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.
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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.”