Recently, I've been talking with Trent Gamblin from Nooskewl, developers of old-school Japanese style RPG Monster RPG 2.
In this interview, we discuss Nooskewl's history of releasing games under the "Give it Your Own License, License", the responses they've received from their in-progress crowdfunding campaign to release the Monster RPG 2 source, and touch on the in-development action-RPG Baryon.
First up, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and give us a recap of Nooskewl's history?
I'm 31 years old and I don't wear socks. I'm good at programming but not very good at making music and terrible at making graphics. Nooskewl was the company I wanted to create since high school. I wanted to make RPGs like Final Fantasy or Breath of Fire, but with a modern twist, so the name Nooskewl was meant to mean that (old school with a new school twist). After high school I got involved in other things besides computers for a few years (manual labor, girls, etc.). One day when I was in the hospital I got the urge to start making games again so I looked through some computer magazines and when I got out of the hospital I bought a laptop.
I made a few games for various platforms and then made "Monster" which was the first game I released under the Nooskewl banner. I thought it was great, but other people saw the (many) flaws in it, so I wanted to do better. I then made Monster 2 which again people didn't seem to like because of the poor graphics. I decided one day that I wanted to make Monster 2 into a really good game, just like my vision, because it had a pretty solid foundation. So I teamed up with a couple artists and a music composer and made the iPhone version. That got ported back to PC (and other platforms) and finally I found some people were liking it (though I still get a lot of negative feedback as well). I kept in contact with the people I worked with on Monster RPG 2, and we added a few people to round out the team we have now of about 7 people working on "Baryon" and that's where we stand now.
Nooskewl has a history of releasing source code, not only for games, but also for libraries and tools. Was this something that has always been a priority, or did it happen over time?
Since I began making games I've always sort of gravitated toward open source libraries and communities. I was a Linux zealot since high school and always liked open source software and philosophies. But that didn't stop me from making Monster RPG 2 closed source. I had to pay artists and composers and licensing fees and whatnot, so I needed money from sales to do that. But I still love open source software and ideally I want to see myself open sourcing all of our games, maybe as each new one comes out, the last one gets open sourced.
What have been the biggest surprises (both positive and negative) to come out of the games, libraries and tools that you've released source for?
The biggest positive surprise was that a game I made in high school made it into the Debian repositories somehow, and I didn't find out about it until years later (see: manual labor, girls). It's still there I think (last time I checked) and you can download and play it on Debian or Ubuntu. The game is called Stax. I think an apt-get install stax will do it. :)
The biggest "negative" I found was with a little library I made for polygon triangulation. It worked very well for me but then turned out to have lots of bugs that happened under certain conditions. The only person interested in it then rewrote his own triangulation which turned out to be leaps and bounds better than mine. It's really hard to call it a negative, because he added it to Allegro 5 which is zlib licensed so I now use it in my games.
How do you go about selecting licences, both for source releases and commercial games?
I don't really like GPL for my games, but I'm still not sure what part I don't like. I want to give people liberty to use it any way they want, even in closed source projects (I guess I'm not a FOSS purist). I wrote a license a few months ago called the "Give it Your Own License, License" which sums up to "use under whatever terms you want" and I like that so that's probably what I'll use from now on. As far as commercial games, I believe in a high level of freedom for the user while hoping they respect that the game is part of my livelihood. I must be kind of strange because I created a commercial license as well that basically says you can use any of our commercial games on any computer or device you own, and your family members (kids, wife, brothers and sisters, etc.) can do the same.
What do you feel motivates proprietary developers to release their projects under Free licences?
I think when you work on a game for 2 years or more you become really attached to it. And after a time, you realize your games aren't going to have a future in them if they stay closed source. So opening up games is a good way to renew interest and extend the life of your creations.
What are the biggest hurdles that might prevent developers from Freeing their projects?
If they depend on the income from sales to pay the bills, that makes it very difficult. I'm sure if money were no object there would be a lot more free and open source games than there are now because many people are passionate about making games and love doing it, and are not just in it for the money. They money is just a necessity for them to continue doing what they do.
What impact do you think Free games have on the game development industry, and what impact do you think proprietary games have on the Free Software ecosystem?
I think at this time, indie games are a big thing so most good games are not free because people realize they can sell them. But a lot of innovative stuff comes out as free or open source. So I guess these experimental games, both free and indie, are kind of opening up new unexplored areas of game mechanics and new genres of games.
I think proprietary games and free software can live in harmony. It takes a great amount of effort to create a highly polished and enjoyable game with depth. Unfortunately life doesn't give many people the opportunity to work on games full time without pay. I'm very lucky in this regard as I basically have my necessities covered (shelter, food) (should I get into this deeply? nah, not right now :) so I can ask for $1,500 to pay some of my expenses and make a new game, whereas someone else might need $15,000 or even more. Now I've derailed myself, but my point was that for some reason making games requires money so proprietary games are inevitable, and I don't think they hurt the open source community. That's not to say that free games are no good, because I've certainly played many that could have sold a bundle. :)
Do you invite community contribution to your projects with source releases?
I haven't really invited anyone per-se but I'm certainly open to it. I always thought of it as a given. If Monster RPG 2 becomes open source then I would definitely accept contributions from people if I felt they improved the project.
What kind of response have you garnered so far from the Monster RPG 2 crowdfunding campaign?
It's been unbelievably positive. From the first day people have been retweeting my tweets about it, sharing the links with their friends and donating to the campaign. I half expected to be booed off the internet, but people like you and others on gamingonlinux.com, the Allegro forums which I frequent, random people I don't know and my friends have all shown support for it. You know I can't think of a single instance of anyone having anything negative to say about this campaign to me, and I'm used to taking a lot of criticism for my work so it's been a great experience.
What prompted you to consider crowdfunding to support the source release of Monster RPG 2?
I decided I wanted to stop holding the game back when it could be so much more if it were free and open source. I'm still making money at this time from the game, more than I would make over time from the Indiegogo campaign, but I figure it's not worth it when many thousands more people could be enjoying the game for free. Some of them don't have money for foolish things like games. Open sourcing it adds to that. Also the fact that some people may end up using the engine in their own games is exciting and I want to help them do that. I want the game to be in Linux distro repositories where lots of people can access it for free. Maybe some of them will look at the code and be intrigued. There are lots of reasons.
You've recently chosen to reveal the first pieces of information about your in-development action-RPG Baryon. Is there anything you can share with us about the project?
It's big. In games I design I usually try not to make "Monday" games (I'll be surprised if anyone gets that reference :) I aim for something feasible and within my abilities. But Baryon is being "directed" by two friends of mine who have been partners with me since Monster RPG 2. They're really pushing me hard but I'm not hating it. It's a very ambitious game, but they seem to be up for the work (they're also the game's graphics artists). Just half an hour ago I learned of a new feature which I'll apparently be implementing for boss battles: we'll have skeletal animation/tweening like you see in flash for entities in addition to what we have now.
How far through development do you feel Baryon is?
I think it's still early. I hesitated before calling it an alpha when pitching it on Indiegogo. We have lots of towns you can walk around in in various perspectives, a few enemies to battle (though all of the implemented features of the battle system are not exposed in the demos I make for the team yet), a skeleton menu system with a competent GUI and a solid foundation of code that is probably the most meaty part which will make further development easier. I think it's still under 30,000 lines of code, which is pretty modest. If I had to give a percentage I'd say roughly 50% of the code is ready (minus inevitable tweaking), maybe 20-30% of the graphics and over 50% of the music is done, and we have a few of the planned mini games done too.
What value do you believe there is in cross-platform development?
Everybody has their own choice in operating system or device that they'll use for gaming. Not supporting one or more of the 3 main ones (Linux, Mac OS X and Windows) is silly these days in my mind. They're all very capable so there's no reason not to support any of them. Some people will want to use tools or frameworks that only support a subset of those (and of course now Android and iOS are very popular and sometimes ignored too). I say to the people who make those tools, why are you limiting yourself and your users? If you're writing C or C++ there's not much extra work to do to support another platform, unless you're coding in a very platform specific way. For game developers, if you're using one of the Cs I would not recommend in a million years writing to the bare metal. There are libraries out there that remove 98% of the trouble with making things cross platform. I'm a developer for the Allegro game library so I favour that myself (and it's a great library, everyone should try it </plug>). Also to me overlooking those guys you know who run Linux seems kind of silly.
Where do you see Nooskewl in two years' time?
I can picture us releasing Baryon then, if we can maintain a steady rhythm. I think we'll remain pretty low-key. I hope all of us will still be interested and involved in the game and new games two years from now. I think if Monster RPG 2 is open sourced, we'll gain a whole lot of new fans. I hope to still be working on Monster RPG 2 at that point too, at least keeping it up to date (hopefully both the source code and binary releases can be updated and even improved that far down the road).
Can you describe your environment? What sorts of tools and libraries do you favour and why?
I grew up using C and later moved to C++. C++ is my language of choice for making games. I feel most comfortable with it. Not only that but I know that there are no restrictions on what I can do when I use it. There are also a lot of third party libraries and tools for it, which is why it's so popular for games. I like C++ over C because I like the way it allows me to structure my programs. Someone will probably say "anything you can do in C++ you can do in C", and that's true, but C++ is more convenient for me. Now there are other languages and frameworks that give you even more convenience than C++, but for me C++ is the perfect balance on all levels. It's fast, portable and powerful. I also learned to like Lua a lot. It's a very simple language but the grammar allows very powerful things with just a little bit of code. Not only that, but it's one of the fastest scripting languages and has little memory overhead. So I use C++ along with Lua a lot. As for libraries, every game I've made recently uses Allegro 5. It's portable to iOS, Android, PC, Mac and Linux and I'm very familiar with the code so I can patch any bugs I find myself (I mentioned I'm one of the developers, so those patches always trickle down to users) which makes it extremely convenient to use.
What is your favourite game?
I don't have one so I'll answer another way. The game that's held my attention the most recently was Limbo. I didn't play it when it was first released (though I always thought it looked cool), but I got it in one of the Humble Bundles and couldn't stop coming back to it. I get my kicks out of programming more so than games usually, so it's rare that I'll finish a game, but I finished Limbo. That was the last game I played all the way through. I found the puzzles very inventive and rarely repetitive and I thought it was a great accomplishment to do that with the large number of puzzles they had. The atmosphere was also cool of course.
Now if we do the opposite and say what game first captured my full attention, I'd say it was Dragon Warrior on NES. I say that even though I barely played the game. I used to love watching my brother play, unveiling new secrets and monsters and things. That was the game that got me interested in JRPGs.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
Thanks for your great generosity and for giving me the opportunity to talk about Nooskewl and games and fun stuff like that. :)
Thanks for your time, Trent, and good luck with the Monster RPG 2 source release!
Thanks for reading!
I wanted to get this up and published as quickly as possible, and sadly didn't have time to include any "community questions" as I have in previous interviews. Trent has said he'd be happy to answer anything that comes up, so feel free to throw any further questions at me.
Details of the crowdfunding campaign to release Monster RPG 2's game and engine source, as well as provide developer documentation can be found on Indiegogo.
You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
This interview was first published on the 23nd of October 2012.