['MMOG Nation' is (trying to be) a weekly column by Michael Zenke about current events in the world of Massively Multiplayer Games. This week's column is about the recent announcement of Nevrax's receivership, and the possibility of an open source MMOG.]

RyzomYou may have heard of the game Ryzom before, but it was probably just in passing. Primarily popular in its home nation of France, the unique fantasy game never really caught on in the U.S. or other traditional MMOG markets because it's just ... so French.

People who pay attention to the Massive genre will most likely have heard of Ryzom because of the recent Ryzom Ring expansion. For the first time, developers invited players behind the desk, and gave them the tools to make their own adventures within the context of the game. It was a great idea, and drew a lot of attention.

Apparently, though, that attention was too little too late. The game's developer, Nevrax, is now in receivership, and the future of the game is in doubt. While the press release mentioned 'another company' that could take on the task of running the game, there's a much more intriguing possibility in the works. The Free Ryzom Campaign has undertaken an almost unimaginable task: They're going to try to buy the game and give it to the open source community. Today I'm going to talk a little bit about the project, explore the possibilities of what they're proposing, and ponder what this could mean for the future of Massive gaming.

The FRC

The Free Ryzom Campaign (FRC) is made up of "a group of former Nevrax employees, members of the NeL community, people who enjoy playing Ryzom, people who enjoy playing MMORGs in general and people who advocate the use of 'Free Software'." Their goal, the open-sourcing of a Massively Multiplayer game, is unprecedented within the genre. These games are mind-bendingly expensive to make, and the idea of a community-sponsored title being created with the quality that Ryzom offers is (sadly) laughable. It's not unprecedented in software as a whole, though. The 3D rendering software Blender was taken open-source last year, after a fund-raising drive spearheaded by dedicated community members. The product is now doing quite successfully, with a loyal following and a vibrant community.

And, in theory, the same is possible with Ryzom. If enough money can be raised, the code, the art ... everything associated with the game will become open sourced. That term is a very loaded one, but it's sufficient to say that it means many people will be able to look at the game's code and will be able to contribute ideas and new code to the project. In the short term this would mean that bugs would get greater attention (many hands), game balance would be a more collaborative process, and network code could be considered by more people (ideally, some of whom are experts in the subject). In the long term, this could mean the beginning of a game that is truly dynamic.

With the Ryzom Ring toolset available to everyone, players and interested third parties could create zones and scenarios, which could then be integrated into the actual game by Ryzom's keepers. Given the lack of a financial stake in the game, the game's minders could execute truly game-shaking events, wiping out cities and changing the face of the game; in-game events retail games could never dream of attempting might be your average Saturday night in an open source Ryzom.

Going for Broke

The problem here is that a Massive game is nothing like a stand-alone piece of rendering software. Not only is the price of the project considerably more, but there are number of other elements to take into account as well. Simply looking at the price could be enough to stop people in their tracks. The FRC is hoping to raise 100,000 € ... and I'm going to hazard a guess that that is something like a 'down payment' on the game, and not a final pricetag. Beyond the cost of the software, Massive games require serious hardware to run them. With an open source game there's no true need for a central set of closed servers; the game could be run off of some spare hardware and the gameworld only shared with your close friends. Just the same, it will probably be in the FRC's best interests to keep some standard hardware running, and that can get very expensive very quickly.

The final (and perhaps stickiest) issue is the element of player privacy. The goings-on of your average player may not raise eyebrows, but some people take Massive games very seriously, and use them for many of the same things other folks use the 'real' world for. A retail game's disinterested overseers have only good reasons to ignore most of what goes on in their game, as long as it doesn't effect game balance or harm another player. With an open sourced game run by enthusiasts, what's to stop the internet from seeing logs of your cybersex encounters posted from here to the horizon, with your real name attached?

I am, of course, exaggerating. The open source Ryzom minders will have just as many reasons for ignoring such activities as the retail agents do. Just the same, privacy is just one of the elements to keep in mind when considering this concept. Exploring the realm of an open source virtual world is intriguing, to be sure, and in many ways I feel that it is entirely inevitable. Even if only by virtue of numbers, there are so many projects along the lines of a small-scall Massive game being started and abandoned nowadays, eventually one of them will become highly popular and fulfill the dream of a game that's by the players and for the players. While I'm hopeful for the possibilities I've listed above, it's hard to see that such a state will become the norm for the genre. These titles are phenomenally expensive to develop ... and that's if you want to make a crap game. Making a truly great game takes not only money to develop, but money to maintain, and that's where I see the real problems arising for an open source MMOG.

Every MMOG dies. Not every MMOG truly lives.

Just the same, it's fascinating to think what might be possible in a future with an open source Massive title. The strange and wonderful world of Second Life would be left quickly behind, as players grab the true reins of power in a virtual realm. Pure PvP, with real permadeath, would undoubtedly finally get its day in the sun. Players more interested in peaceful pursuits might be able to adapt concepts from games like A Tale in the Desert and Puzzle Pirates into the beauty of Ryzom's graphics.

Overbearingly large dungeons, long and involved stories, real humor, real tragedy, and (of course) sexual content could be incorporated into traditional fantasy gaming. Even beyond that, 'serious' pursuits would have plenty of uses for an open source project of this nature. The project could be put to use for planning out cities, traffic flow patterns, and architectural innovations. A server software properly implemented with code for physics could serve as a collaborative environment for science students to perform impossible experiments. Perhaps most simply, distance learning would be a simple matter, as students assemble and navigate in a completely intuitive software environment.

The real question, of course, is if they can pull it off. I don't want to pass judgement, and I certainly hope for the best, but the odds would seem to be stacked against them. As always, commercial interests will likely reign, and Nevrax will attempt to salvage as much as they can from the situation. It's intriguing, though, to think of what this concept may mean when paired with a recent ruling by the Librarian of Congress. Among the six new exemptions approved by James H. Billington, the right for gamers to use abandonware is most encouraging. Perhaps, a decade or more from now, fallen titles like Asheron's Call 2 or Earth and Beyond may become exempt under this concept, and players who remember what was will be able to recreate the days of yore on their own personal servers.

By the same token, I'd love to see well-developed but killed-in-the-cradle games released to open source communities by benevolent companies. The one that I'm specifically thinking of is Mythica, the norse fantasy title Microsoft purged when it decided it was no longer interested in MMOGs a few years ago. I'm not planning on holding my breath, but it's a nice thing to think about.

Really, what the possibility of an open source Ryzom represents is freedom. Freedom to try the untried, to tread where commercial games wouldn't want to tread and play in new and different ways. Only time will tell whether the FRC manages to pull this off. Here and now it's great to be able to look off at the horizon and imagine what will be, with the concept of an open source MMOG firing the imagination all the way.

[Michael Zenke is also known as 'Zonk', the current editor of Slashdot Games. He has had the pleasure of writing occasional pieces for sites like Gamasutra and The Escapist. You can read more of Michael's ramblings on Massive games at the MMOG Nation blog. ]