Selling Open-Source Games

When I began programming in 1993 at the age of eight I used GNU software for everything. The GNU philosophy greatly influenced my young mind and I developed a deep appreciation and admiration for the Free Software Foundation and all similar organizations. Their ideals are still dear to me and have never ceased to affect my opinions on software development.

That said, I meet a number of people who believe the ‘free’ in free open-source software (FOSS) extends to price, not simply freedom of use. A lot of them feel that it is against the spirit of FOSS for developers to charge money for their open-source products. As a game developer creating a game based on FOSS I must admit that this attitude is scarily too prevalent.

The Great Value of Free and Open-Source

My company is creating our first major game on top of LÖVE, a wonderful open-source engine for 2D games. It makes heavy use of the Lua programming language, which is also free open-source software. No one has to pay a dime to use LÖVE; the developers charge no money for the engine, choosing instead to accept donations as they mention on the project’s homepage. I am greatly appreciative of their generosity and absolutely intend to donate a certain percentage of our game’s profits to the LÖVE team. They deserve it considering how much time LÖVE saves us, e.g. we can focus more on programming our game instead of code to handle graphics, sound, joystick input, et cetera.

Is it right for us to charge for our game considering how much we rely on FOSS?

I must say ‘yes’.

Making a Living

As a company we must be profitable simply because we need to make a living. We have to be able to buy food and pay rent, on top of a million other things which cost us money. I would love to live in a world where we could create and release our game with no price tag and no worries. But that is simply unrealistic.

As I said before, I have met people who believe FOSS should never cost money. Search for any WordPress plugins that cost many for an example of that attitude. In years past I’ve personally faced the angry opinions of users who felt appalled about having to pay for WordPress plugins I worked on while at Charleston Software Associations (CSA—Previously Cyber Sprocket Labs). WordPress uses the GNU General Public License (GPL) and so because of that, and because WordPress itself is free, these people had the opinion that no plugin should cost money. The GPL says absolutely nothing to prevent developers from being paid for their work, and it was never the goal of the GPL to stop programmers from selling their work.

More importantly: even open-source developers deserve to earn a living.

We are releasing parts of our game as free, open-source tools for other game developers to use. Even though our game will not be free (as in price) we do want to contribute what we can to the FOSS community as a sign of appreciation for the open-source tools we use in our work. This extends beyond our game as well. For example, I have used GNU Emacs as my programming IDE of choice for as long as I’ve been writing code. So when I was making a living off of professional web development, often writing PHP code, I tried to give back to the community by improving Emacs’ PHP Mode in my spare time, something I continue to do even though I no longer make a living from writing PHP software.

How Do We Sell Our Game?

That is a question I think about a lot. If people can easily access the source code then it seems more likely people would distribute pirated copies; however I will admit I have absolutely no data to support that argument, it is only a hunch. We could obfuscate our game to make it more difficult to access the source code but the LÖVE community does not really support that idea.

I worry that if users know our game is built on top of free, open-source software then they will be less inclined to pay money for our product. It comes down to what I believe is a misunderstanding of ‘free’ in the sense of price versus freedom. I have a passion for supporting software freedom, but I also need to be able to keep a roof over my head.

I believe the answer lies in the quality of our game: people will be more likely to purchase a game if they feel it’s a quality product. That puts pressure on us to create a great game. But that was always the goal, and any amount of freedom and open-source in our game will not steer us away from creating the best possible game we can.

I am anxious and hopeful to see how well that thought translates into sales. Fingers crossed….


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