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The Joystiq Indie Pitch: 0 A.D.

Justin McElroy

Being a giant, beloved video game site has its downsides. For example, we sometimes neglect to give independent developers our coverage love (or loverage, if you will) as we get caught up in AAA, AAAA or the rare quintuple-A titles. To remedy that, we're giving indies the chance to create their own loverage and sell you, the fans, on their studios and products. This week we talk with Aviv Sharon of Wildfire about the studio's 0 A.D., an indie project nine years in the making.

What's your game called, and what's it about?
0 A.D. (pronounced "zero ey-dee") is a free, open-source, cross-platform real-time strategy (RTS) game of ancient warfare. In short, it is a historically-based war/economy game that allows players to relive or rewrite the history of Western civilizations, focusing on the years between 500 B.C. and 500 A.D. The project is highly ambitious, involving state-of-the-art 3D graphics, detailed artwork, sound, and a flexible and powerful custom-built game engine. It focuses on six factions: The Hellenic States (aka The Greeks), the Roman Republic, The Celtic Tribes, the Persian Empire, the Iberian Tribes, and the Carthaginian Empire, each complete with unique artwork, technologies and civilization bonuses.

How did you or your company get started?

Wildfire Games started out as a modder team and released Rome at War, a successful mod for Age of Empires II: The Conquerors, in 2001. Then 0 A.D. started out later that year as a total conversion mod, meant to change much more than just a few civilizations, for the same game. The modders at that time quickly ran into the limitations of the existing engine of the game and could not change some basic rules. Then it was decided to start a new RTS game from scratch. For most of its development, 0 A.D. was a closed-source project, but it was always meant to be freeware - meaning, available free of charge. In the summer of 2009 the project released all its source code under the GPL and moved to an OS style of development.

Why did you want to make games?
Well, there are some prosaic reasons, like the lack of good, old-school RTS games in recent years. We feel this genre has a lot of potential for innovation and wish to explore that. Also, games for Linux and the Mac are hard to come by, and we believe truly great games should be cross-platform. Next, to be somewhat flowery, people are spending more money, time and attention on playing computer games than ever before, and games are constantly evolving into a more nuanced medium of expression and a greater part of our culture. We think this culture should allow gamers to learn how their games work, change them, share them and redistribute their works. This freedom to tinker is what Free, Open-Source Software (FOSS) is all about and so we hope a lot of people tinker with 0 A.D.

Why be independent rather than try to work for someone else?
Well, some of us *are* trying to work for someone else, and have volunteered on this OS project to get their hands dirty, gain experience and build their resume. That's OK by us and we are glad to offer people that opportunity.

But to answer the spirit of the question, every now and then we do get all sorts of offers for commercial joint ventures, but we turn them down. We put our hearts and souls into the game, and that will ultimately lead to a better quality product. Other motivations include wanting to encourage sharing, learning and creativity through FOSS development. We have the will to be recognized for our talents, the wish to improve our skills, and the sheer curiosity of just seeing if we are up to this mammoth challenge, and if volunteers from all over the world can collaborate on this project that normally costs a fortune and which no one developer can accomplish alone.

But there are some practical benefits as well. There is a greater opportunity for exposure if it's gratis. It's also harder to knock off, since it's kind of hard to compete with a free product. Compensation for team members is easy to figure out. Working without a publisher gives us the freedom from a publisher's deadlines, or their instructions about what we can or cannot do. We can upgrade, patch or mod at any time without first clearing it with our publisher. Last but not least, a free game saves us some legal problems. We can, for example, use certain third-party libraries without having to pay licensing fees.

How long did it take you to create?

It's also harder to knock off, since it's kind of hard to compete with a free product. - Aviv Sharon

We are about 9 years in development and still not done, but we have come a long way. We've released our second pre-alpha version and are about to start releasing regular alpha versions. ("Done" is a problematic term; Some people say OS projects are never really done, because they can always be changed and added to). Since we only started implementing the design in 2003, we think the time and effort we put in is comparable to what goes into developing a regular AAA title, and those can take 2-7 years. So really, on some level it's quite surprising that we've accomplished so much. Besides, Rome wasn't built in a day.

What are you proudest of about your game?
We have been amazed by the number and variety of fans 0 A.D. gathers, across all languages and cultures. We have received applications from Brazil to Pakistan and an overwhelming spike of attention from German-speaking countries in March this year, just as a complete surprise, based on a thread I posted on the Ubuntu community forums that wasn't even new. All the evidence shows that a historical FOSS RTS is a compelling vision for countless gamers worldwide and this has been very encouraging for us.

What one thing would you tell someone to convince them to get your game?
0 A.D. is open-source, free software with cross-platform multiplayer capabilities. So you will always be able to download it from the internet for free, share it with your friends, and play with them online, even if they run Linux and you don't.

What's next?
We're still crossing the Rubicon here. If you are as enthusiastic about the idea of a FOSS RTS game as we are, you're invited to check out our website and drop us a line on our forums. We're looking for programmers, 3d artists and more, so you're all invited to get involved.

If you'd like to have your own shot at converting our readers into fans, email justin aat joystiq dawt com, subject line "The Joystiq Indie Pitch." Still haven't had enough? Check out the Pitch archives.

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