December 15, 2006

FSF makes MMORPG campaign a high priority

Author: Bruce Byfield

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) has declared the Free Ryzom Campaign a high priority project for the future of the free software movement, and has pledged $60,000 to the campaign's efforts to buy the code for the Ryzom Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game (MMORPG) during the bankruptcy proceedings of the company that developed it.

Ryzom is a science-fantasy game developed by Nevrax SARL, a small French development house that recently filed for bankruptcy. Some of the development libraries for Ryzom are already released under the GNU General Public License, and at least one version of the game was dual-licensed. However, according to Justin Baugh, a system administrator at the FSF, the libraries are not complete, and Nevrax had not developed the GPL-licensed version of the game for some time. The game currently has an active audience of more than 3,500 players -- a small number compared to the leading proprietary MMPORGs such as Blizzard's World of Warcraft or Sony Online Entertainment's EverQuest or Star Wars Galaxies.

The members of the Free Ryzom Campaign say they are a collection of former Nevrax employees, gamers, and free software advocates. The campaign members hope to raise €200,00 by December 19 to purchase the rights to the Ryzom code, development engine, and artwork during bankruptcy proceedings. If successful, the campaign plans to develop into a free software project dedicated to principles similar to those outlined in the Debian Social Contract.

Xavier Antoviaque, the coordinator of the campaign, is also reported by Baugh as saying that he is interested in the possibility of assigning the copyright for Free Ryzom to the FSF.

Peter Brown, the executive director of the FSF, says, "We see this as a unique opportunity to get one of these MMORPGs for the free software movement. Nevrax owns the entire copyright and patents related to the game, so a successful bid is not dependent on any other rights that we have to secure. Success would allow us to spawn lots of other free games from the engine and the existing content."

Brown acknowledges that gaming is one of the remaining weak points in free software. "When it comes to the barriers that keep people from using free software," he says, "one of the major ones has always been gaming. It's an area that's very commercial, and it's very hard for the free software community to fund. We've always played a game of catch-up [in gaming], and whilst you can get all sorts of interesting games for free software, at this level, we're just not there. This is an opportunity to jump ahead from where we currently are."

Compared to the FSF's other high priority projects, such as the development of free video card drivers or BIOSes, the acquisition of a game may seem relatively unimportant. However, Brown explains, "That's a mistaken view. There's a lot of gamers in our community, and at the moment they either have to use proprietary software or emulators [to play their games]. We want our community to have the opportunity to use free software in everything that they do."

However, the FSF is not just interested in the Free Ryzom Campaign for its own sake. Instead, the foundation sees its support as part of its long-term strategy. GNU/Linux continues to lack free 3-D drivers for graphic cards, and Brown suggests that Free Ryzom and other games based on it would create a demand for them that would "apply pressure on video card manufacturers." The popularity of such games would also create "a test bed for 3-D drivers," Brown suggests. From these perspectives, the success of the Free Ryzom campaign could become important for free software in general, not just for gamers.

Those interested in supporting the Free Ryzom Campaign can make pledges on the Web site. The campaign will not collect money until the bid is successful.

Bruce Byfield is a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge,, and IT Manager's Journal.


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