Saturday, April 7, 2012

Kickstarter Video Games and GNU/Linux

I actually don't play video games very much (maybe a couple hours per week at peak, but more commonly zero), but I have been buying a lot of them the last few years (Humble Bundle), and helping to fund several game development initiatives on Kickstarter. What the heck is going on?

Long video game hiatus

First, this is coming from someone who as a young man, adored video games and spent way too much money on them. But when I got to college I stopped for financial and study reasons. Up until a few years ago, I bought very few video games. To put it in perspective, I stopped buying games back when they came in gigantic boxes, back when actual voice acting was reason enough to buy any game, when DRM was called copy protection and it often times involved looking up a particular word in the manual, or a spinny decoder wheel thing. However, the way I see it now, video games are more important than ever to my future happiness.

Something new has started recently. Relatively well known developers are starting Kickstarter campaigns to fund video game development. This is pretty cool in itself, but what makes it much cooler is that many the developers are going to be making truly cross-platform games (MS Win, MacOS, GNU/Linux).

I am putting out money for these games that I might, in all reality, never play. I'm doing this for one reason, they are showing a willingness to support GNU/Linux systems. Now, don't pigeon hole me as a person that thinks all software should be FOSS (even though that is what I believe), my reasoning is more that I want and need a more stable platform from GNU/Linux than is currently available and I think that video games are an important first step towards that goal.

Video games drive stability

Here is the way I see it. Video games make beaucoup bucks. With that money, people start to think about how they might make it easier to make more money, and that is where the stability will increase. If you look at the shortcomings of GNU/Linux as compared to MS Windows systems, the most glaring problem that I see is that hardware is poorly supported. The best way to get hardware supported is to impose a financial incentive to have them work and work well. That financial incentive scales with the number of users. The number of users is highly correlated with the number of well programmed flashy computer games. I will go so far as to say that there is likely a causal relationship where a vibrant games market draws more users.

But there aren't enough GNU/Linux users out there

Of course, to a studio that sells millions of copies of a game, the number of home PC GNU/Linux users might seem negligible. I actually don't think this is the case. Now, I don't know if anything can ever de-throne MS Windows in the PC game market, but if we look at the numbers from such promotions as the Humble Indie Bundles, we see that a good chunk of that money is coming from GNU/Linux users. Fairly consistently, we have seen the money from GNU/Linux users hit around one eighth to one quarter of the total money raised. In the last bundle, GNU/Linux contributions hit around the one sixth mark; that's \$100k that would have been lost if not for the GNU/Linux support. We can discus why this is the case (my guess is a combination of record numbers for GNU/Linux users and a form of video game starvation), but I think it is hard to argue that this number is negligible.

For a project like Double Fine Adventure, perhaps it is not too far off to think that \$550k was due to the GNU/Linux support, and perhaps \$350k for Wasteland 2. To contrast, one wonders what to expect for another project I would have been very interested in, Shadowrun Returns, which has announced that they will not have GNU/Linux support. Are they missing out on one sixth of their possible funding? Is the cost of porting to GNU/Linux more than that lost funding? Update: Shadowrun Returns has announced that if \$1M dollars is reached, there will be an effort to port to GNU/Linux after the release. This is pretty nice and while it would be great to have Linux support promised now and without the post release delay, I'm pretty sure that \$1M will be reached and any support is better than none. Yay! I won't pick on Al Lowe here, as budget is his primary concern right now, and it is too soon to tell what is going on with Jane Jensen's project. I wish you both the best and I'll be watching for other (hopefully new) titles on Kickstarter. I will say that I am kind of over LSL (much more of a Space Quest and King's quest fan) but if there was a GNU/Linux version, I'd throw \$15 at it to support it.

So, here is the point. I think these projects should be supported. Go do it, now. But I also think people might want to start considering GNU/Linux as a deployment platform, and not for the novelty of it ala Id Software, but for the profit of it. Now, I realize that game developers are not reading this blog (I know this is true because no body is reading this blog ;) but maybe if you are reading it, and you run into someone that does make these kinds of decisions, some of these ideas will leak through during your conversation.

Also, since I don't want to post on this stuff again, a quick note. The Humble Bundle started as a promotion where the games were released as FOSS after a certain goal was reached. This is no longer the case or this goal is very high. I guess I just want to relay my own data point to the world on the value of libre source. I paid \$30 for the first bundle after I heard of the possible source release. Now I have dwindled to around \$5 for each. Just a word of advice, releasing the code as FOSS is valuable to people and people are willing to pay more for it.

Uh, did you forget about Libre Software?

Oh, right… Well all of this stuff happening in our little nook of the world of video game development is great, but not exactly perfect. However, I have a differing opinion on video games than the FSF has.

To me, closed source is 'okay' for DRM-free, non-mission critical software.

Contrast against something like a computer algebra system that you use for your job, a financial books program that you use for your personal or work finances, or an operating system where you run everything. Having these be closed source means that you have relinquished a great deal of knowledge of how useful your work is, and correct and accurate your financial records are, and how safe any of your private data is. Having these be open source but non-Libre means that you have relinquished control over these things, but at least you know where you stand. In an ideal world, everything would be FLOSS and we would have come up with a widely applicable funding mechanism, but this isn't an ideal world yet. If there is going to be something non-Libre in the mix, I suppose that a video game that is fundamentally a luxury, is the best one to have, but only so long as there is no DRM attached to it. This is a big 'but' and I cannot stress this enough. If there is one place where we have demonstrative proof of the abuse of proprietary software, year after year after year, it is with DRM for video games.

So, let me reiterate. Libre games would be a boon for gamers. I would like games better if they were Libre, all else being equal. But, the importance of a particular piece of software being Libre Software is directly proportional to how much of my life depends on it. For video games, this is sufficiently unimportant to the point that I feel that it is okay to support DRM free video games, particularly if there are fringe benefits like attracting more users, developers, and hardware vendors to GNU/Linux.

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