Game consoles that respect your freedom

Arduboy is the only one of the so called “open source” handheld game consoles that actually respects the users’ freedom to inspect, modify, and redistribute the included source code. Good job! The fact there are so many libre games available just puts the icing on the cake. I’m definitely picking one up, and I’m extremely sad I missed the Arduventure limited edition console.

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Technically some games are closed source.

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Interesting article, it contains a bunch of devices I hand’t heard of, yet. You might have missed the Gamebuino and Tiny Arcade.

And I think the Raspberry Pi (mentioned in the GameShell section) may have opened the binary blobs (not sure if it opened all of them).

Criticism towards the PocketSprite may have been a bit heavy-handed: the device wasn’t released yet. “it must be non-free because it’s nowhere to be found” is not a reasonable assumption at this point. I’d guess it doesn’t have any proprietary blobs since it’s based on a microcontroller (ESP32).

Also, I can’t see listing commercial games in a repo as a disrespect of a user’s freedom. If the GCW’s/Pandora’s repo gives you the option, you are free to ignore it and play something else.


With that out of the way, to me this is the elephant in the room: Should games (and game consoles) be open source at all?
Open stuff is good because of these features:

  • Going through its code is educational
  • You can verify if it respects your privacy
  • You can alter it

For some things, there is not much benefit in being open source. Do you have the CAD files to the chair you’re sitting on? Should everyone have access to that, and would it benefit sitters everywhere?

Unfortunately I do not have a link, but I’ve read an article that said a large portion of gamers lose interest in a game once a cheat/hack is used. In some cases, simply knowing of the existence of a cheat is enough for people lose interest in a game. For these people, being able to alter the game’s code is not a desirable feature. Game design is about providing a sandbox with rules and restrictions. Unlike other software, the restrictions in games are there for the user’s benefit.

Its often pointed out that having zero cost is not a feature of opensource. Open source has a price and somebody pays for it. Unlike Linux, which makes money through support services, games are products and make money from sales. Either you sell the game itself or things within the game.

Having a game’s source available on the internet is generally incompatible with game design and product sales. I say “generally” because there are examples of companies that partially get around the issue by releasing games as closed-source and opening only after the sales have dropped. This takes care of the “it’s educational” and “you can alter it” features of opensource pretty well, but prevents the publisher/studio from making more money in the future with re-releases or sales.

What about privacy? If games are released as closed source to open only later, how do we know the closed source release is safe? Software can violate privacy by leaking information you give it (a mail app has access to all your mail) or information it mines from your computer (say, a keylogger). We generally don’t give games much/private information. On a game console (especially pre-internet consoles), there isn’t much to mine from the computer (except if your device has a camera, I guess). It is therefore understandable if people do not value the “verify your privacy” feature in games much.

This might sound like I’m in favor of keeping games closed source, but I’m not. I’d really like if they could all be open so we could port them to whatever system we have instead of watching them die due to hardware obsolescence (much like DOOM has been ported to everything, though emulation provides an alternative). The problem is there are good arguments in favor of keeping games closed. How do we get around them?

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What if some of the games are abandoned by their authors and we can’t ever have their license? can a repo that contains them be ever fully “respecting your freedom”?

Or even damage your hardware. For example, on the Arduboy, a sketch could write continuously to EEPROM and burn it out in a short time. This is why I won’t upload a sketch unless I can examine and build from source.

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Fair, I updated my post to reflect that.

I think your arguments in favor of libre games are better than your example arguments against them. The issue is that most people don’t know this, and even the ones who do still buy proprietary games out of complacency. Instead of making arguments to game developers maybe we should make arguments to regular people about why they should stop buying, playing, and supporting proprietary software. Remember when Street Fighter V shipped with malware on the PC? Not to mention, if you own an electronic device, you should have the ability to control and change every aspect of it. If you don’t, the very idea of ownership itself is threatened.

70 years after the author’s death (in the United States, at least) unless we do something about tyrannical copyright provisions before then. I could compromise on a few years (2-8?) after the work is first released, but 70 years after death is ridiculous. That means you’ll never get to remix creations from your childhood in your lifetime. It’s basically Orwellian thought control.

The argument holds for general software, but there isn’t a viable business model for open source games. No point in telling people to get games elsewhere, there is no elsewhere other than games made as a hobby.

As a parallel: Here in Brazil child-targeted advertising was banned on TV. Cartoons and kids’ shows, without funding from ads, disappeared as a consequence. If people stop paying for proprietary games, they won’t magically come out of elsewhere: the industry will simply die.

For small indies Itch.io is a thing, but donations are not going to pay for the next GTA.

The malware was detected and removed even though it’s closed software… so one could argue open source is not necessary. You could also argue that DRM-free games are good enough.

I think this argument makes sense for firmware or operating systems… but I’m not sure it applies to games.

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Hacking and homebrew scenes add a nice bit of spice that’s often missed with open sourced stuff.

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I agree that looking at the developer side is important. There has to be a viable business models for game developers or games will remain in hobby territory which will reduce what is achievable. Games take a lot of time to create, developers have to eat, and pay for a place to live, support a family. If they’re going to work on a game full time they need money, that money has to come from somewhere. Releasing everything for free means, fitting development into the cracks of remaining energy from a full time job that IS paying the bills.

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This sounds like an issue with capitalism to me. I mean, most of us are doing what we actually want between shifts of some mundane, alienating, unfulfilling job. I don’t pity a developer who makes games between their office hours any more than a factory worker who writes poems off the clock.

Proprietary software (games included) is an affront to freedom and democracy. Just because an industry exists doesn’t mean consumers are responsible for maintaining it, and no one would seriously make that argument about, say, cigarette companies. Our society is better off without proprietary software, let’s just get rid of it once and for all.

I have a long comment I’d like to post, but I’m not sure if I should because this is getting political and off-topic.

The TL;DR version is: open source and closed source can co-exist, just vote with your feet.

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Yes, it is unfortunate that we live in a capitalist world and capitalism forces us to work. To ease the burden, instead of a mundane, alienating, unfulfilling job, some of us would like to work doing things we enjoy, like writing games. It is also unfortunate that few companies¹ can make games as a service, otherwise that could fund game making in the same way companies like Intel pay for Linux kernel development.

The remaining options are:

  • Make games libre, but the player pays a coin to unlock a few lives. Hmm, that wouldn’t work.
  • Make games libre, but the player pays to unlock in-game perks. Obviously wouldn’t work.
  • Make games libre, but charge the player a monthly subscription fee to keep their accounts active on a server. Nope, wouldn’t work.
  • Make games libre, but stuff builds with ads. Sounds like the Android App market. It works, kinda, but if it’s any better is debatable.
  • Make games libre, as a hobby. This is fine and happens already, but severely limits scope… and it requires also having a job.

¹ Off the top of my head, the companies that make games as a service are those that make advergames and educational games. Often, neither are games people really want to play.

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… or your wallet.           

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Depending on how the licence works there may be other options.
For example:

  • Having people pay a subscription for access to the game while it’s in early access/development under the condition that they mustn’t disclose the source. (It’s possible, but flawed depending on how much you can trust people, though since the game is ‘early access’ it might be easier to figure out the leakers and cut them out of the process).
  • Relying entirely on donations. Might not be enough to support a family but could probably support a single person living like a student if the person is lucky. I know a lot of artists have taken to stuff like Patreon and Coffee (however it’s spelt) to support their art.
  • Putting a clause in the licence that anyone planning to profit from a derivative pay you royalties (kind of like how certain game engines demand a cut of the profits of profitable games). Has the flaw that you need to be able to enforce the licence, but ultimately that’s a flaw with all licences. (There’s little to stop someone violating the GPL if the person who wrote the software can’t afford to lawyer-up.)
  • Promotional merchandise (people can get a copy of the source code, but they can’t make merchandise of your IP).
  • Selling mods/extra levels. This way both you and modders can benefit financially.
  • Using kickstarter to fund a game for the duration of its development. Again, if the source is leaked during development it’s not too catestrophic and the money is already safe in the bank.

Ultimately nothing that doesn’t impose some sort of freedom restriction though.
(Not that restrictions on freedom are inherantly bad - there needs to be a balance. After all, laws are a restriction on freedom.)

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I can think on another solution, we need to automate everything and robots (or robotic teddy bears) do all the job. People only code for fun.

I hope that happens in my lifetime.

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I feel that I just glimpsed the future.
(They’re already opening doors, you know.)

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Oh yeah, the Angry Birds business model (it’s not opensource but it probably could’ve been without affecting their income negatively). That’s actually a good one, for those that can pull it off.

There was a time games were turning to Kickstarter, but it looks like it isn’t really an option anymore. It’s interesting that Arduventure gets around this because you’re actually paying for a physical device, not the game.

A Boston Dynamics video that doesn’t feature robot cruelty?! Have the robots overtaken their human overlords and now run the marketing department?

Mighty No.9 comes to mind where the project delivered a far inferior product.

Backers got more cautious with games after that. I’m sure other games helped make matters worse, but Mighty No. 9 made a big, bad impact.

Why isn’t it an option?
There are plenty of games on kickstarter.

First I’ve heard of it.

I’m not entirely surprised though, most game development companies’ business models don’t adapt well to kickstarter.
Kickstarter is a better option for independant developers.

On top of which it seems they tried to do far too much in one go.