How The "Open Source" Culture Has Influenced Gaming (And Why We're Better Off For It) - mbellacio Blog - www.GameInformer.com
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How The "Open Source" Culture Has Influenced Gaming (And Why We're Better Off For It)

 

My laptop dual boots to either Windows or Ubuntu. I am currently using Ubuntu while I type this blog, and one thing has dawned on me. I love the culture and the vibe that is open source software. I am not one of those who would claim that Ubuntu is superior to Windows, but it is very nice to have as an alternative.

I am still in awe of the spirit of freedom and cooperation that dominates in the world of open source programming. I literally have never seen anything like it. If you ever want to see TRUE democratization in action, this is it. The concept of these communities is so simple, yet profound and frankly beautiful in my opinion. It is simply this: Technology belongs to everyone.

For those unfamiliar with what open source software is, let me explain in the absolute simplest terms. It is software that is 100% free, with the only restrictions on it being that you continue to share it and not violate that core philosophy that it remain free. You don't have to hack it. You don't have to pirate it. You don't have to feel guilty that some hard working programmer, designer, developer got screwed because you didn't pay for it. You can change it, re-imagine it and re-work it to suit your specific needs. The software works for you rather than you working for it. Beautiful isn't it? If you have a problem, there are literally thousands, perhaps millions of people willing to help you solve it, and they are genuinely passionate about doing so. And many open source programs either match or outperform other programs that are sold commercially (Compare VLC Media Player to Windows Media Player or Photoshop to Gimp). That is human excellence defined.

Fortunately for us, some of that spirit has bled over into gaming and even the larger pool of consumer electronics. Even if certain companies today are not actually using open source kits, it is the spirit of it that is influencing many. Ironically, an idea rooted in things being free has in many ways been a key factor in how many companies are able to profit today.

Let's go back. Back to 2005. The PSP shows up on the portables scene and Sony begins making claims that they welcome seeing what changes, hacks, exploits players can develop for the budding system. What's more, Sony pledges that they will not try to hinder such efforts. Sound familiar? Here's a hint: Sounds like, Oh yeah.

But then, once it becomes clear that the PSP has become an attractive platform for piracy, Sony's benevolent nature cools, and the onslaught of firmware updates begins. This war against hacking, modding, home-brewing  becomes so intense that Sony spends more time LIMITING the PSP than creating new features and services for it. While the homebrew community discovers a thousand and one uses for the sleek little device, Sony merely sees a threat that must be crushed.

Around the same time, approximately one year later, Microsoft releases Windows Vista and begins trying to bully Windows users into quitting Windows XP. The only problem is that Vista is essentially garbage and word is spreading FAST. Microsoft's solution is to dig in their heels, insist that Vista is still wonderful and release service packs. The tech world begins to rediscover Linux and it's endless variations of distributions, and for the first time in a long time, Microsoft is in very serious danger. Do you see the trend?

It's really not about the money. There are plenty of programs that are based on open-source coding but are sold commercially. Xandros OS is one example. The problem is control. In the pursuit of monetizing the wealth of talent that has sprouted from open source software, many companies have effectively killed the very spirit that makes it so attractive in the first place.

What's more, it turns out that people generally don't like being told what they can and cannot do with things they have paid considerable sums of money for. Who knew?

While Sony was busy trying to strangle the life out of the PSP, Apple was waiting in the wings snickering. They were about to deliver a one-two punch that would be heard around the world. The iPhone and it's App Store. "But wait!", you say, "The iPhone wasn't open source." Yes, that's true. But the most important element of it and any piece of hardware was. The software. The Apps. Not all of Apple's were free, but there were enough of them to catch the attention of a lot of people. Several million of them actually.

In the early days of the PSP and even throughout it's peak, it was surprisingly difficult to even find a decent number of free demos, let alone full free games. In Sony's mind, it seemed that "free" was the most vulgar of four letter words. If one hadn't known better, you would have thought Ebenezer Scrooge was the CEO for Sony.

It's rather interesting to consider that a company like Apple, so notorious for it's expensive products, would introduce something that would make portable gaming so affordable. And while companies like Nintendo didn't seem to be affected at all by this trend, it was undeniable that big changes were looming for an entire industry.

In my opinion, the rise in Indie gaming and development is in part due to the growing popularity of open source software and OS's like Linux and BSD. People are more informed than ever before and enjoy the idea of having options. Indie gaming is the perfect alternative to cookie cutter video games. Think of how alternative bands like Pearl Jam and Nirvana changed the music scene of the 90's. Think of how the Sundance Film Festival changed movie-making. That's the earth moving under your feet.

By the time the Xbox 360 was in full swing, undoubtedly one of it's major aces in it's sleeve was the slew of indie games available through Xbox Live. Sony, by contrast, seemed reluctant and even bitter at the idea of embracing something that they could not charge an arm and a leg for. That bitterness was hinted at with their removal of "The Other OS" from the PS3, but also by their slowness in developing the PSN Network.

Fast forward to the present and we see how those decisions affected the lay of the land. Those that embraced the "spirit" of freedom in development and affordable pricing benefited richly. Do you really think the Wii's low price point had nothing to do with it's success?

Now, we have new players on the scene in the form of Google's Android OS. But what is the Android OS ultimately based on? You guessed it. Open source software. Specifically, Linux. You think it won't matter? What does a 59% market share of the mobile market tell you? That they are failing?

Even if Android gaming devices don't experience much success in the console market, the ripples that it will send through the industry are substantial. People are realizing that they aren't locked in to what any one company chooses to offer them. The days of Sony, Nintendo or anyone else playing hard to get are effectively over.

The beauty of all of this is that for the average gamer, there is no way you can lose. Competition, which is what open source software has really allowed to flourish, is good for free markets and good for the consumer. In the town that I live in, there are five different grocery stores, but only one whose prices allow me to get a good value on groceries. The rest vary slightly in their competitiveness, and overall value, but the bottom line is that I am able to get what I want. That is the beauty of capitalism my friends. Options.

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