Every day we create and consume media in many forms. It would be reassuring to know that the photos we take today, and the videos we record will still be viewable 20 years from now. Unfortunately there aren't always such reassurances.
There have been numerous formats for recording audio and video in the past that have gone obsolete, and gone with them is the ability to experience that media. In the digital world these problems need not exist. After all, any file is merely a logical arrangement of data and as long as that logic is known, someone can create software to access and use that data.
We have open formats for texts, documents and books, open formats for music and video. The formats might even be heavily patented, but the specification is open for anyone to create a player or viewer. There is however, a lack of such a thing when it comes to games.
Games are another form of media we experience, but due to the richness of this media it is probably not feasible nor even a good idea to have common formats or specifications for how games should be created. How then is it possible to ensure that the games created today live on even when the systems they were created on a long obsolete? Open source them of course.
The most important part of any game is the game data, the models, maps, voice-overs, dialogues etc. The best way for any game creator to ensure that it will always be possible to play their game -- even if they no longer support or sell it -- is to make the game engine open source. The game data need not be opened, gamers will still need to pay for that if they want to play the game. id Software has the right idea in this regard as they open source their previous-generation engines, and it should be a model followed by all game creators.
One might wonder why it is even necessary to create an open source version of a game engine when it will require buying the game to play it anyway. What if, you say, the game is already available on Windows, Linux and Mac OSX? What if it is DRM-free? Isn't that good enough? It might be, for now. Eventually though, Windows 8, 9, 10 and so forth will come out; Linux will update its core to a point that the software no longer runs, then what?
Platforms change over time, and we speak not just of a decade, but of a century from now. Writing open source portable software is the best way to ensure the longevity of the software. While the operating systems that are capable of running these games might become obsolete, with an open source engine it will always be possible to port it to a new OS. Can the original developers maintain their game for eternity? What about when they're dead? Sorry to burst their bubble, but everyone dies some day; your work should still live on.
If you're a gamer, you've probably heard of BioWare before, and it's likely you have even played one or more of their games. BioWare is famous for making award-winning RPG games such as the recent Dragon Age and Mass Effect series, the less recent Neverwinter Nights and Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic series and the quite old Baldur's Gate series.
An effort is underway now to have an open source engine capable of running BioWare games. The new engine, called "eos" intends to be portable so it can run across Linux, Mac OSX, Windows, and possibly other platforms.
The developer of this new "eos" engine also works on ScummVM, an open source software capable of running a number of classic adventure games. While it started as with the goal of running SCUMM-based games (e.g. Monkey Island) it has now expanded to support many, many more, with the addition of other engines. If successful "eos" might just be the makings of something similar, but for 3D RPG games.
Take another example of Freespace 2. The game engine is now open source, and this has allowed the community to continue updating the game long after release. Not only has the game been ported to new platforms since being open sourced, but it is now also been improved in graphics and modernised. Despite being released in 1999, even before the release of Windows 2000 and XP, it can run on the latest Windows 7, and on new Linux distros. Fan-made mods -- such as Star Wars: Fate of the Galaxy, Battlestar Galactica: Beyond the Red Line, and Wing Commander Saga -- also allow the engine to be used to create other free games.
Not only will eos give new life to BioWare games, but also possibly allow third-party mods to becomes games of their own, freely available to all. If you are a developer with the necessary skills, consider donating some of your time to make sure some excellent games survive till the next generation, especially if you enjoy them yourself.
The Aurora engine and its descendants is used in a large number of games, not just Neverwinter Nights and KotOR, but even The Witcher and the latest Dragon Age II. While the current focus is on getting the Knights of the Old Republic games running, with enough developer interest, it might just be a matter of time before it catches up with some of the more modern games.
Projects such as, the Freespace 2 Source Code Project, eos, ScummVM, ioQuake3, and ioDoom3 ensure that something that was part of our culture and history does not die out simply because there is no way to access this data.
The eos engine already has some of the game running, nothing playable yet, but a sure sign that this project is feasible. You can find out more about eos from here.
Say what you will about the old paintings, they have outlived their artists, and survived hundreds of years to be enjoyed by people even to this day. We might not know what the art meant to the original artist, but it finds new meaning with each new generation. If video games really are to be considered art, they need to be treated that way. It seems the artists creating games today have no such grand designs.