Games

Community and Collaboration in 'Battle for Wesnoth'

The one part of gaming that can lay claim to true, untarnished ‘freeness’ is the open-source world, where other incentives besides profit drive creativity.

It’s funny how the word ‘free’ has become almost pejorative when it comes to gaming. Haunting stories of shady tracking and flat-out player manipulation by Freemium game companies and accounts of people obsessively spending inordinate amounts in virtual marketplaces designed to feed off the easily-hooked have done a good job of filling in the picture of how these games twist the meaning of ‘free’ to still fit their monetization strategies.

The one part of gaming that can lay claim to true, untarnished ‘freeness’ is the open-source world, where other incentives besides profit drive creativity. This niche is rarely discussed in mainstream media as many of these games are rudimentary code-sketches, with art and gameplay light-years behind their commercial counterparts. Their relative obscurity hides a game-making model that is completely unique in how it blurs the line between playing a game and developing it, fosters long-lasting communities and does it all without a lick of profit in the crosshairs. While making quality products according to this model might sound utopian, there is at least one game out there that has proved this is possible.

Battle for Wesnoth got its first release in June of 2003, after David White spent two weekends making the turn-based, hex-grid strategy game set in a high-fantasy world with two playable factions: elves and orcs. A few weeks later, a new release went online, packing improved artwork by Francisco Munoz, a Mathematics student from Spain, who became the first of many collaborators that spilled onto the scene shortly after. Since then the game has grown into a polished, complex beast with 16 official single-player campaigns that have been translated into about 50 languages, charming artwork and an abundance of fan-made content.

“I wanted to contribute back to the project as a way to thank the devs for the time and effort they had invested in such a wonderful game, as well as to implement some of the things our community wanted that other devs didn't have the time to work on,” says Ignacio R. Morelle, a long-time contributor from Chile.

As a completely volunteer-run project, the fact that Wesnoth has survived for over 13 years and still boasts an active community of developers is impressive, knowing how much the gaming landscape has changed over that time. Chief among the reasons for such longevity, according to Ignacio, has been Wesnoth’s design principle to “cater to the content creators in our community by making the game engine more moddable”. Tweaking the core Wesnoth code involves working either in Lua or WML (a scripting language developed for Wesnoth) and extensive care has been taken to streamline the process of learning their basics so newcomers can start contributing as soon as possible.

In addition to people hunting for bugs and implementing new code, Wesnoth has needed the expertise of those with other skill sets. Richard Kettering, the current art director for the game has written a lengthy article explaining how the community should talk to artists and make them feel welcome. A very detailed guide on how to critique others’ art submissions also sits at the top of the Wesnoth Art Workshop, which is, in all fairness, a useful read even for those outside of the Wesnoth community who would like to engage any artist in a conversation about their work. Translations to other languages are also done by volunteers and sizeable forums exist for quite a few of the other languages Wesnoth has been translated into. “Since my son knew little English, I tried switching the language to Russian only to find that the translation was far from perfect. I decided to try and change that and so became a translator.” Says Aldarisvet (forum nickname), a contributor from Moscow.


Please don't adblock PopMatters.

We are wholly independent, with no corporate backers.

We can't survive without your support.


A unique problem that isn’t present in other games, but one that Wesnoth has to wrestle with is separating ‘canon’ from ‘fanfiction’ content. Every release of the game carries a bundle of single-player campaigns that are presented as the ‘official’ content of the game, these are called ‘mainline’ campaigns. A slew of others can be downloaded through the game interface, which are called ‘user-made content’ (UMC) campaigns and are somewhat akin to custom maps or mods for commercial games. This is slightly confusing as, of course, all Wesnoth content is user-made and all current mainline campaigns had had their start in that pool of unofficial content.

Aside from the added prestige of having one’s campaign be part of the official Wesnoth roster, mainline campaigns are more visible to newcomers and are therefore more played, but the process of how a UMC campaign can be promoted to that exalted pantheon is somewhat obscure. A discussion had been started on whether the game should discard mainline campaigns altogether, thus prompting players to seek out the user-made ones from the get-go, which usually have more intricate mechanics and show-case the most recent capabilities of the game engine. In the end this idea was discarded as mainline campaigns provide Wesnoth with a sense of identity, a core timeline and feature the most consistent artwork, even if their exclusive nature prompts feelings of unfairness.

An often-mentioned requirement for user-made campaigns to be mainlined is for their creators to guarantee their maintenance in the foreseeable future. This is a test few campaigns pass and reflects a larger problem plaguing Wesnoth: developer attrition. “Many of Wesnoth's developers from back when I joined the team in 2007 (not to mention their predecessors from the early pre-1.0 days) have since left the project, officially or otherwise. When you have an open source software project this old (13 years!) with such a large codebase to maintain and very nebulous goals amidst an ever-changing ecosystem, it's really hard to keep unpaid volunteers around for longer than a single release cycle,” says Ignacio. With modding and the indie scene becoming more and more accessible to amateur game developers, Wesnoth is finding it hard to attract fresh talent.

Zookeeper (forum nickname), a developer from Finland who’s been with the project since 2004, has said “It seems natural that the more polished a game becomes, the more its development becomes about maintenance and careful iteration as opposed to the kind of lively experimentation which people tend to find more exciting.” Ignacio adds, “We've done a call for help in the past and emphasized the importance of player contributions in release announcements (including non-code/non-art tasks like translations or bug reports), but this still isn't enough to attract new faces in an evolving environment where Wesnoth isn't unique or special anymore.” Though development might have peaked about six years ago, the project shows no signs of stopping and there’s hope that its upcoming appearance on Steam will bring a new wave of interest.

Even though Wesnoth is still being actively worked on, David White has since headed subsets of developers who met while making the game to work on other open-source projects in the same spirit of community and collaboration. Frogatto & Friends, a 2D platformer and Argentum Age , a Collectible Card Game (CCG) have both come out of these efforts. More recently David and a few other developers have started working on a new strategy game with the working title ‘Wesnoth 2’ on Anura, a game engine they originally created for Frogatto. “Wesnoth has been a very successful project. It has allowed many people to come together and collaborate on a fun Open Source game. Wesnoth2 is an effort to see if we can do that all over again -- make a fun Open Source strategy game which is driven by a wonderful community. It would use modern technology, opening us up to many new possibilities, be much more flexible, and use some lessons learned from Wesnoth to tweak its approach slightly.” David said in a forum post.

Whether you’ll like Battle for Wesnoth ultimately depends on what you think of strategy games and pixel art, but it certainly deserves a chapter in any book aspiring to chart the history of video games due to its unique success at bringing wildly different people from across the globe to collaborate purely for the fun of it. According to Ignacio, “if someone can get things done and coordinate and keep close contact with the rest of the team, we'll happily accept them on board, no matter their age, gender, nationality, or line of work.”


To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less
10

This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow shines on her impressive interpretation of Fontella Bass' classic track "Rescue Me".

Canadian soul singer Elise LeGrow pays tribute to the classic Chicago label Chess Records on her new album Playing Chess, which was produced by Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini, and the legendary Betty Wright. Unlike many covers records, LeGrow and her team of musicians aimed to make new artistic statements with these songs as they stripped down the arrangements to feature leaner and modern interpretations. The clean and unfussy sound allows LeGrow's superb voice to have more room to roam. Meanwhile, these classic tunes take on new life when shown through LeGrow's lens.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image