Richard Stallman Finds Love Through World of Warcraft

RMS is known for his promotion of Free Software, or maybe more so for his disdain of non-Free, proprietary software. So it came as a surprise to many visitors to the GNU home page to see an announcement not asking for a call to arms against software patents or so-called DRM, but to say that he was getting married.

What makes the news surprising? He found his soon-to-be wife by playing World of Warcraft.

RMS, the founder of the Free Software movement, playing WoW?

At first, I didn’t want anything to do with WoW, but as I found more and more of the people I knew playing it, I had to look into it. Since this entertainment seems to distract so many people from otherwise being productive at the Free Software Foundation, I thought perhaps if we tried to create a free alternative, it would remind people of our mission.

It was a few days later when I realized that I was really hungry. I hadn’t eaten! This game was dangerous! But I just had to keep playing. Well, it was for research for the free alternative we would create later, of course.

Within weeks, he had participated in a few raids as his Paladin, rms53, and that’s when he met Tybressa, the Priestess.

I began each session as I always did, by telling everyone about the values of free software, hoping to recruit people into developing the free alternative. Tybressa at first didn’t seem to understand what freedoms I was talking about. I think she thought it was an in-character game thing! We spent the next few hours walking and talking…well, virtually, I mean. She lives in San Francisco, and I live in Boston. Still, it was as if we had known each other forever.

Since that time, they always make sure to login at the same time. Tybressa, who is actually 54-year-old Sheila Chesil, has been playing WoW since the MMORPG was launched. She has been helping RMS get the hang of the game as well as providing companionship.

I don’t know. I just felt like he was a very nice newbie, and I always try to help them out. When he started going on about freedom, I thought he was role-playing, and so I played along. Since then, we’ve been inseparable.

Chesil had arranged to meet RMS at a protest he was organizing, and they have made it a point to meet each other every month.

Asked about his opinion on WoW as a proprietary piece of entertainment, RMS said, “Well, the FSF has never really focused on entertainment too heavily, and at least in my case, I have found a new life partner through it, so it can’t be that bad.”

The marriage will take place in Azeroth, although no date has been set yet.

Bradley M. Kuhn, former executive director of the FSF, was not aware of RMS’ pending wedding. “I was a bit worried when he wouldn’t come to meetings he had scheduled with the Software Freedom Law Center. I guess the guy had other priorities.”

[tags]World of Warcraft, GPL, FSF, free software, RMS, video games[/tags]

Steam: Further Impressions

I hate Half-life 2.

I hate it because one night I found that I was still playing the game at 3AM, and I was supposed to be waking up in only a few hours to get ready for work. When you have to worry about using the words “tonight” or “today” to describe “now”, you stop worrying about finding a good place to stop (there isn’t one. It’s like a well-written novel that way).

I can’t believe I’ve been missing out on playing this game for so long. I’ve played Quake 4‘s single-player campaign a bit, but it isn’t the same feeling. In Nova Prospekt and City 14, I feel like I’m dealing with a post-apocalyptic world. There’s hope hidden everywhere, and it feels like a idealistic fight. In Quake 4, I had one exciting fight against a giant mechanical insect, and later encountered a similar one while crawling under some tunnels. I remember being afraid as I crawled past it, thinking that at any moment the glass will break and it would be right on top of me. Still, the conversations and emotions didn’t feel real. I felt like I was playing a game. Half-life 2 is a really great game. Well, it’s not as if most of you didn’t already know.

And you know what else I like? That I don’t have to worry about finding my CD when I want to play the game. Unless I want to resort to using cracks, I still need a CD to play Starcraft or any number of games.

One of the things I remember worrying about with Steam was the problem of losing a network connection. When it was first launched, customers found that the network was overloaded and so they couldn’t play the game they already paid for. Well, that sucks for the people who ordered the game through Steam and couldn’t download or update it, but what about the smart people who bought the game at the store? No, they couldn’t play either because Valve decided that the store-bought version needed to be authenticated as well. I had sent an email asking about this, and after three replies in which I didn’t feel I received a satisfactory answer, I was told someone would get back to me and no one did.

So let’s do a test. I’ll disconnect my network connection and try to start Half-life 2. I get a dialog box that says Steam couldn’t connect, but I was able to start it in off-line mode. Nice. Half-life 2 loads up, but when I try to play, it crashes. Huh. Well, wait. Last time I played, I was in the middle of a firefight in “Anticitizen One”, and the game crashed to the desktop. If I use a save game from a few minutes earlier, the game loads fine, and my squad mates are yelling about the man in the mask who is shooting us from the street.

And now it’s 30 minutes later. Oh, yeah. I was running a test. I wasn’t supposed to keep playing.

Also, last night I received an automatic update for the Steam client. Oh. I, uh, didn’t know you were even downloading anything. What if I didn’t want the update? As mentioned years ago on Valve, Steam and DRM:

Steam pushes new versions whether you want them or not. Sure, you can decline to update, but you won’t be playing anytime soon. While this may look good on the surface solving incompatibility between revisions, the reality is much harsher.

The author mentioned Counter-strike 2 and the bots that were being developed for it. He loved them. Then an update came out that removed the bots completely.

Normally, you just don’t update and keep playing like you always did. Now, you don’t have a choice. Your entire gameplay experience is in the hands of some programmer. Whether you thought their previous effort was better is irrelevant. Whether you like an old feature or weapon is no longer your concern. Welcome to the DRM age.

As you can see, the DRM world isn’t as rosy as the pro-DRM lobby make it out to be. Technical glitches and decisions made by the copyright holders are turning the simple act of buying a game, installing it and running it into a minefield of checks, any of which can stop you from playing your rightfully purchased game or software should they fail.

Well, so far I haven’t had anything that I didn’t want changed, but the idea that the creator of the software I’m using still has control over what I can do with it after I’ve installed it makes me uncomfortable. Because of these concerns, I would still prefer to play games natively on my Gnu/Linux systems. For the most part, I can trust those computers better. It just makes me sad that I feel like I have to choose between really good games and really trustworthy games.

Also, I haven’t looked into this, but if I plan on purchasing The Orange Box, and I do so through a retail shop so I have a physical product in my hands, is there still a complicated activation process through Steam, or do the games play out of the box without requiring a network connection? I remember Half-life 2 needing some kind of decryption process for the game data that could take hours, although downloading the game in my experience didn’t seem to need extra time after I got it. Also, if I buy a physical product, will it require a CD in the drive to play, or does it associate the game with my Steam account and let me have the convenience that I’ve grown accustomed to?

Cloning is Ok? Absolutely!

GameSetWatch reposted an article by Dr. Colin Anderson of Denki, creator of Denki Blocks. The article appeared on Gamasutra first. Opinion: Denki’s Anderson On Why Casual Game Cloning Makes Sense argues exactly the opposite of what many indie developers would claim: that allowing games to be legally cloned actually fosters innovation and is good for the industry.

And after reading his arguments, I agree.

I have yet to publish my own game, so if you think that my opinion doesn’t matter, then feel free to ignore the rest of this post. Considering that I will be publishing a game (hopefully soon) and probably many more afterwards, I am planning on entering a business environment in which you may already sit. I also know that I am not alone in thinking this way.

Anyway, I want you to think back to 2000 when Hasbro was going crazy with lawsuits. GameDev.net had posted news item after news item about lawsuits by Hasbro against game developers. Diana Gruber wrote an article titled Why the Hasbro Lawsuit Should Terrify Game Developers And what we can do about it. It’s a short read, but a good one. Unfortunately the news item it links to is down, but good ol’ Archive.org saves us again.

Filed this morning at the US District Court in Boston, MA, the complaint seeks to require the defendants to cease production and distribution of, and to recall and destroy, the following games: Intergalactic Exterminator, 3D Astro Blaster, TetriMania, TetriMania Master, 3D Maze Man, Tunnel Blaster, UnderWorld, XTRIS, Patriot Command, HemiRoids, Bricklayer, 3D TetriMadness, Mac-Man, 3D Munch Man and 3D Munch Man II. Hasbro Interactive is also seeking damages.

So Hasbro, having obtained the rights to a number of classic games from Atari, decided to protect their copyrights. No biggie, right? How dare companies try to make games based off of Pac-man, Tetris, and other licensed properties. “Consumers should be aware that the companies named in this suit are making games based on properties they don’t own or control.”

What was the first game you created? Was it a clone of Tetris? Pac-man? Space Invaders? It was a learning experience, right? Did you know that it was copyright infringement? Did you know that even if you didn’t try to sell it like the defendants in the lawsuit, who were definitely making games for commercial gain, that you were still committing copyright infringement? If you need a refresher course on copyright (and considering how complicated it is, who doesn’t?), you can read through my article on copyright law and come back to this article. Now think about how copyright law, if enforced the way Hasbro wanted it enforced, would harm the game industry in terms of educating new developers.

When someone learns how to paint, they usually start with still lives of fruit in bowls. Writers learn how to write doing standard creative writing assignments. Musicians play standard pieces of music. Most everyone in the game industry understands that new game developers will need to work with simple, basic games before moving up to more complicated, original games. Almost everyone suggests that you start out by trying to make Tetris, Pong, or some similarly simple and classic game.

I remember reading the news about Hasbro’s lawsuits and becoming afraid. I made a Pac-man clone once. Will Hasbro come after me next? Maybe I shouldn’t work in the games industry if I don’t have the means to defend myself against a lawsuit.

If Hasbro had its way, the game industry would be made up of a handful of unique games, games in which there isn’t any overlap in gameplay and mechanics…or an industry in which only the owner of existing works can innovate off of those works. Imagine Capcom needing to license the rights to a side-scrolling platformer from Nintendo. Would MegaMan have been made?

Frankly, we don’t need any companies like Hasbro suing developers for copyright infringement simply because their games have the same game mechanics. Musicians don’t sue other musicians for making use of the same chords. Software patents are scary enough. Learning about those made me once again think that I should get out of the game industry. Software patents CAN and HAVE been used to legally prevent games with similar play mechanics from being made or published. Patent lawsuits, however, are expensive, and so they aren’t nearly as scary. Microsoft or IBM might sue someone for patent infringement, but it is unlikely that they will use their patents against indie game developers.

However, more than a few indie game developers hate clones enough that I can see them owning patents on their own games simply so that they can sue a supposed infringer to next Tuesday. Again, patent lawsuits are expensive, so they’ll need to be careful.

Another reason why I think that the ability to clone games isn’t a bad thing: I think copyright lasts too long. Again, see my copyright article. The life of the author plus 70 years? Do you know how many generations of video game consoles you’ll go through before someone can make a derivative work on an existing game? Being able to innovate based on existing games today means we’ll see more innovative games, and sooner.

And yes, that’s right. I think the ability to clone games will lead to innovation. Does it sound contradictory? How can cloning a game lead to innovative gameplay? Wouldn’t everyone be copying everyone else, leading to stagnation? Of course not! If you were making games, would you rather create another me-too product on the Internet shelf space, or would you try to create something that stood out and has a better opportunity of being noticed by customers? And if you’re worried about others cloning your game and stealing any potential sales, you’ll notice that Bejeweled isn’t suffering from having millions of clones available. Everyone knows Bejeweled. No one really knows the name of any of its clones.

If the judgement had gone the other way and the judges had decided that ideas could not be copied, then we’d be in trouble. The floodgates would have been opened for developers, publishers and patent trolls would end up mired in endless lawsuits, fighting over who created what first and what core mechanics, controls or ideas are at the heart of their games.

Instead we can all go out and innovate, polish and create, without having to worry that someone will land a lawsuit on us for using blocks, bricks, colours, tiles, or a similar control method to an existing title.

The comments following the article seem to indicate that people believe innovation will die simply because it is now easier to copy someone else’s successful work. And then there was the developer of Jewel Quest:

Without allowing for clones, the genre may not have had the fertile ground to produced a Puzzle Quest. I think the ruling was the correct decision despite the fact that I personally would never want to make a straight clone of another game and strongly dislike others that do.

Jewel Quest wasn’t simply a clone of Bejeweled, although it may look like it. It uses similar mechanics, but then, my car uses similar mechanics found in other cars. No one will claim that my Ford Contour is a clone of a Mustang or a Ferrari. There is plenty of room for innovation without having to fight over simple game mechanics.

Cloning will be a problem for some individuals, as it always has, but others will find ways to prosper BECAUSE they can innovate off of what came before. I don’t think a single company should be in charge of platformers, but if the ruling went the other way, that situation would be exactly what would happen. I’m sure a lot of people will whine about these rulings, but if they want to succeed, they’ll have to deal with reality. You can’t expect to do well by cloning someone else’s success. Legally barring someone from doing so is silly and dangerous because it adds unnecessary barriers to entry for people doing things slightly (yet significantly) differently from existing games. Imagine if your Sims-with-a-twist or Space Invaders-with-better-AI would land you in court simply because they were similar enough that the owner of the original game could bring about a lawsuit.

Now look back on the history of video games and tell me what it would look like if cloning was completely banned.

So-Called DRM is Fundamentally Flawed

PlayNoEvil Game Security News and Analysis wrote an interesting post regarding DRM as a broken system. Microsoft’s Digital Restrictions Management for Windows has been defeated. Again. Nothing too newsworthy about it.

What’s interesting is the following statement:

In fact, as I’ve noted before (repeatedly), DRM is built on a flawed model.

Traditional cryptographic security systems are designed to heal themselves to protect new data. This is completely inconsistent with the underlying model that content protection is built on – the protection of existing data.

This article isn’t bashing Microsoft specifically. It’s pointing out the flaws in a system that is not well designed to do what it is supposed to do. Food for thought if you are one of those people who still believe that copy protection is a “vital” part of game development. If DRM isn’t actually doing a good job of preventing copyright infringement, and it frustrates your paying customers, why use it?

It seems that using regular copy protection techniques will be much more effective than anything that resembles DRM.

GPL v3 Released

The Free Software Foundation launched GPLv3 yesterday. You can read the wording of the license in its final form.

What does it mean for software developers and indie developers in particular? I don’t know. The GPLv2 was written over a decade ago, and this new version deals with software in the face of new technologies such as the World Wide Web. I know a number of businesses participated in the discussions so any silly arguments about the license being a tool for communism can hopefully be put to rest.

“By hearing from so many different groups in a public drafting process, we have been able to write a license that successfully addresses a broad spectrum of concerns. But even more importantly, these different groups have had an opportunity to find common ground on important issues facing the free software community today, such as patents, tivoization, and Treacherous Computing,” said the Foundation’s executive director, Peter Brown.

I am sure people will be talking about what the new license means and how it is different from GPLv2 for weeks to come.

Research into Why We Play

Thanks to GameDaily, I learned about a British Board of Film Classification report about the reasons people play video games.

There were a number of findings that surprised me:

  • There is a sharp divide between male and female games players in their taste in games and how long they spend playing. Some of you might be saying “Duh!”, but I was sure that women played the same games that men played. Perhaps the data I had was specific to hardcore gamers.
  • Gamers appear to forget they are playing games less readily than film goers forget they are watching a film because they have to participate in the game for it to proceed. The report also goes on to say that gamers are not emotionally involved but instead are concentrating upon “making progress”. So most people really do play games mechanically and don’t care about story? Is this really why there are people who will gladly pay every month just to gain experience by doing the same thing over and over again? Are games nothing more than “I Win” buttons to most players? Disturbing.
  • A range of factors seems to make less emotionally involving than film or television. The adversaries which players have to eliminate have no personality and so are not real and their destruction is therefore not real, regardless of how violent that destruction might be. Er, did we really just say that video games are less emotionally involving BECAUSE they aren’t realistic? If we give the adversaries personality (and I am sure that there are more than a few games that do so already), does their destruction result in games that allow minors to lose their grasp on reality?

There isn’t much else in the report that we didn’t already expect. Game players generally understand the difference between video games and real life. Game players are not all children, although parents (and I may add politicians) still think that games are for children only. One of my favorite lines:

Parents should not treat video games in the same way they would board games.

Parents aren’t readily giving their children The Newlywed Game boardgame, yet they think nothing of letting them play GTA 3? There are adult and mature-themed board games, so why are video games supposed to be played exclusively by children?

You can download the full report at the BBFC website.

Zorro, the Public Domain, and Derivative Works

The other day I was thinking about Zorro. Frankly, I love stories about Zorro and The Three Muskateers. I have only recently started playing Dungeons and Dragons, and when I created my character, I decided that he should be a fighter with high dexterity and speed. He also gets a cloak and a wide-brimmed hat. B-)

Anyway, I was thinking about the possibility of making a game based on Zorro. If Zorro was created recently, then the copyright might prevent me from making such a game, but if it was an old creation, then it might be in the public domain, which means that I would be perfectly within my rights to create a game based on the stories of the masked legend.

So I searched online and found out that the earliest copyright date for Zorro was 1919 for the pulp fiction serial called The Curse of Capistrano. Shortly afterwards, a movie adaptation followed, and the successful silent film The Mark of Zorro brought the hero to the big screen for the first time. That link will take you to a page that will let you watch the film as it is in the public domain.

So the original story and the first movie are definitely in the public domain. So, anyone has the right to make a movie, video game, or story based on Zorro, right? I would think so, but apparently I might be wrong. I found a post at derivative work which linked to a BBC News report that Sony sent a cease & desist letter to Sobini Films for trying to make a movie about Zorro. Sobini sued and I haven’t been able to find anything about it being resolved, although imdb.com does list Zorro 2110 as being in production.

And I would totally go see it, too. It would probably be like seeing the remake of Planet of the Apes for my birthday…shut up.

Anyway, the point is, how does Sony think that it has the right to tell someone NOT to make a film based on a public domain work? And where does Sobini Films get off talking as if it has aquired the rights to a book in the public domain? EVERYONE has aquired those rights. That’s what the public domain means!

But is Zorro in the public domain? Is there anything about Zorro that isn’t?

I’m not the only one who has these questions. You can’t just trust that Wikipedia has it right, but Zorro is on the list of public domain characters. But what exactly does it mean that Zorro is in the public domain, especially when Zorro Productions exists solely to license the trademarks and copyrights in the name, visual likeness, and character? How can this group exist when Zorro is in the public domain?

I learned that the character of Zorro may have been inspired by people or stories that ARE in the public domain. The Scarlet Pimpernel is an older story that pretty much set the stage for the super hero genre. The hero was a rich person hiding his true identity with disguises. Zorro, Batman, and a number of other characters, especially in comic books, would follow this archetype.

But history also has some influence on the character of Zorro. Joaquin Murrieta was considered the Robin Hood (another legendary hero in the public domain) of Mexico, and “the fictional character of Zorro was in part inspired by the stories about Murrieta”. Now, Murrieta the person may have existed, but the legend surrounding him may be more fiction than fact. His story resembles Batman’s in that circumstances in his life charge him with fighting back against what he considered evil and protecting others from those same evils.

Can I create a game based on the original story of Zorro which is known to be in the public domain? I obviously can’t make a game that was inspired with recently created films, but couldn’t I make my own interpretation of the original story? Couldn’t Sobini Films create a Zorro of the future without a Sony coming after them? Why does Sony believe it has this ability, or specifically why does Zorro Productions believe it has exclusive rights to Zorro?

I did find this San Francisco Business Times article detailing the family behind Zorro Productions. It seems that if they control nothing else other than the trademarks for merchandising, movies, books, games, slot machines, etc, then they pretty much control new creations based on Zorro, even if the copyright status of older works has expired. I had emailed the company, and President and CEO John Gertz responded to say that even if some works are public domain in the United States, the copyright may still be valid in other nations. Interestingly, I learned that a number of the trademarks for things such as video games, board games, role playing games, candy, and all sorts of merchandising were registered fairly recently. Some trademarks have expired, but others have apparently replaced them. Trademark searches are definitely not for those with weak hearts.

So, what’s the status of Zorro? Is he in the public domain, or does some company actually have the exclusive rights to him? It seems that an indie game developer might be taking on a lot of legal liability by trying to make a game based on Zorro. Besides the existing trademarks, the copyright status in the country of a customer might turn that sale into an infringement that costs you big. Unless you are prepared to discuss the matter with a lawyer (and pay for such a discussion!), it might be easier creating your own characters and building up a following. I imagine it might be possible to create your own version of a character like Zorro, but then you would have to step around trademarks that simply use the text “ZORRO” on a video game. Batman is pretty much a Zorro-like character, but he is different enough that he can become his own trademark. No one really owns Robin Hood as far as I know. And there are plenty of other famous legends that are probably not locked away from the public through exclusive rights such as copyright and trademark.

LLC Annual Reports

It has been about a year since I first formed my LLC, and I have already submitted my tax return. Without going into specifics, GBGames, LLC posted losses in its first year. Looking back, I can say that one of my problems was that I didn’t do a very good job of managing my business (or myself!), but I can write about production and self-management in another post.

Last week I submitted my annual report to the Secretary of State, and it was easy.

In Forming an LLC in Illinois, I described the steps necessary to create a limited liability company for yourself. The initial payment of $500 required something other than a regular check, and I used a cashier’s check when I created GBGames, LLC. I was not sure if I would need to go through the trouble of getting another cashier’s check to pay the $250 annual fee, but it turns out that you could send a regular check.

Filing the report was pretty simple. The state sends you a form with your important information: business name, the primary contact, and principal business location. If nothing has changed, sign it, enclose the check, and mail it off.

The most confusing thing about the process was the difference between the address on the provided envelope and the form itself. I imagine it eventually gets to the same place, but why provide an envelope with a different address from the one that the form says it should go to?

In any case, GBGames, LLC will be going into its second year on March 22nd. Hopefully it will be a profitable one. B-)

An Indie Guide to Copyright Law

I recently finished writing an article called What an Indie Needs to Know About Copyright.

I wrote it because it still amazes me how many independent game developers do not know about copyright. Either they overestimate what it is that copyright does for them, or they underestimate what it does for other people. The entire purpose of copyright is sometimes confused! What can you do with public domain works? What about fair use? What IS copyright actually protecting?

I don’t pretend that I know everything about copyright law, but I have done a fair amount of research, and I hope I have condensed that knowledge into something useful and easy to read for other indie developers. In the end, there are a few resources you could consult for more details, and of course you should consult a lawyer about anything you aren’t sure about. It’s your business to know, after all, and the expense may be worth it.

I want to thank Keith “Uhfgood” Weatherby II and Kelli Lydon for proof reading and providing some great feedback.

Second Life Client Source Code Released as Open Source

I found this bit of news on LinuxGames.com. Second Life, the virtual world created by the players, has had its client code open sourced. Linden Labs released the client code under the GPL.

I’m excited by this news because it means that progress on the GNU/Linux client might actually move forward, putting it on par with the Windows and Mac clients.