Ryzom MMORPG releases native GNU/Linux client

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Nov 30, 2010 GMT
Bruce Byfield

When the Free Ryzom Campaign failed to purchase the online role-playing game Ryzom, organizers promised that their effort was just the beginning. Now, four years later, after a convoluted history, the dream of the campaign supporters is coming true: Winch Gate, the current owner of Ryzom, is releasing a native GNU/Linux client, and announcing a contest to celebrate the fact. It's news that you don't need to be a gamer to appreciate.

The news follows the announcement in May 2010 that the source code for the end-user client, content creation tools, and server were being released under the GNU Affero General Public License, and the artwork, including some 20,000 textures and 3-D objects, under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike license. This code release opens the opportunity for other free software online games, but the Ryzom client is the first result.

Gaming and free software strategy

The Free Software Foundation (FSF), which pledged €60,000 to the unsuccessful Free Ryzom Campaign, has also been supporting the release of the code and the native Ryzom client. If you have been around computers and free software for any length of time, you should have no trouble understanding why.

For one thing, a lack of native games is seen by many as a major reason that GNU/Linux is not more widely used on the desktop. Online games like World of Warcraft can be played on GNU/Linux using WINE, or on Windows on a dual-boot system, the extra steps are probably enough to discourage many people from using such arrangements.

As Peter Brown, the FSF's executive director, told me during the Free Ryzom Campaign, " "When it comes to the barriers that keep people from using free software, one of the major ones has always been gaming. It's an area that's very commercial, and it's very hard for the free software community to fund. We've always played a game of catch-up, and whilst you can get all sorts of interesting games for free software, at this level, we're just not there. This is an opportunity to jump ahead from where we currently are."

Of course, the Ryzom code and client have no affect on other existing games, but they offer the possibility that GNU/Linux can at least offer alternatives.

Even more importantly, a free software presence in online gaming can be an important strategy in the advancement of free software. Gamers are always hungry for increased speed or improved graphics, with the result that the requirements for gaming have always been a major influence on computer hardware capabilities. If a significant proportion of gamers can be convinced to use free software, Brown suggested four years ago, then the fact can be used by the FSF to "apply pressure on video card manufacturers" to improve their support for 3-D drivers for GNU/Linux, a notorious weak spot in free software. Brown also suggested that online games that are also free software could serve as "a test bed for 3-D drivers."

With some 3500 users at the start of the Free Ryzom Campaign, Ryzom is dwarfed by games like World of Warcraft, which claims over 12 million users. However, free software needs to use the openings available, and the fact that Ryzom has English, French, and German speaking communities means that the game is potentially international in appeal, like free software itself. From this perspective, the release of the free client, while relatively minor in itself, could become an important first step in the advancement of free software.

Test driving the Ryzom client

Playing with the native client requires 3-D drivers, which may be enough to discourage some users. Otherwise, hardware requirements are well within the capacities of any modern computer.

You will also need a free, 21 day trial account and the static binary for the native client. When you run the client, you will see a button to create an account, but it was not functional while I was testing, so you may need to create an account separately.

You might also want to take some time to look around the Ryzom website to learn more about the story behind the game, and download the manual so that you can learn the game's concepts and how to navigate in the game. If you really need help, you can log in to the game's online forums.

To begin playing, you must create at least one character, choosing its civilization, gender, body, face, and specializations. When you are ready, you enter a neutral part of the game, where you can get used to navigation and receive your first missions in the game.

Although I admit to being an avid watcher of The Guild, I am not a gamer for the same reasons that an alcoholic is not a social drinker; once I started, I couldn't be sure of my ability to stop.

However, over the years I have seen several MMORPGs, and Ryzom compares favorably to any of them. Like any online game, it suffers from occasional latency problems, but the graphics are uncluttered and professional, and the controls -- although a bit daunting at first in the sheer number of them on the screen -- are mostly self-evident.

The main drawback to Ryzom -- as I feared -- is the temptation to spend too much time in the game. Even character creation exercises a certain fascination, as you experiment with different body types and faces.

New potential

To mark the release of the client, Ryzom is announcing a month long quest for seven GNU/Linux artifacts scattered throughout the starting island. Players will have to find the artifacts, and successfully answer the GNU/Linux related questions that they pose. First prize is a netbook computer, and the second and third prizes are year long subscriptions to Ryzom.

Whether Ryzom will improve the fortunes of free software is uncertain. All the same, it seems well worth the effort for both gamers and non-gamers to experiment, because it opens up a world of possibilities for the free software community that didn't previously exist.

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