Open Source and Quake
The Open Source movement got a Christmas present at the end of 1999, some assembly
required. John Carmack of id software, arguably the greatest games programmer ever,
released the source code for Quake, the wildly popular shoot-em-up. Quake, already
several years old, has maintained popularity because it allows players to battle one
another over the internet, with hundreds of servers hosting round-the-clock battles.
It jives with the Open Source ethos because it has already benefitted enormously from
player-created 'mods' (or modifications) to the game's surface appearance. By opening
up the source code to the game's legion of fanatical players, id is hoping to spur a
new round of innovation by allowing anyone interested in creating these modifications
to be able to alter any aspect of the program, not just its surface. Within minutes of
id's announcement, gamers and hackers the world over were downloading the source code.
Within hours they were compiling new versions of the game. Within days people began
using their new knowledge of the games inner workings to cheat. A problem new to the
Open Source movement began to surface: what to do when access to the source code opens
it up to abuse.
Quake works as a multi-player game where each player has a version of Quake running on
his or her own PC, and it is this local copy of the game that reports on the player's
behavior -- running, shooting, hiding -- to a central Quake server. This server then
collates all the players' behaviors and works out who's killed whom. With access to the
Quake source code, a tech-savvy player can put themselves on electronic steroids by
altering their local version of the game to give themselves superhuman speed, accuracy,
or force, simply by over-reporting their skill to the server. This would be like playing
tennis against someone with an invisible racket a yard wide.
All of this matters much more than you would expect a game to matter. With Open Source
now associated with truth, justice, and the Internet Way, and with Carmack revered as a
genius and a hero, the idea that the combination of these two things could breed anything
so mundane as cheating caught people by surprise. One school of thought has been simply
to deny that there is a problem by noting that if Quake had been Open Source to begin
with, this situation would never have arisen. This is true, as far as it goes, but a
theory which doesn't cover real world cases isn't much use. id's attempt to open the
source for some of its products while keeping others closed is exactly the strategy
players like Apple, IBM, and Sun are all testing out, and if the release of Quake fails
to generate innovation, mere ideological purity will be cold comfort.
As so often in the digital world, what happens to the gaming industry has ramifications
for the computing industry as a whole. Players in a game are simultaneously competing
and co-operating, and all agree to abide by rules that sort winners from losers, a
process with ramifications for online economics, education, even auctions. If Quake,
with its enormous audience of tech-savvy players and its history of benefitting from
user modifications, can't make the transition from closed source to open source easily,
then companies with a less loyal user base might think twice about opening their
products, so id's example is going to be watched very closely. The Quake release marks
a watershed -- if the people currently hard at work on the Quake cheating problem find
a solution, it will be another Open Source triumph, but if they fail, the Quake release
might be remembered as the moment that cheating robbed the Open Source movement of its
aura of continuous progress.