Open source games: It’s a team effort

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I've been involved with a fair share of open source activities, game-related and otherwise, and by and large I have thoroughly enjoyed the ride. It all started with an overly ambitious open source game. It never went anywhere, yet I treasure the time I spent working on it. This project sent me head first into the marvels of collaborative open source--and game development, without any training wheels. It’s an experience and an education that comes highly recommended, but is not without its hits and misses. Getting it right the first time ultimately comes down to chance, but if nothing else, sharing my experience might improve your odds.

What are open source games?

Open source game development is often considered a hobby--much the way Linux developers were considered hobbyists, before their operating system gained a foothold in the datacenter. There’s a lot to be said about open source in the game industry at large, but that’s a different--and complicated--topic. My aim is to help aspiring game developers find an open project to their liking, specifically a team, and right now that means going where the hobbyists are at.

Get talented

Games are a rather awe-inspiring collaborative medium. If you are exceptionally passionate about games, chances are you already possess parts of the skill set necessary for game development, be it drawing, writing, sculpting, composing, coding, or modding. Now pick your favorites and hone your skills.

That said, I strongly advise you to get technical. This doesn’t necessarily have to involve programming, although it’s always a major plus in this field. Most importantly, just get a rough overview of the tools of the trade: Game engines, programming languages, 3D modeling, formats, wikis, version control, desktop versus mobile versus web and all that good stuff.

Independent preparation

If you want to sharpen your skills before getting involved with a group of fellow developers (hint: you should), then trying to make your own game is a no-brainer. If you're looking for a motivational push, there's nothing like a little bit of competition:

  • Ludum Dare - Frequently hosted 48-hour game competitions. Mainly for programmers.
  • GameCareerGuide's Game Design Challenges - A bi-weekly creative workout for designers. Developers going the extra mile with prototypes and concept art usually stand a good chance at being recognized.

This is an extremely small sampling of what’s out there. The handy thing about these competitions is that they don’t require a whole team to accomplish something; you can do it all by yourself. While this article promotes game development as a team effort, independence remains a key component. We’ll get back to that--just know that talent attracts talent.

Find a project

There are plenty of places to look, but the majority of hobbyist projects out there will make an appearance at one of these watering holes:

That’s a lot of projects... Choosing the right project to match your particular skill set and interests can prove to be quite the challenge. Remember, no one's gonna want to work with you if you're not enthusiastic about the game you're making.

Take your time, and for the love of all that is good, pick a project that looks achievable within just a couple of months, at most. There are disappointingly few of these around, but for a first-timer, a short-term project where you can quickly enjoy the results is highly recommended.

My top tip: Progress is the best sign of promise; look for it. Dig into news archives, forums, and code repositories to look for healthy levels of activity.


Truth is, the ratio of complete to incomplete open source games could use a boost. But don’t let that hamper your drive. When you’ve decided on a project you’d like to join, just create something you think they need and publish it. You don’t have to ask permission. This is the epitome of open-source game development.

Whenever you’ve made something, strut your stuff! On today’s web, that’s in fact easier done than said. And by doing so, you’re effectively documenting your work and promoting yourself as an aspiring game developer--and bringing attention to the project you’re engaged in.

There is no guarantee your work will be used, but you’ve officially worked on an open source game. Congratulations!

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I'm an aspiring game developer, recently graduated from Vancouver Film School's 'Game Design' program. The bulk of my spare time is spent working as a manager with the jMonkeyEngine project, a cross-platform 3D game engine.


Hey, don't forget about <a href="">FreeGamer</a> and <a href="">FreeGamedev!</a> (Free as in Freedom, of course)

The projects we feature in our blogposts are always looking for contributors, and our forums are full of people willing to collaborate as well.

Another essential site is <a href=""OpenGameArt</a>, full of resources for open source games to use

Thanks for the read Erlend. You've touched on a few topics there I have yet to explore. Maybe someday!

You're certainly involved in the right places already though mate, he he.

There are open-source game development communities as well, such as freegamer:
and their forums:
Which is a nice place to start if one is interesting in contributing.

Being active in open source game development since around 2000 I always enjoy seeing articles encouraging others to get involved. I often feel like this is one of the most ignored areas of open source software (which is probably not true) since game development is such an insurmountable task at times. This combined with the fact that so many of us don't start wtih a "Tetris clone" and dive right in to "WoW-but-better" or "Oblivion-but-bigger." And far more often than not we end up trying to do it alone. Encouraging people interested to find games that are related to their specific area of interest (e.g. puzzle games, FPS, RPG, etc) is often skipped in articles.

I did want to point out that the two sites you posted for finding projects tend to lean far more towards indie game projects and less towards open source game projects. Many of the open source game projects on that I've posed interest in helping are really "open source by necessity" and choose licensing for things such as their artistic assets which are not inherently open source (by using the NC and/or ND clause of CC.)

I've been increasingly sending interested people to the <a href="">Free Game Development</a> forums and the <a href="">Free Gamer</a> blog to find projects looking for help. There are a number of projects that regular their IRC channel (#freegamer on FreeNode) as well as the forum. You can get a feel for games that are out there on the blog and you can watch the RSS planet and RSS developer planet (which aggregates free game projects' developer blogs.)

In addition to looking at sites like this for existing projects if you're really thinking about striking out on your own I suggest looking into a game engine project to start with such as OGRE, Crystal Space or <a href="">Ryzom Core</a>. It might help to play with these engines, contribute a little to get a good solid feel for their inner workings and then when you're technically solid forge ahead with your idea.

Also in addition to the two contests you posted the <a href="">Global Game Jam</a> often produces playable open source games, you could always go to a GGJ and find a team and go from there.

Also, I've found this particular article valuable when considering game projects which I end up working on by myself: <a href="">Party Of One: Surviving A Hobby Open Source Project</a>.

Thanks for the great post!

Thank you for that excellent feedback Matt. I added the FreeGamer blog as per popular demand as well as a self-correction, as I would have added it if only it had sprung to mind prior to publishing.

I think games being ignored as perfectly viable open source software <em>is</em> true. You're spot on about the GDnet culture, which I think is a big part of the problem; open source should be applied as a strength, not as a consequence of being a hobbyist team short of options.

In the game project that greatly inspired this article (ours was a 'Oblivion-but-smarter'), we nailed the open source idea pretty well, but we failed to execute on it. Being the team leader, that was my fault. I was obsessed with acquiring team members who were as serious as the rest of us, able to make the commitment necessary for a consistent design throughout every component of the game. A considerably smaller scope would have eliminated this problem, and it would have opened us up to drop-in contributions effectively expanding it on the merit of the core idea and team behind it.

Open source doesn't change the way we should scope our projects; we'll still need a team of 100++ developers to complete a product that is consistent throughout. There's a misconception among many people that if you slap the open source label on your project the open source enthusiasts will start doing all the work like the busy principle-guided bees that we are. The difference is that a solid 3-man game can become a whole lot better and even bigger by going open source, but it needed those three guys who worked so unusually well together in order to become something in the first place. And they in turn, no matter how talented, could never create WoW-but-bigger.

Hmm, if that made any sense, a "Radakan - Post mortem" might make a pretty good read, he he.

Regarding the GDnet thread of conversation one of the major problems is that people want to sell their game or somehow monetize it and their answer to this is closing some component of the game and this inevitably becomes the artistic assets. Now I have nothing against monetizing open source projects. I'd love for more open source projects to spawn young and successful businesses. It only proves our point. But this doesn't solve the misconception that closing artistic assets slays the mythical "fork" beast - because truly that's the fear, that your revenue stream will dry up because someone will fork an identical game. To the point: if you do your job right, continuously provide quality updates and really make your brand shine then users will have no reason to risk a fork. In reality most forks fail unless the parent project itself has failed already.

I'd like to skip a lot of your topic on scope to talk about something that's been missed in this article and nearly all gaming-related articles of its type. Scope is one thing when it comes to code. I could probably create WoW-but-better in code given enough time and a burgeoning community. The reality of open source is that there are an awful lot of us out there with motivation and interest but one truth remains: we're nearly all programmers and code does not make a game.

Time after time a quality open source game gets poor reviews because it looks bad. When it comes down to it the game is solid, the gameplay is fun and dynamic but it's written by coders so it is plague by coder art. We finally have some great solutions to this such as <a href="">Open Game Art</a> and <a href="">Ryzom Asset Repository</a>.

Sites like these do not solve the problem that the team members game projects need most aren't programmers. They're creative writers, content designers (level designers), artists and musicians. I'd love to see more individuals interested in these areas actively seeking to volunteer on sites like <a href="">FreeGameDev</a>. A little extra effort from people creatively inclined would go a long way to improving the visual quality and playability of a great number of open source games. For example I'm working on a hobby game called Neloid but my example levels are terrible. I have a mind for code but I'm not very good at sitting down and looking at the gameplay tools at my disposal and creating an challenging map.

Just something to think about.

Also... Radakan? Only person I've met from that project is Taldor. (=

Hah nice, you know him. Yep, I got recruited by Taldor, then he left for about a year and a half (give or take 6 months, this is a long time ago now) and I picked up the responsibility as team leader (not lead programmer, that was Kirill), and when we in turn decided to call it quits then Taldor picked up the reins again and kept it going for a while until apparently he also gave up since the website is now just an adspace.

It's a thoroughly complicated open source story with many odd transitions, like any other.

Ever since i switched to Linux I was looking for a nice development environment that would enable me to create some simple and maybe not so simple games. And thanks to your article (and some links digging) I have only now found out about <a href="">Gluon</a>. It looks very promising and it also looks like they are trying to cooperate with Nokia and MeeGo to get the games more accessible to mobile phone users. Anyways. the Gluon webpage is bookmarked and I'll keep a close eye on it.

Heh, very cool, that's at least one person benefiting from this article ;D

Thanks for the read Erlend. I'm sure that I wanna participate in few of these projects.

Freegamer is well known blog for me.
It's high professional and very very usefull resource.

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