John C. Kirk (johnckirk) wrote,
John C. Kirk

Open source entertainment

Following a link from pozorvlak, I read a review of a public information film: Don't Copy That Floppy! As the name suggests, this film is trying to persuade people that software piracy is a Bad Thing. The review is quite funny, although I probably have more sympathy for the underlying message than most people who are watching it (as I've previously discussed).

One of the main arguments against the video is that the free/open source software movement has flourished in the intervening years, i.e. it hasn't brought the computer age to a crushing end. That's a fair point, and I certainly recognise that there are different economic models to choose from.

However, out of genuine curiousity, are there many open source games? I don't really play computer games much nowadays, so I'm "out of the loop" to a certain extent, but I get the impression that the popular ones are all produced by commercial firms. I found a list of open source games at Wikipedia, although I don't know how accurate/complete it is; the only one I recognised from that list is FreeCiv. For instance, are there any free games that would rival Unreal Tournament 2004? I'm guessing that it wouldn't be realistic to have a free version of something like Ultima Online; even if the game itself was free, you'd still need to pay a monthly fee to cover bandwidth and the cost of the physical servers.

I did notice a chess game in the list, which makes sense. I used to play chess when I was at school, but I'm way out of practice now; I did have a computer game for my C64, but it took ages (average of 10 minutes per move on a reasonable skill level), so I got bored with it. I've considered getting back into that, and a few years ago I was thinking that I'd like to see a protocol that different chess programs could share: that way, you could play against someone else over the internet without having to have the same application. I'm guessing that the short-term view (for the software developers) would say that this is bad, since they might lose sales. However, the long-term view is that they might gain sales, particularly if different players are on different platforms (i.e. "the two of us can buy different programs to play against each other or alternately we won't buy anything at all").

I considered trying to develop such a protocol myself, since it should be pretty straightforward, but then I found that someone else had already done it; however, I can't now find any record of what it was, so I have no idea how widely it's been adopted. I see that Winboard/Xboard are used for communication between the GUI front-end and the game engine (on a single machine), and that NetChess is a free program for internet play, but I can't find an actual network protocol.

A related issue to this is TV/film. I'm hardly an expert in this field, but my understanding is that special effects generally involve rendering. For instance, if you want to see a spaceship flying across the sky, you describe what the spaceship looks like, and then work out where the light source will be (e.g. the sun), and then the computer will work out where the shadows should go, and what the ship would look like from a particular angle. It may take an hour to render one second of footage, so you prepare it all in advance. Anyway, it occurs to me that if you have lots of people who are willing to devote spare CPU cycles to distributed computing efforts (e.g. SETI@home or trying to find prime factors of large numbers) then you could also divide up the rendering work in a similar way. However, I haven't heard of much actually going on in this area; Star Trek: New Voyages seems to have come closest (they have special effects in their episodes, although I don't know how many machines were involved).

Taking one specific example, there was a 1980s animated series called Dungeons & Dragons. This was quite fun, and I bought the complete series on DVD a couple of years ago. However, the series was cancelled before the final episode ("Requiem") was shown: Michael Reaves (the writer) has put that script on his website. On the DVDs, they had a featurette about that episode, and the interviewed a guy (George de Luca III) who was in the process of doing his own animation for it. Technically this is probably a breach of copyright, but the writer said he was pleased, and if they put a clip from it on the DVDs then I assume that the production company are happy about it too.

In the interview (presumably filmed c. 2004), he said that the full script was 44 pages long, and that after a year and a half he was up to page 10. (He also said that one of the original cast had recorded her lines for it, presumably free of charge, which was quite nice.) So, at that rate, it seems unlikely that he's finished by now. There's a trailer for his version on YouTube, but his website seems to have disappeared. It's a shame, but he also said that two previous groups had announced their intention to do this and then given up, so I have to wonder whether this is just infeasible to do as a volunteer effort. From a technical point of view, he said that he was using Aurora (2D) and Lightwave (3D); I can't find any info on Aurora (so I may have misspelt it), but it looks as if Lightwave costs about £500, so I can understand why not many people would have that on their machines. Is there an open source equivalent?

I wonder whether it's significant that Ctrl-Alt-Del and PvP have both outsourced their animated series (here and here respectively) to BlindFerret? Each webcomic is written/drawn by one individual person, and the strips are free to view, but you have to pay for the animations (which I haven't done). In other words, are they saying that it's not practical to do it as a volunteer effort?

Anyway, I'm not trying to dredge up old debates about the merits of piracy, I'm just curious about what free alternatives are actually out there.
Tags: comics, computers, games, open source, piracy, tv
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