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Making Money As An Open Source Game Developer? 63

Fastball asks: "I have a couple ideas for some web-based games that I'd like to develop. I'm an avid Linux, Perl, Apache, and MySQL user, and I believe in the GPL. However, I'm trying to figure out how I can develop these games as open source and still make a buck. It would be rewarding to produce them without seeing a profit, but I'd like to make enough money to get a company going and quit my current, uninspiring job. Can I get there via open source, would I be more profitable going closed source, or should I forget about make money altogether?"
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Making Money As An Open Source Game Developer?

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  • Hint. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Triskaidekaphobia ( 580254 ) on Monday June 03, 2002 @07:05PM (#3634888)
    Give the game away. Sell the hint/walkthrough book.
    • Re:Hint. (Score:2, Funny)

      by Fantanicity ( 583135 )
      This model works really well when one of the puzzles in the game is to decrypt an email encrypted with a 1024-bit PGP key.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    Do your engine development in private, make sure you make it easily extendable and robust then when you're done sell the game. Make sure the Data (the content of the game) is protected legally from pirating but give away the engine once you're done.

    Essentially do the same thing as id software does, but just release the source a lot sooner (at release time)
  • Can I get there via open source, would I be more profitable going closed source, or should I forget about make money altogether?

    Forget about making money altogether. Unless you're Microsoft, it's near impossible to make money selling consumer software.

    If there's some way you can tie your software to a service, maybe internet gaming, then you can probably make money, and it really doesn't matter if you're open or closed source. Actually open source is probably better. I suggest you use the QingPL [].

  • If the game is a multiplayer type game, you can charge customers to use a multiplayer online service, but otherwise play the game for free.
    Or you could have an online game that's free but extra levels and add-ons would be available for subscribers.
  • by Anomolous Cow Herd ( 457746 ) on Monday June 03, 2002 @07:24PM (#3635013) Journal
    I want to be paid millions of dollars a year for having sex with many beautiful women.

    Is there any way I could do this? I currently work the fryer at McDonalds and I'm looking to move into a more profitable venture.

    • I want to be paid millions of dollars a year for having sex with many beautiful women.

      First you get the code, then you get the money, then you get the power, THEN you get the chicks.
    • I want to be paid millions of dollars a year for having sex with many beautiful women. Is there any way I could do this?

      Sorry, U.S. President only pays $200,000, and promiscuous sex was made illegal in 1998.

      • Thu US President's salary is now 400000 starting with Bush. The difference is just enough to keep the entire secret service and the wife quiet.
      • I want to be paid millions of dollars a year for having sex with many beautiful women. Is there any way I could do this?

        Sorry, U.S. President only pays $200,000, and promiscuous sex was made illegal in 1998.

        Are you saying that Monica Lewinsky, Paula Jones, Hilary Clinton, et al counts as beautiful women? That is just plain wrong, and quite frankly a little disturbing.

    • If only we could all be pornstars ;)
  • What about GPLing the engine and charging for the rest of the game? You could be giving back to the community and you'd still have a way to support yourself as long as your game content is worth paying for.
  • 1) Donations
    2) Subscribers
    3) Ads

    Bonus stuff (like turns or resources) to whoever sponsor your website in any of these ways are always cool too, imho.
  • The short answer (Score:3, Interesting)

    by billcopc ( 196330 ) <> on Monday June 03, 2002 @07:52PM (#3635149) Homepage
    Don't even bother. If you want to _start_ in game development, do it for fun. It's not something you can pick up from a 21-day book and sell your skills immediately. Making a game takes TIME, as you'll be doing graphics, audio and pure design work, which are each much more demanding than the code itself.

    This isn't to say you can't capitalize on a novel idea, but those are hard to come by and most likely you'll get over-excited about your own project and release pure crap. Yes it happens to every one of us; you fall in love with your pet project so damned much that you fail to see how ugly and unfinished it really is. Then you expect everyone to wet their boxers the instant they witness your creation, and then you fall in a deep depression and start doing heroin when it's 2 years later and you haven't seen a dime from it.

    Like anything in computers, if you want to do it right, do it for the hell of it. People who jump in "for the money" usually don't get very far, just think of all your former co-workers who had lame CS degrees from "ICS Remote learning" and you'll quickly remember the difference between a 'hacker' and a 'consultant'. Now which generalized term would you attibute to a game developer ? Ah-ha!
    • Let me digress: I am a "writer" and that is exactly the way I feel a lot of times; you put all this effort into a project, but you blind yourself to its errors, so you end up getting shot in the foot and binge drinking Vanilla Coke. To the guy who wants to open-source: Do it because you love it, dreams of making money aren't dreams at all, but passionate fiscal-gluttony. If you want to do something, make a good product for yourself, then see if it's worth selling.
      • by billcopc ( 196330 )
        Amen to that! Make a game YOU love to play, not what you think the rest of the world will like.

        Proof: I write stupid puzzle action games, like Tetris/Columns/whatever. I like these simple nerve fryers and I've probably played them all, so when I code my own game, I know the pros and cons of each title and thus have an idea what it's like from the player's perspective, so I can tweak the gameplay intelligently. Ask your typical consultant to write a Tetris clone, he'll make a flashy noisy thing, but it'll be the blandest, most un-fun game you've ever played (besides Daikatana). Why ? Because he has no idea what games 'feel' like. To be a writer, you have to love books. To be a musician, you have to love music. To be a game developer, you have to love games. True game programming is art.
        • I completely agree. If you had a dollar for every game that had flashy graphics but lame game mechanics and gameplay then you wouldn't need to worry about money. I'm always amazed at the crappy games that get made. You just have to ask - does ANYONE in the entire design team play games!? A good example would be the lamest excuse for an RPG Vampire: The Redemption by Nihilistic. That couldn't have been farther from roleplaying if they tried. Obviously there were no gamers on that team. Maybe that's what happens when people think Magic the Gathering is roleplaying ;-)
          • People don't know role playing from fantasy. Fantasy is present in all the games you mentioned, but only Vampire is an actual RPG (the paper game, that is).

            People see wizards and longswords and think "Hey this must be an RPG". Heck, some would say that Maximo (Ghosts and Goblins) is an RPG because it is in a medieval fantasy setting.
    • Like anything in computers, if you want to do it right, do it for the hell of it.

      This is exactly correct. And this may well benefit you more than any plan to make money.

      The release of open-source software lets people see for themselves if you are any good. Having working (and ideally popular) code available on the internet looks good on a resume. Companies like absolute value systems have turned their open source project into a sucessful consulting business. I think both RMS and Linus have done pretty well for themselves by giving it away. There are quite a few sucess stories like these out there.

      In any event, do it because you want to do it, because you enjoy doing it. You may find out along the way that you suck, you may find out that you don't enjoy coding once it's down to the details. Then again, you may find that you are good at it and enjoy it. In any event, you'll learn something about yourself, and it will be less stressful if you aren't putting pressure on yourself by making it a "job".

      But don't go into it as a plan to quit your day job. Do it because you enjoy doing it- everything else is, in the longrun, a moot point.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    Dude, I think that until you dive in, it's just hard to tell. The ads/donations/membership suggested by other people is just barely survival wages, if that. I think the best thing to do is just dive in and start doing it. You may discover or build some way of making tons of cash, but most likely, your personal skills will become unquestioned to anyone in the business and you will be able to get a sweet job or charge huge consulting rates.

    If you love this idea so much you are going to do it no matter what, it will probably turn out ok.
  • by Verloc ( 119412 )
    You could have the love and support of thousands of people (well, "virtual people"), but if you want to GPL a game but at the same time raise money so you can keep yourself afloat, you might have a hard time convincing the "money guys" to give you anything:

    "Ok, so let me get this straight... You want to get paid to make a game, but give it away and let everybody see exactly how you did it? Waiter? Check please."
  • by metacosm ( 45796 ) on Monday June 03, 2002 @08:09PM (#3635254)
    My answer to your question is: "you are going about it all wrong" -- if you really want to be a game developer, here are some facts and tips
    • Facts
    • When looking to break into an existing industry with a new company, you should not even bother trying until you have worked for at least one of the players in that market.
    • Game coders are known for being very smart, very hard working, and very underpaid. This is a simple market reality because:
      • Many developers want to be game programmers
      • Most games are flops and never make back the money they put into development
    • Tips
    • Start getting in on public betas and tests of games you like
    • Be a very active participant in the discussions and bug reporting
    • Make yourself personally accessable to the game developers
    Someday, if you are lucky, you might get a shot at being an actual game coder, and if you are really lucky, that game might be a success! (A friend of mine slid into a development position at DAOC, but she had 10+ years experience coding, was a early tester of DAOC, lived in the area, and made herself extremely involved in testing and feedback, and had to take a massive pay cut to join the team).

    After you get this successful game under your belt, and you have a clue how the industry, the work enviroment, and the distribution work, then you can rethink this entire concept of an "open-source game" -- and if you decide todo it at that point, at least you will have a god-damn clue .

    I do not intend to be harsh or mean, but the game market is really brutal, and from what I have heard, really fun to be involved in, so I wish you the best of luck. Perhaps you could use an individually completed open-source game as a resume point.
  • Me and my roommate have been writing a game - we're about halfway done. We're running into the same questions. Open source would be nice, but making money would be good too (breaking even on hosting/bandwidth fees would be a step in the right direction).

    Currently our plan is to charge $5 for an account on our multiplayer servers. This has two advantages: 1) We get some money. 2) People are less likely to make a billion accounts to abuse the rating/scoring system. Also that means that we can give the client away for free, open source or not. But it's totally one of those things where... there's not way to predict how well it will work until you try it.
  • post the ideas... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by edrugtrader ( 442064 )
    if you only have a few (can count them on your fingers) ideas for games, don't even bother.

    1 in 10 will actually get done, 1 in 100 of those will be enjoyable for more then 2 minutes, 1 in 100 of those a consumer will be willing to pay for.

    just keep your job, life sucks.
  • And never release a windows version. Maybe a MacOS port later, but definitely give us something that winslaves can't touch.

    Give me at the very least good screenshots/synopsis, and maybe a crippled version. And don't forget to give me your paypal ID. If I like it, I'll certainly pay more than you could get for 10 copies worth of royalties... and I'll encourage my friends to buy it too.
    • Yeah, that's right. If you want to make money writing software, purposely ignore 90% of the market. That'll teach 'em.

      • Yeh, ignore the saturated market that he has no chance at, whatsoever.

        Of course, that means he has to not be just another asshole millionaaire wannabe, but since he has no chance at that anyway, he might as well make some comfortable money catering to a market that everyone refuses to cater to. It's the equivalent of me telling him to stop trying to become a famous rock star, and start getting gigs ata local night clubs for $250 a night.

        Of course, the MBA's say differently, so I *must* be wrong.

        • Well, for one, you're comparing apples and oranges and you seem to have missed my point.

          If I were going to write a game for Linux, I would try to use libraries and tools (like SDL, f'rinstance) that would allow me to port my game to Windows should it gain some modicum of success. If you are trying to make money... and recall that's what the article was about, you need to have the broadest comsumer base to draw from.

          In music you have to start at the local gigs at the bars and night clubs. In software, you can go to the bars and also get a spot in the (admittedly overbooked) arena as well for relatively little additional effort. If you are in it to make money, you're a fool not to.

          Recall, most people said you should do it for fun, not profit (and I agree), assuming that a really cool game has potential to become profitable anyway (although many of my all-time favorites like Nethack, Omega, Battleforce (turned-based mech battles on the Amiga), never did and could never make much money if any.

          Also recall that in the Windows market, anyone who can crank out "Hello, World" in VB wants to sell it as shareware, so yes, the "market" is saturated with lots of trivial and/or useless code compared with Linux, but on the other hand, the cream will rise to the top.

          Best-case scenario, you sell your soul^H^H^H^Hgame to Satan^H^H^H^H^HMicrosoft, and retire.

          • See, this is the type of thinking that fools following formulaic recipes cook up.

            If you port it to windows, you might as well not bother with linux... too much effort for the few linux zealots, not cost effective. So you become one of the 10 million (exageration for effect) windows games developers... in other words, one of the crummy little garage bands trying to hit it big and be MTV rock stars.

            Which is fine, if you think you can do it.

            But realistically, what are your chances? And guess what? In the meantime, you blew your chance to grab a loyal audience that is just waiting to someone to rescue them. You reinforce the system that ensures there will only ever be a few "rock stars" and a bunch of losers. And you just wasted all your effort and goals on a pipe dream, where you could have been earning a small but steady revenue.

            So, in the end, this guy should do whatever he wants. But if I were him, I'd code the best killer game I could, and promise to never let it see the light of day on anything but alternative OSs... you might never be millionaire rich, but you'll probably never go hungry. Think about it. People, that if they want a game, they have to bite the bullet and dual boot windows... this is a market to be exploited. And if you can do it without taking advantage of them, you'd have it to yourself for years.
  • If you open source the engine(not GPL; maybe LGPL) and make the data files for the game propreietery[sp]. Its probably the best way to make money off of your game. Better yet, make the engine open, and the data structure ultra-modular. This way you could keep 90% of your game intact when/if you release an expansion, while allowing people to mod it like Half-Life and Quake III.
  • Create your own license, which states that the sources are available but binaries built on this source cannot be distributed without a significant improvement. Then define "significant improvement" (which is the real tough part).

    If done well enough, I'm sure it could end up mighty popular

  • I thinking about similar questions a few years ago, and I can tell you what I came up with:

    Write a series of small games, paying attention to details like story and plot development. End each game with a cliff-hanger, or at least an opportunity to continue the story.

    Give each game away for free, and see which (if any) of them become popular. Create a sequel to the most popular game(s), and charge a small fee for it (something like $5). If the sequel does well, consider making more sequels in the series.

    If you build your project like this, you won't be spending all of your time building a large game that doesn't end up going anywhere. Small games are also easier for a single person to create in their spare time (so you won't have to quit your job and take a chance on your project).

    All that being said, you might want to investigate already-existing projects. You might find a lot of GPL'd code you can use for your own games, and you may be able to learn from other's mistakes before you get too involved.

    Disclaimer: I've written my own Open Source create-your-own-game software [].


  • by mnmn ( 145599 ) on Tuesday June 04, 2002 @01:20AM (#3636531) Homepage
    I am the owner of the firm Techyon ( and my friends and I have been trying to start coding games and make a living off it. The project ( is an FPS game that is completely opensource but its protocols disallows cheating no matter how you alter the code.
    Our plan is to give out the engines and subsequent patches to that point release all opensource, and sell the online gaming serial numbers just like halflife, along with the artwork. We will also release the artwork for free 2 years after its release, so there. And by the way we're making sure it compiles and uses opengl on Win32, linux, freebsd, beos and macosx and more if we could lay our hands on it.
    The bottom line is you havet to sell something. Something without which the player wouldnt enjoy the game completely and something he would crave, and it shouldnt be just copied online like a serial number. Also dont forget to release it for windows if you plan to actually make a living off it. The reason I'm telling you this is because we believe in opensource and want centre of gravity of the gaming world to shift to *nix. It would be great to see coders of more than one game genere entering this scene and cooperating to create larger composite multi-genere games, and gamers creating and releasing mods for each of them.

    I wish you luck with the project.
    Ghazan Haider
    • First, make the games. You'll probably find out it's a lot more work than it seems.
    • Then, try to convince people to play your games. In order to do that, you'll probably have to make them free to play (because you'll be competing with lots of other game sites, like mine [] that offer games for free).
    • Once you have a rabid following (!), then you can try to solve the problem that everyone else has on the internet: how to turn a popular site into a cash cow without alienating your audience.
    • I don't think Open Source or not will enter into it. What you need is users, not intellectual property.

    Good luck! Personally, I suggest just doing it for fun.

  • And work from there. It doesn't nessesarily have to be game related, RPGdev [] will be using XPCOM [] and other Moz tech. That is, when I can get back to dealing with RPGdev.

    Making money is all a matter of licenses -- if you create the engine as MPL'd software, then you can later on use the engine in a closed-source game for the shelves.
  • Repeat (Score:4, Funny)

    by 4of12 ( 97621 ) on Tuesday June 04, 2002 @08:48AM (#3637436) Homepage Journal

    Over the past few years I've cut n saved some of the Slashdot signatures. One, in particular, applies to this situation. I don't recall the specific Slashdot poster whose signature said:

    Enjoy your job, make lots of money, work within the law. Choose any two.
    and I don't know who said first, either.

  • but copyright everything. Give away the series and sell the stuffed animals.

    Damn, you couldn't imagine how much I spent on Blues Clue's, Arthur and muppets stuff!

    And if you could sell them to Micky D. or B.King you would be styling.
  • by mustangdavis ( 583344 ) on Tuesday June 04, 2002 @11:55AM (#3638481) Homepage Journal
    I have been running several free online (Space, WWII, etc) games for the past three years. You can take a look at them at

    Let me give you a little advice concerning game programming and making money.

    1. First, be prepared to work MANY long hours for very little thanks from your players. You will find a hand full of people that really appreciate what you are doing, but most will just complain although you are providing a free service for them.

    2. We have had very little success with getting people to pay-to-play. Our games generate all of their revenue through banner advertsing. At one point, this was a very profitable market (2+ years ago), but now has become about 1/10th of what it used to be. I wouldn't plan on quitting your job to do this, but instead, do it for the experience and for fun.

    3. Have your game WELL planned out before you begin coding it. After you release an alpha or beta, pay close attention to what the players say. Take their advice!!!! They'll appreciate it.

    4. Be sure to not only provide a game that is challenging, but also visually appealing as well. This market is very competitive now, so you'll need every advantage you can get to generate those precious banner views.

    5. After you establish a solid user base, you can ask for donations. I have several players that have donated $500+, and many are willing to donate $25 or so, but be sure to publically recognize those that do donate. Also, take the banners off of the games of those that donate. It will help keep donations up, keep profits up, and prevent those that don't donate from complaining about the banners :)

    If you (or anyone else) is still seriously interested in making a game and need a company to hos the game and provide advertising (getting accepted into banner ad companies these days is rough), send an email to and I will try to help you out. Basically, we're trying to encourage people to make free games on the web, and we're doing our best to encourage it. At a minimum, you will break even with us. If you're game becomes a huge success, you'll make some money off of it.

    My best advice, do this with a couple other people! This is a bigger project than you may think it is, and you'll need all the help you can get. I'll atleast try to provide hosting, ads, and systems admin support if you have a good game.
  • The basic strategy I would see for open source game development would be to keep the data proprietary, similar to the current situation with Doom and the first two Quakes (and I think some others).

    This is based on the idea that game engines resemble each others to some degree and that the differentiating factor will be the maps/levels/artwork/scripting and so on. You can thus get improvement done on the engine contributed back to you, and others can make their own original games with your engine, but nobody is playing your exact game for free.

    This strategy, of course, supposes that there is some significant amount of non-code data involved. If this is a puzzle game whose's only non-engine resources are backdrop images, this strategy is not effective.

    Remember to mark down contributions from the outside somehow, because you might want to relicense the engine under a non-open license (or maybe just change the license to another open source one), and you'll have to ask permission from the copyright owners of these patches (remember what is happening to Mozilla []!). Having them assign copyright to you, having a "clean" codebase branch or keeping contact information are three possible approaches.

    Also, if you have some truly innovative technology in the engine that you think nobody else has, it might make sense to hold off the release a bit, so that you can build a market lead on that technology, then as competitors come up with equivalent technology, you can then release the source code.

    See Software Secrets: Do They Help or Hurt? [].

  • Ok, so I saw a couple people go over this, but, here is the crux of the matter with open source game development; Content Vs Code.

    I too have been thinking a great deal about this, and here's the scheme I've thought of that would be both open source, and able to make money. In a nutshell, as someone else already suggested, release the engine, and keep the content under copyright. Now, here's the catch. Where do you draw the line with what's content, and what's code? Most would say, if it looks like code, it is, but I say that, if it's pure game logic, that's content. Lets say, for example, that, as most games with extensive in game AI or physics logic code do, you build a scripting engine into your game to drive the tweakable details. This is how a good number of game engines work, the Unreal engine being a good example. If you wish to open source your game, I'd say, open source the engine, and keep the game logic under the same 'pay for distrobution' licence as your content. Most likely best to provide it under a 'viewable source' licence, at least for the more basic/example logic, to encourage mods (good for any game), but aside from that, that type of code has more to do with your game design, the part you are trying to sell, than it does with the nuts and bolts part that everyone would benefit from having to use, like networking or graphics code.

    Anyway, just my $0.02 ;p

  • You are talking about making "web games," so I'm assuming you are going to make a suite of games, not just one. My approach I was going to use, was to release a suite of games for free under the GPL. Then use a updater program that would automatically update the games when new versions (bug fixes) come out. Then, I was going to charge for "exclusive rights" to certain games. It would be written in that the money would also support the creation of another GPLed game. I know this means that it's not ALL GPL, but it's a way to do it. Perhaps you could say that the "exclusive rights" would only be for a year, then the program goes GPL.
  • Advertising (Score:2, Interesting)

    by bmalia ( 583394 )
    You should put some commercials in your game.. After each level is complete -> "And now we pause for a message from our sponser..."
  • by qurob ( 543434 )

    Make Money?

    Open Source?

    Game Development?

  • To make money, you might want to make your game engine open source, but sell your expertise as an a consultant making particular games for clients. For example, the Military is getting more interested in using modern game systems for training and weapons development. Corporations may also be interested in training simulations, or in games for promotional purposes.
  • I would make the game engine code GPL, but all the art work, levels, designs, textures; private.

    So people can use your code to make their own game, and also you get the communities support, eg find/fix bugs.

    and you also keep what make you game unique to your self to make money.
  • The games I had in mind are strictly web-based. Very little graphics and no 3D graphics whatsoever. I don't have the requisite talent and math smarts to make a 3D game, and I think the 3D industry is represented well enough.

    I aim to produce a couple or more "one more turn" style strategy games played in-browser. I have two ideas in mind, one centering around baseball; the other, politics.

    First, I have a database of all major league players, managers, teams, ballparks, etc. that I found at []. From this, I believe I can put together several types of fantasy baseball games involving historical leagues, all-time leagues, salary cap leagues, tournaments, etc.

    Lots of variations of one game, baseball. A game-play engine can probably evolve in open source, and the rest of the implementation can be behind the scenes. There's a wealth of fantasy baseball games out there, but I think baseball enthusiasts always enjoy new opportunities to try their luck. Second, I'd like to put together a fantasy U.S. Congress. Users would try to build a political career by selecting a branch of government they want to serve in and they set out to earn as much political capital as they can by casting votes for legislation that passes, having posts related to debates modded up, or even selling out to special interests and lobbyists. Users could even trade political capital for votes or vice versa as is the game in Washington, right? This has some value I think as a tool for educators and civics teachers in addition to all of us arm-chair pols. I'm excited by the potential this idea has.

    From what I gather, money needs to be a byproduct of the labour of love. And I agree. I just don't want to piss away an opportunity to do something like this for a living (even a meek one) if such an opportunity exists. But first, I need to get something working.

    As I said, these will be web-based, in-browser, strategy games. I imagine there will be some use of Java, Perl (mod_perl), SQL database backends. I'm more worried about finding graphic design talent than anything. I can draw shapes in the Gimp, but I doubt that'd get me anywhere.

    I have a web site named [] that I'm going to host these games and their project development on. I'll register the projects with Sourceforge and see what happens. Thanks to everyone for responding.

Perfection is acheived only on the point of collapse. - C. N. Parkinson