In the land of the open source elves: Interview with "Battle for Wesnoth" creator David White

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Thursday, June 1, 2006

A simple tutorial helps new players to become familiar with the basics of 'Battle for Wesnoth.
Screenshot from the user-created campaign "Under the Burning Suns", showing the German language user interface

If you've always wanted to live in a world populated by elves, dwarves and wizards, you don't need to pay for a World of Warcraft subscription or buy the Special Extended DVD Trilogy Edition of The Lord of the Rings just yet. You could instead give Battle for Wesnoth a try — an open source turn-based strategy game in a fantasy setting. For the practically minded, "open-source" means that the code which the game is made of is available to anyone who wishes to use, redistribute or change it. It was created by volunteers and can be freely shared. Even the multiplayer online part of the game is free (no ads or spyware either).

But Wesnoth, as it is often abbreviated, is notable not only because it is free. While its graphics are simple by modern standards, the sheer number of units and scenarios that are available for the game is staggering. This is where the "open source" philosophy comes truly into play: anyone can contribute art or new campaigns. As of May 2006, the forum where users can share and discuss their own art contained over 25,000 messages. Most of this art is made available under the same open source terms as the game itself.

Battle for Wesnoth lets you command armies of units such as archers, swordmen, mages and gryphons during the course of a campaign consisting of multiple missions. Typically, your mission is to defeat an enemy leader, but some scenarios let you liberate a prisoner, find a lost artifact, traverse dangerous territories, and so on. Your best units can be taken from one mission to the next, "levelling up" in the process. Even units of the same type vary in their abilities, making the tactical use of the right unit at the right time very important.

The game is reminiscent of turn-based strategy classics such as Heroes of Might and Magic or Warlords. Throughout each campaign, the player is informed of the progress of the story. For instance, in the "Heir to the Throne" campaign, the player follows the story of Prince Konrad, who must reclaim the throne of Wesnoth from an evil queen.

The game was originally designed by David White, who is still the project's lead developer. We exchanged e-mails with David about the state of open source gaming, the future of Wesnoth, and the collaborative aspects of game development.

David, thanks for taking our questions. Open source games suffer from the problem that very few people have all the abilities needed to make a good game: programming, graphics, story development, sound effects, music, and so on. When you started Battle for Wesnoth, how did you deal with this?

Not very well. :)

Version 0.1 of Wesnoth was developed entirely by me, and it was ugly. It had awful graphics, and no sound or music at all.

I think the best way to deal with the problem is to make an early version of the game which showcases the desired gameplay. Then, people with the appropriate skills who like the game will contribute. This worked out well with Wesnoth, anyhow, as I soon attracted a fine artist, Francisco Munoz, and once the graphics were decent, more people started wanting to help.

I noticed that the forum allows anyone to submit art for the game. How important have contributions from ordinary players been for development?

Well, as with almost any free software project, contributions from users have been very important. In the area of art, this is definitely so, though making a substantial contribution of art generally requires a reasonable amount of skill, so the number of people who can contribute art is somewhat limited.

This has meant that the number of people who contribute art is much smaller than, say, the number of people who contribute bug reports or feature requests. Still, there are plenty of good pixel artists out there, and we have had many good contributions from our community.

Also, within the game itself, it's possible to directly download new campaigns from the Internet, many of which have been created by players. Do you think that, in essence, we are seeing the beginnings of applying "wiki" principles to game development?

On one hand, I see the ability to directly download new campaigns as a mild convenience — it wouldn't be much more difficult for the user to, for instance, go to a web page and download campaigns.

On the other hand, it does blur the line between 'developer created content' and 'user created content' and so, like a Wiki, makes it much easier for any user to contribute to the game.

I think that for an Open Source game, making it as easy as possible for users to contribute content is a key way to help make the game succeed. We have tried hard to do this in Wesnoth. I don't think that with something dynamic like a game, it's quite as easy to make absolutely anyone be able to edit it or contribute as easily as they can in a Wiki, but we have tried to make it as easy as possible.

How do you moderate user-submitted content? Are there scenarios or graphics you have rejected because they crossed a line — sexual content, excessive violence, etc.?

Well, there are basically three levels of content acceptance:

  1. 'Official': content can be accepted into the game itself — the content will reside in our SVN repository, and will be in the tarballs released by developers.
  2. 'Campaign Server': Content can be allowed on the campaign server (the server which users can connect to in-game to download more content).
  3. 'Disallowed': Finally, content can be disallowed on the campaign server, which means that the creator could only distribute it using their own channels (for instance, having a web site people could download it from).

Content only makes it to (1) if the developers happen to like it very much. We don't have any firm rules as to what is allowed and disallowed, and a campaign that has short-comings from the developer's point of view might still be allowed if it is exceptional in other areas. As an example of this, the campaign 'Under the Burning Suns' contained explicit references to religion. To avoid controversy, we wanted to avoid references to religion in Wesnoth. However, recognizing the exceptional quality of the campaign, we decided to accept it into the official version of Wesnoth in spite of this one aspect we didn't like.

Artwork containing nudity has also been a controversial point in the past, as has violence (particularly explicit depiction of blood). We generally take the point of view that we will review each item as it comes, rather than making blanket rules.

With regard to whether we allow things onto the campaign server, (2), our general policy is that to be allowed onto the campaign server, the content need only be licensed under the GPL. However, we reserve the right to remove content that we consider to be distasteful in any way. Fortunately, our content submitters are generally very reasonable, and we haven't had to exercise this right.

Our aim is to keep Wesnoth appropriate for users of any age and background — of course, it contains some level of violence, but this is not depicted very explicitly, and only parents who do not want to expose their children to animated violence of any level need be concerned. For this reason, we also do not allow expletives on our forums or IRC channels.

How do you feel about games like "Second Life", where players trade user-generated content for money?

I've never understood the appeal of games like that. I don't enjoy cheating in games, and to me buying items with real money seems like cheating — except worse, since it actually costs money.

What changes to the game or gameplay do you anticipate in the coming months and years?

Well, we've avoided making many gameplay changes at all, since very early on in Wesnoth's development. Wesnoth is meant to be a simple game, with simple gameplay, and 'changing' gameplay will probably lead to it being more complex. We want to keep it simple.

Changes will probably focus on improving existing features, and making the engine a little more customizable. Enhancing the multiplayer component is big on the list — we've progressively added more and more features on the server. We also want to add more graphical enhancement. For instance, a particle system to allow various combat effects.

If you had unlimited resources at your disposal to improve the game, what would you change about it?

Wesnoth was always designed to be a simple game, with simple goals. It has exceeded all the expectations I originally had for it. There is still some 'polishing' work going on, but really I don't think there is too much I would dramatically change.

Probably the largest thing I can name is a much better AI than we currently have. I'm pretty happy with the AI developed for Wesnoth — I think it's much better than AIs for most commercial games — but it could be better. That's the only area of Wesnoth that I think could really be very dramatically improved.

I am pretty happy with our in-game graphics. Some people compare our graphics to modern commercial games, and think our graphics are laughably poor. We often get comments that our graphics are around the same quality as those seen in SNES or Genesis games, or PC games from a decade ago. (These people should try playing a strategy game on the SNES/Genesis/PC from this long ago; Wesnoth's graphics are much better).

I am very happy with our graphics overall. I think our artists have done an excellent job of making the game look attractive without detracting from functionality. Adding 3D graphics, or changing the style of the 2D graphics would only be wasted effort in my mind — I think we've achieved a great balance of making the game easy and clear, while making it look good.

With unlimited resources, I would like some more storyline/cutscene images, and a nice new title screen, but these are relatively small concerns I think.

There are some enhancements to multiplayer I would like added — multiplayer campaigns is a long-time feature request. As are more options and features on the multiplayer server.

Overall though, if I had 'unlimited resources', I'd much rather develop an entirely new game. We don't have enough good Open Source games — it's a waste to pour all the resources we have into one. :)

Wesnoth has dwarves with guns, World of Warcraft has gnomes and goblins with explosives and flying machines — where do you, personally, define the limits of the fantasy genre? Are there scenarios playing in a steampunk world, or ones with modern technology? Would you allow those?

Actually we have Dwarves with 'Thundersticks' :) — mysterious weapons that make a loud sound and do lots of damage, but are clumsy and unreliable. The developers do not comment on whether or not these 'thundersticks' are or are not like 'guns' on earth. We like to keep Wesnoth slightly mysterious, and leave some things up to the player's interpretation, rather than spell it out.

We once used to have dragoons with pistols, and other weapons like that, but we made a very intentional decision to remove them.

I don't like categorizing things into 'genres'. Many people debate whether Wesnoth is an 'RPG', or 'strategy game', etc. I think the debate of what genre something is in is largely irrelevant.

We do have a vision for what the world of Wesnoth is like though — and Wesnoth is a world of ancient-era weaponry, with a little magic. Of Elves and Dwarves and Orcs. Very much inspired by Tolkien. I actually originally chose this setting because my focus was on technical excellence — writing a good, solid engine — not on creating a new fantasy world. I decided to stick with a very well-known, proven theme, figuring I couldn't go wrong with it.

We probably wouldn't allow anything that departs dramatically from the world we've made into the official version of the game, but we'd be happy to have it on our campaign server. The main attempt at a 'total modification' of Wesnoth is a project known as Spacenoth, which has a sci-fi/futuristic theme.

At this time though, there is no release of this project. I hope they do well though.

How do you feel about turn-based games like "Heroes of Might and Magic" with their massive army-building and resource management? Do you think there's going to be an open source equivalent of this type of game soon?

I haven't played Heroes of Might and Magic very much. The few times I have played it, I thought it was boring to be honest. I don't like the type of game where one marches armies around a 'large map' and then must 'zoom in' to a different 'battle field' every time a battle takes place. I find games like that to take far too long, and tend to become tedious.

I would prefer a civilization or perhaps colonization type game. FreeCiv is nice, though it's close to being a clone of Civilization II. I'd like an original game that had the same sort of theme as civilization, but with new and innovative rules.

Every online game and community is also a social space. Have you met interesting people through Wesnoth whom you would not have met otherwise? Are there other stories you can tell from the community — have there been real world meetups, chat rooms, etc.?

I've come into contact with lots of very interesting people through Wesnoth, and have learned a great deal from them. The Wesnoth developers — many of whom are from Europe — used the LSM conference in France in 2004 as an opportunity to meet each other. Nekeme, an organization dedicated to developing and promotion Free games was kind enough to sponsor two developers to go. Unfortunately, I was not able to attend, but the developers who did had a very nice time.

We have several IRC channels on irc.freenode.net, and the most popular ones — #wesnoth and #wesnoth-dev are usually fairly busy with both discussion about Wesnoth, and friendly discussion of other topics.

Also, the developers have tried to make a habit of playing "co-operative multiplayer" games against the AI. During these games, we use the in-game chat facility to get to know each other better, and discuss improvements to the game.

Are there other open source games that have personally impressed you, or that you enjoy playing?

I'm afraid I haven't played many. I like RPGs, and I know lots of people love NetHack and similar games, but I much prefer party-based and generally more storyline-oriented RPGs.

FreeCiv is pretty well-done, though I am happy to play commercial games, and so I think Civilization 3 and Civilization 4 are both technically superior in virtually every regard. I think that's an inevitable problem when you make an Open Source game a straight clone of a commercial game.

Probably the most promising Open Source game I've seen is GalaxyMage, but it still has a long way to go.

Honestly, I don't play that many games. I like playing commercial RPGs, usually console-based, with my wife, and I occasionally like playing the commercial Civilization series. To play an Open Source game, it'd have to be very good, and appeal to my tastes, and I haven't found any Open Source games like that, sadly.

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