Actionscript can edit the code. Is it democratization of game development? Well, we hope so. – Sundar

    • Adobe has opened up the flash protocol so that anyone can write software that will output content a flash player can interpret, but the flash player itself remains proprietary, so while you can create a flash game in any of a number of different applications (OpenLaszlo does a good job of this, as I’ve mentioned) you can only play the game in a proprietary application.

      Naveena, it looks to me like GameBrix (not unlike Scratch: http://scratch.mit.edu) will facilitate game building, but you still need the Flash plugin to play the games created there.

    • Adobe has opened up the flash protocol so that anyone can write software that will output content a flash player can interpret. The flash player itself remains proprietary however. This means that while you can create a flash game in any of a number of different applications (OpenLaszlo does a good job of this, as I’ve mentioned) you can only play the game in a proprietary application.

      Naveena, it looks to me like GameBrix (not unlike Scratch: http://scratch.mit.edu) will facilitate game building, but you still need the Flash plugin to play the games created there.

    • Thanks, fosseth. I’ve pulled together a halfhearted resource list, including the site you refer to. My list lives at http://del.icio.us/amanda_bee/%40game

      Adobe has opened up the flash protocol so that anyone can write software that will output content a flash player can interpret. The flash player itself remains proprietary however. This means that while you can create a flash game in any of a number of different applications (OpenLaszlo does a good job of this, as I’ve mentioned) you can only play the game in a proprietary application.

      Naveena, it looks to me like GameBrix (not unlike Scratch: http://scratch.mit.edu) will facilitate game building, but you still need the Flash plugin to play the games created there.

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    • Naveena

      Amanda,

      Yes, http://www.gamebrix.com requires a Flash plugin and is NOT a desktop, platform specific application.

      98% of computers worldwide are shipped have the Flash Plugin.

      It makes it easier to open a browser at http://www.gamebrix.com and start drawing graphics, animations or build games on the web and publish it for the web.

      After creating a game, with GameBrix you can publish it on ANY web portals like FaceBook, YouTube, Kongregate or any personal portal.

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