MMORPGs, or Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games, are fairly popular in the proprietary gaming world. Rather than playing a game all by yourself on a computer in your own dark room, you could be playing a game all by yourself on a computer in your own dark room---but against thousands of other people who play the same game on-line along with, or against, your character in the game, adding an intriguing social edge to the genre. Unfortunately, no such game currently exists in the free software world. Not yet, anyway.
In 2000, a French company called Nevrax set out to develop a MMORPG game, called Ryzom. Part of their toolkit, known as NeL, for Nevrax Library, is already available under the GPL. The company, however, has a dual-license policy which allows third-party proprietary developers to develop proprietary software based upon NeL (similar to how MySQL operates); and the Ryzom game itself is not free.
For a while, all went well. The game is rather popular amongst fans of the genre, as evidenced by the fact that it won the Reader's Choice for "Best Story" on the MMORPG.com website. One of the features is an editor that allows fans to easily develop their own little stories in the game, and have other players play them. An innovative idea, indeed.
But unfortunately for Nevrax, business is hard, and not even a successful product is a guarantee for a successful business. Today, Nevrax is filing for bankruptcy, and the product is up for sale. And this is where it gets interesting for free software advocates and enthusiasts.
A group of Nevrax employees has started the Free Ryzom campaign, which aims to buy the company's intellectual property. To do so, and to get the agreement from liquidators in charge of the bankruptcy proceedings, they need to raise €200.000, which is approximately US$260.000.
While this may sound like an awful lot of money, it really is not too unrealistic a number. Ryzom has a loyal fanbase, many of whom are glad to spend a little money if that means preserving the game they love. There are many free software enthusiasts out there who would be just as glad to spend a bit of money if that means a great piece of software will become free because of that. And it is not exactly without precedent, either; in 2002, Blender, a powerful and popular 3D editing and rendering engine, was made free software through a similar procedure in only seven weeks. And if that wasn't enough, as of this writing the Free Ryzom campaign has received pledges totalling €153.615, or more than 75% of the required amount of money, in part due to a US$60.000 pledge made by the Free Software Foundation.
Does it look as if the campaign will succeed in raising the required amount of money? Given the above numbers, I'd say yes. Unfortunately, raising €200.000 alone is not enough; the final decision will involve a number of other factors. Because this is a liquidation, there may be other bids for the company's assets, which may or may not be higher than the bid by the Free Ryzom campaign. The money has to be raised in time, before the end of the bankruptcy proceedings. If you would be willing to help this campaign by donating a bit of money, then doing so now would be best, as opposed to waiting a few weeks. Also, because of the uncertainty that is a normal part of the bankruptcy proceedings currently going on, and to avoid having to spend a whole lot of time and money trying to pay everyone back should the offer eventually not be accepted, you don't have to actually pay yet at this time; you only pledge to do so.
If you think free software has any actual meaning in this world, and you think that it's worth paying some money for, now would be a great time. Whether you play computer games, MMORPG or not, doesn't really matter; repeating the Blender success story would not only get us a free software MMORPG, it would also reaffirm to the business world that the free software movement is a force to be reckoned with. Not to mention the warm and fuzzy feeling you will get in your stomach that comes with doing a good deed.
And the rest? Well, I guess we'll see that in a few weeks...
Disclaimer: the author is in no way connected to the "Free Ryzom" campaign, except that he also did his part and pledged a bit of personal money.