A closed source company’s CEO’s view on open source

It is no secret that LGP makes closed source software. We also create games that only work on closed source 3D drivers. And yet we work to make games for an open source platform, and we consider ourselves as part of the open source community.

A contradiction? Probably.

Now I am writing this from a personal perspective, on how I, as the CEO of the company, feels about this. If you don’t like what I say, don’t shun my poor devteam, who may often think differently.

Now, I love open source. I think it is vital, I think its is the best thing that has happened to computing since the invention of the silicon chip, but, it doesn’t answer all of the questions. I think that closed and open source have a place in the world.

My personal belief is that operating systems and file formats need to be open source. NEED to be. After that, looking logically, the rest of the computing world becomes a level playing field, and you can only become a dominant product by being best. You cannot lock people in if file formats are open, and operating systems are open.

Another fact is that programmers need to eat. Some very few developers are lucky enough to be able to make a living making open source software. But for most, that isn’t going to work. Programmers need to eat, need to support families and pay rent and occasionally buy a luxury or two. To do that they need to make money on their core skill, making software. This can be done in one of three ways:

  1. Open Source Beg-ware. Spend ages making software, and hope to hell that people that use it feel generous enough, or guilty enough, to give you some money.
  2. Open Source Supportware. Make great open source products and make money on supporting it.
  3. Closed source, pay for it.

Looking at those options, well, beg-ware may make some people enough to live off of, but really, people as a whole just aren’t that nice. The natural instinct of a human is to get the most benefit for the least money. Some people will pay, not many though. Supportware is the common way of making money in open source. People pay for extra features or for support. Great. But hold on. This means that it is financially better for a developer to make a product that is hard to use, or lacking in features. Do we REALLY want that? Closed source makes you money, no doubt about it, but who knows what is going on. Really, any piece of closed source airline or medical equipment is always one semicolon away from crashing and killing whoever depends on it, and you would never know.

So by this example, there is no good option. Nothing works perfectly.

A lot of people these days refuse to use the closed source Nvidia and ATI graphics drivers, because they are closed source. I wonder, if the instructions were all hidden by hardwiring them into a ROM chip on the card, and the only part of the driver was some kind of instruction pipeline to the ROM, but that pipeline was open source, would that be any better? Fact is, it would be exactly the same situation as now, closed and hidden blobs of instructions, but without even the ability of the manufacturers to fix problems without a flash upgrade of some kind.

Because of course this is exactly what the open source drivers do, they talk to closed hardware. You are still dealing with proprietary systems. I expect that even RMS, in his infinite dedication to open sourcing (sorry, free-ing) everything, uses a computer that has hardware that has closed and hidden instructions. Is it any better that the instructions are hard wired into a chip? I doubt that a single modern computer in the world has a completely open specification with no hidden bits.

But this doesn’t really matter, I am not answering the question, I am just muddying the waters a little. Showing that the question is not as clear as it seems.

For most software, Open Source seems to be the way to go. In games however, it seems to be failing us. Why have so few open source games been created. I don’t mean one of several hundred tetris or breakout clones, I mean big games, of the scale of X3, or Cold War. I think the problem is creative goals. Open source, to attract volunteers, needs to be something that a developer WANTS to work on. And so a game must be the game that that developer has always wanted to play. And the problem with games, where making a game is mostly a creative process, is that everyone wants something different. And so most open source game projects fall apart, or just fade away.

You can see large numbers of small games for Linux. Games made by one or maybe two people. You can find a large number of clones of commercial games. These are all easy to find developers for, they all want to play the game they used to play, but on Linux.

But original, new, high quality games on Linux, well, there are less than a handful, and none of them would get shelf space in a commercial store They may be technically great, they may be a marvel of collaboration, but they probably wouldn’t sell copies to the random public, and those are the people that Linux needs to target to become more mainstream.

One idea is that commercial companies would make a game and release it with the source. That may be something for the future. People could fix the bugs, but to distribute it you must only distribute the official boxed copy. That way the game is open, maintainable, but the company still gets its money. Put it under a license that restricts use or modification for any other reason. Unfortunately, in reality I doubt it would work. People would abuse the license terms. Call me a cynic, but, I just don’t believe people would respect the license.

In the end, I believe in the best tool for the job, as long as the playing field is level. Firefox is doing a good job of getting to the top, by being better, assisted greatly by open standards. OpenOffice is making inroads by doing the same job as MS Office without charging. It would be doing a better job if all of the file formats used by MS office were open, and that is the biggest thing that is holding it back. A clear example of an un-level playing field preventing the better product winning because of lock-in.

As for games, I started in this industry cos I love Linux and I love gaming. I believe in open source (I’ve been writing and contributing to open source software since 1993), I just do not have confidence it can solve every problem. If open source obsoletes commercial gaming, I’ll be happy as anything cos I’ll get all my games for free, and I’ll be able to go get a job and earn money. Until then, commercial gaming is a vital thing for Linux, and does nothing but help push the platform forwards. Even if it is in a way that RMS doesn’t approve of {:-)

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13 Responses to “A closed source company’s CEO’s view on open source”

  1. Max says:

    Well, all I can do is approve with everything you wrote there.
    There are a few open source gems out there (0A.D. for example) but compared to commercial games they take AGES for development because the people who work on them won’t earn any or at least not much money and so they obviously have to do it all in their free time.

  2. skoruppa says:

    And this is the view of the situation that I agree and I can identify with :). I think exactly like you, and therefore as soon as I can deal with some small problems I will open shop with games for Linux on my website. Maybe as a LGP reseller ;)

  3. sakuramboo says:

    I agree. Open and closed source software can co-exist. However, the way that the software industry SHOULD be is the way that idsoftware handles it. When a piece of software becomes “outdated”, it gets open sourced. This way, nothing is lost to the world. id did it with doom and quake. They haven’t lost any money because of it and their name is known even more because now their older titles are available to everyone on every platform.

    • Drasky Vanderhoff says:

      I’m completely agree with you , is just a voluntary way to share a game that make his job returning it’s money to his owner. Or in the case that it was a game that goes bad , it’s even better to get it open because people could fix it and share it and it could be less forgotten.

      But what i really think is more important than to be open is to be cross-platform , so anyone can get the chance to play it. For that we need to have some basic standards and multi-platform engines.

      Also i think that a open source game don’t need the art of the game be open also… Just the code for security and debugging.

      Games are Art more than Knowledge ( ok the art is a very important knowledge , but not critical to develop yourselves in this world , you could share the tricks and the tools you use it to make that piece of art , but not the core of the art it selves.)

      I think the most important value of the open source is that everyone have the oportunities to learn and make it’s way…

      • OK just a question, what would you say about something like a chess game. There is a LOT of work in the logic and strategy engine, but in many cases the artwork could be thrown together in a day. How would you go about opening that?

        Dont get me wrong, Im playing a bit of devils advocate here, because on the whole I agree it would be great, but, some games wouldnt fit the model.

        • Loïc says:

          Actually open-source chess engines are really good, and there’s not much value to a proprietary chess engine unless you’re one of the world’s best 10 chess players.

          The value of a commercial chess game lies in the graphics and the “packaging”, the creation of exercises, progression, possibly story mode, and the compilation (maybe even buying) of past chess games played by top chess players. You could easily open the chess engine (or, better, use an open source one from the start instead of reinventing the wheel) without removing any value to your product. You might even open source the interface as well, including one set of graphics and a few recorded games as a kind of “demo”.

          • The problem is that this is one case where it *stifles* innovation. Where is the incentive, if you have a revolutionary new chess AI that will take 2 years to program, if someone can then spend 2 weeks making slightly flashier graphics for your engine, and push your innovative version out of the market.
            I agree with the idea most of the time, but as always, there is never a purely right answer, grey areas abound.

  4. Maxim says:

    Hello All !
    Well Michael I warned you that my replay will be as long as your post, I hope you will find the time and read it fully as I found the time to read your posts and to write mine.

    First let me replay to some of your topics in your post before I go to the major issue…

    You wrote : “you can only become a dominant product by being best”
    I strongly disagree, and I believe you will too after reading this…

    “Best software” has little to do with “dominant” software, marketing and pricing is.
    UNIX was much better then MS-DOS, but MS-DOS had a much better price tag and good marketing.
    Microsoft became dominant not by making superior products but by superior marketing and vendor lock in, it’s only recently in most countries you can buy laptops without Windows.

    Next issue is the money making on software other then games…
    In our company we use MyEclipse which is NOT free, which Eclipse is free.
    MyEclipse has lot’s of “closed” add-ons that make buying worth it while the product itself is free source in form of Eclipse.
    There are games that offer the source code for free while the Windows .exe is closed and guess what ? it’s selling.
    A good example for this is Astromenace : http://www.viewizard.com/astromenace/index_linux.php , they are working on part-2 btw.
    They also offer the Linux version for free, and it’s a great game.

    You wrote : “I doubt that a single modern computer in the world has a completely open specification with no hidden bits.”
    I’m not sure about OLPC but you should look at OpenMoko : http://www.openmoko.com , while it’s not a PC but it’s open hardware mobile phone.

    While we don’t have a lot we DO have some high quality free software games like Nexuiz, AstroMenace , PlaneShift , Second Life , Tremulous , TA Spring , Wesnoth, Warzone 2100 and many more…
    It’s true that some of those games where developed by a professional game developing companies but none the less they are still FREE.
    On the community aspect I agree that free software in general and games specifically takes “ages to develop” but that’s the thing with open/free source – while the source is free the product is NEVER finished, you can always add more things, expend the game and improve it.
    Many of you will probably agree that Nexuiz looks like a finished product but they still release new and improved versions every few months.

    Now to the main deal … how to develop an open/free GAMES and still make money out of it.
    A few weeks ago I send rms an email about this very issue giving his suggestions on how to make a living out of free games and asking for his commentary on the issue, while he commented only on one of my proposals dismissing all others because I wrote “open” and not “free” while it still suited the issue, here is the email :


    Hello Richard !

    My name is Maxim and I live in Israel, we have “spoken” before via email.

    I am a GNU/Linux user and also a gamer.
    It our GNU/Linux community we don’t have much QUALITY FREE games, we got a few but not nearly as many as on other platforms.
    My cease here is that while a developer can make a good living out of free programs (like Kernel developers who get payed for their work and many other developers of red hat, oracle, sun and other companies who get their living and the source is still released as free), in the gaming universe things are very different.

    For quite some time I was thinking about a good economical model for making FREE (as in freedom) games and still manage to sell them.
    In MMORPG games such as “Second Life” that’s not such a big problem as people are still using the official servers and pay for virtual property, thus the developing company (Linden Labs) still makes money despite the fact that the client it free and there is no monthly charge.
    Such model is not valid however for single player games.

    I was thinking about 2 economical models for single player games that hopefully will also comply to GPLv3, I want to hear your input on this..

    1. The game client and server will be FREE (GPLed) but the artwork of the game (graphics and sounds) will be proprietary.
    This model is similar to what Id Software does with their older engines, the engine is GPLed but all the other parts of the game stays closed, “my” proposal above is more open as I propose to open all the game source code and close only the “art” .

    2. Other model that proved itself once with Blender but failed on others is to develop a good closed source game and then “collect” money for GPLing the game, thus paying for my developing time, if you are familier with Blender history the company (Not a Number) got bankrupt and one of the developers (Ton) founded the Blender foundation to buy the source code for blender, he gathered the $100,670 in just a few months and the program was released under the GPLv2.

    The second model is very riscky as the developer must create a very good program that people will actually want to gather the large sum of money to “release” it under the GPL.

    What do you think about those 2 models ?

    Thanks ahead


    Your comments will be more then welcomed !

  5. RK says:

    I believe RMS has said in the past that content (music, graphics, etc.) is a different issue to software (code), and he fully(?) supports proprietary licenses for such. The best examples of this strategy are from iD, as someone else mentioned. Their older game engines are released open-source, but the games themselves are still proprietary – and reportedly still selling well, for such old games (thanks to Steam).

    Unfortunately some people don’t appear to be able get their heads around such situations. To them, something is either F/free or it isn’t. Different parts under different licenses just confuse them.
    But then some people have problems comprehending doorknobs.

  6. Maxim says:

    @RK :

    Actually RMS did “manage” to answer to my first proposal :

    ” 1. The game client and server will be FREE (GPLed) but the artwork of the
    game (graphics and sounds) will be proprietary.

    I can partly agree with that model. I don’t believe that all art works
    must be free. But I do think that people must have the (more limited) freedom
    to noncommercially share exact copies of all published works including art.”

    So basically he “agrees” to CC-BY-NC-SA license (Creative Commons, BY, Non-Commercial-Share Alike). ;)
    I actually already released many of my poetry works under this exact license.

    One of the games I’ve mentioned in this blog “PlaneShift” also uses somewhat similar license, the source code is FREE under the GPL BUT the “art” part cannot be used in ANY other project then Planeshift : http://www.planeshift.it/license.html

  7. Torbjörn Andersson says:

    One of the reasons I prefer to use open drivers, even when the hardware is closed, is that if other parts of the infrastructure changes or evolves, a company might simply decide to drop support for my hardware. With an open driver, I can at least hope someone will be able to pick up the torch and upgrade it when needed. With 3D graphics, that decision can sometimes be a bit annoying since the driver for my graphics card suffers from a case of the gremlins, causing it to lock up sometimes. But maybe the Gallium3D project will finally put an end to that. (Hey, I can dream can’t I?)

    I’m immensely grateful for free software, and I will continue to use it “for better or for worse”. That said, games is one of the things I’m perfectly happy to pay for, because they’re just entertainment; they’re in no way necessary to make my computer run. So I’m grateful for LGP too.

  8. Jackflap says:

    Actually, from my understanding, one of the biggest reasons that open-source games can’t currently make it big is because the sheer amount of media content that’s involved.

    From 3D avatars, to bitmaps, skins, textures, music, sound effects, and all sorts of other graphics/audio that’s involved. Open-source software is built on code-distribution, i.e. mailing lists, irc, git, bazaar, cvs, etc. There are just no equivalents nor any community to allow media types collaborate in this way.

    The infrastructure that allows collaboration is inherently technical, and therefore will be used to develop inherently technical software.

  9. Joshua Purcell says:

    Thanks for your great comments on this topic. Open source is great and I’m an avid supporter of Linux, but software projects and many other things benefit from strong leadership and a master plan. These things are built-in to the structure of a closed-source development company where many times it’s not in an open-source project. Open source projects tend to have more innovation, but they are many times overshadowed by their closed-source competition because these projects run with whatever they are made to work with and have a single leader/plan that makes sure this is the case. Look at the Linux distribution or browser situations: the best of these projects tend to have a strong organization and/or a charismatic leader behind them. Even though they are open source, these projects work well for the average computer user. Open source projects in these categories that don’t have strong leadership making sure a master plan is followed very well may have innovation, but they seldom become popular (but their innovative ideas tend to just get picked up by the more popular distributions).

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