Traditionally, the computer gaming market has been among the niches least impacted by the open-source movement. But that could change dramatically if the developers behind the cross-platform, real-time strategy game 0 A.D. succeed in redefining the way games are created, marketed and distributed. Here's why:

Look around the IT world today and you'll find dozens of areas in which open-source offerings enjoy substantial shares of markets which, until a few years ago, were the exclusive domains of proprietary products. GPL'd virtualization hypervisors like Xen and KVM now present serious competition for VMware, for example, while Oracle's OpenOffice -- and its anti-Oracle fork, LibreOffice -- dig ever deeper into Microsoft Office's side. The list could go on.

The gaming world, however, constitutes a notable exception to this trend. Sure, there are plenty of open-source games out there, but they tend to be the half-baked offspring of computer-science homework projects or antiquated reiterations of vintage commercial games, like Quake, whose engines were open-sourced once they ceased to be profitable.

At the moment, in other words, virtually no one is making money either selling or supporting open-source games. Proprietary, commercial developers continue to monopolize the market in the same way they have for decades.

SaaS for Gaming?

The team behind Wildfire Games' 0 A.D., however, envisions a radically different environment for game development, one in which open-source code is written and distributed for free while at the same time offering potential commercial opportunities for partners. As 0 A.D. representative Aviv Sharon explained recently in an interview, while the developers are committed to keeping the source of the game itself open and free,
We don’t mind giving other people the opportunity to make a living, too.  The beauty of free software is that anyone can provide support for 0 A.D., sell proprietary art and sounds for the game and more. So for the meantime, we hope a lot of people tinker with 0 A.D. and the business it could spur.
Sharon didn't say as much, but the model he described sounds a lot like the tried-and-true strategy by which open-source code has penetrated so many other sectors of the software world in recent years: the core product remains Free (with a capital "F"), while partners build an ecosystem around it by selling value-added software and services. This approach has worked with web browsers, virtualization technology, even entire operating systems; there's no reason to believe it can't succeed in the gaming world as well.

At first glance, this may not seem like a big deal. But given the virtually untapped potential that might lie behind the intermingling of open-source methodology and the commercial gaming market, the idea behind 0 A.D. could prove to be quite a big deal, radically upsetting a niche that has seen little operational innovation in decades.

For the time being, of course, this is all wait-and-see, since 0 A.D. remains in development and -- although its developers recently introduced a third alpha build -- the final product remains beyond the horizon. But the new path that the 0 A.D. team is endeavoring to forge is one to watch closely, as it may open up fascinating new opportunities for VARs on a totally novel front.

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