10 Years In Alpha: How Volunteer Modders Created 0 A.D. With The Help Of A Community

0 A.D.

For the past ten years, 0 A.D. has been in its alpha stage of development. It’s still nowhere near finished. Wildfire Games have been steadily working on their completely free RTS since 2001, when it started out life as a mod for Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings.

There were three separate groups initially. Tonto Clan was a fanbase built around AoE who had put together a design document for a remake of Age of Empires: The Rise of Rome, which they sent to Ensemble Studios for consideration, but saw it fall through. Secondly, Wildfire Studios was a modding team that had completed a mod for AoE II called “Rome at War.” Afterwards, they sought to create a total conversion mod of AoE II, but soon started hitting the walls of modding and were open to ideas of a standalone project.

Third and final is The Last Alliance, which was a modding group less interested in historical representation in their strategy game modding, and more in fantasy realms. They were also interested in developing a standalone project.

It’s these three groups of fans and modders of AoE that came together to form Wildfire Games in 2003.

A design document for 0 A.D. was put together that summer by Jason “Wijitmaker” Bishop, a 23-year-old from Washington who would lead the project for the next six years, Ken “TheRealDeal” Wood, a retiree in his sixties from Arizona, and Stuart “Acumen” Walpole, a programmer in his twenties from the UK.

0 A.D.

For the next six years, until 2009, the foundations of 0 A.D. were built by the varied team of volunteers. Undergraduate programmers used 0 A.D. to pass their Computer Science degrees, with Matei Zaharia working on the game’s water rendering and the file ordering and caching system being the work of Jan “janwas” Wassenberg. Those interested in working on the project needed to merely say so with an application and pass a small interview.

While new people were brought on, there were also some departures during this time. Sadly, Ken, the retiree, passed away in 2006 after battling with cancer. And in 2008, the project’s lead, Jason, stepped down due to having to tend to his family life. Since then, Erik “feneur” Johansson has taken over as the project lead, and since then, he, along with the rest of the team, have pulled some amazing stunts to turn around a dying development project into one that is held up by a huge, collaborative community.

Going Open Source

0 A.D.

It was decided in 2009 that 0 A.D. would no longer be a closed development project. If it had stayed that way, it’s likely it would have crashed and burned, all of that work amounting to an unfinished product. Making 0 A.D. free, open source software was the solution.

Aviv Sharon co-ordinates Wildfires’ website and PR, and he told me the impact that going open source had on 0 A.D.

“Thankfully, this move lowered the perceived barriers to contributing to 0 A.D., built public trust in the project and attracted many new fans and contributors. The pace of development really picked up as a consequence. Now we have thousands of downloads a week, according to Sourceforge. This figure doesn’t include downloads from other distribution methods, such as from the repositories of the various Linux distributions.”

0 A.D. saw huge growth in the last four years.

The game’s code was made available as GPL, and all of the art is available as CC-BY-SA. People jumped right in to help build 0 A.D. out, especially after Philip “Ykkrosh” Taylor redesigned and reimplemented the codebase so that it was even easier for people to contribute their voluntary work to 0 A.D.

“In the long run, the game can be freely updated by the community to adapt to new hardware, and it can be freely modded, which will hopefully lengthen the game’s shelf life.”

0 A.D.Making the move to open source development attracted the large free, open source software community. These are people who hunt projects like 0 A.D. down and get to work on it in order to enjoy the sense of collective effort that can be so hard to come by online. We’re all connected,and we all communicate, but to many, it means nothing unless something materializes from our online lives. A huge project like 0 A.D. is worthy of people’s time because it’s a community project that people can find resolve in, share stories with others who helped to build it, and in a few months, or a year, or maybe even a decade, they’ll be able to look back at the game and remember the people they met, the things they learned, the things they shared.

Going open source affords 0 A.D. with many other attractive qualities too, for the community and the players, as well as the developers. Aviv continues:

“Openness and freedom allows us to work off existing free code, which saves some programming work. It helps us practice code review. Being freely licensed helps distribute the game, because only freely licensed games are available on the Linux software repositories and on SourceForge.”

“In turn, a free game such as 0 A.D. also attracts a huge following from people who subscribe to the idea of software freedom, which is why so much interest in 0 A.D. development comes from the free, open-source software community. In the long run, the game can be freely updated by the community to adapt to new hardware, and it can be freely modded, which will hopefully lengthen the game’s shelf life.”

0 A.D.

While it all sounds quite glamorous, going open source is no easy feat, though. I know there may be some developers reading this and now questioning themselves as to why they didn’t try open source development before. Please do note that software freedom is not a magical solution for software development.

“You need to keep maintaining documentation for newcomers, answering their questions and cultivating a supporting atmosphere,” Aviv tells me. It’s a lot of work, and he recommends anyone who considers open source projects to read through Producing Open Source Software.

Aviv informs me that one of the main difficulties that remains with 0 A.D. is working on tasks like improving the game’s performance. While it may be one of the most important things to attend to, improving the game’s performance requires a supreme understanding of the game’s engine, and plenty of experimentation. That’s partially why many volunteer collaborators stay away from performance improvements, but Aviv also points to the fact that it doesn’t add a very visible feature to the game, which is one of the appeals of helping out with a game project. When you can point to a 3D model of a Persian warship and call it yours, the work tends to be more appealing.

As such, the solution for sorting out the game’s performance is likely to be hiring a contractor to do it.

Real Time

0 A.D. is a huge project. That has to be stated. A fairly large group of modders and volunteer contributors don’t work on a game for a decade and produce nothing. Yes, it’s still in alpha, but the team have been working on a level that’s equivalent to AAA standards, yet they don’t have the huge, full-time team working on it over several years. Even more impressive is the fact that 0 A.D. is free to download and always will be, and it’s also freely licensed so that it’s free to mod and redistribute.

The core group of developers communicate with the community over the forums, over the Trac project management and bug/issue tracking system and their IRC channels (#0ad and #0ad-dev on QuakeNet). This level of intimacy between the development team and those following their work (and in this case, joining in) is rarely seen.

As 0 A.D. is based on real civilizations (albeit they all exist in a fictional period of time in the game so they might fight one another), the community often acts like “historical accuracy watchdogs.” As it is, only one historian by profession has ever helped out with this side of the game to Aviv’s knowledge, and that has resulted in the odd inaccuracy.

“For example, our main menu screen is supposed to depict a scene from Sparta,” Aviv says. “One very knowledgeable and perceptive fan pointed out that one of the shields held by one of the soldiers actually belonged to Athens, so we changed it.”

0 A.D.

Outside of keeping up the tradition of IRC meetings, accruing feedback and generally conversing with the community, there’s also time to actually play 0 A.D. together as well, “which is really a great catalyst for bonding as a group that might be harder to find in a non-game project,” Aviv tells me.

Wildfire Games may be made up of volunteers, but together, they’re able to reach out to fans over social media platforms and talk about what’s planned for the game, what could be added or just organize community events. Recently, there’s been talk of localizing 0 A.D. into French, Spanish and other locales. There are already Portuguese and German fansites, and it’s expected that many others are about to turn up.

“It’s remarkable how a project of this size is sustainable with practically no budget, built from the passion of volunteers, who talk with one another, congratulate each other, see newcomers arrive and welcome them with open arms.”

In the past week, Wildfire have called upon its community to ask the biggest favor of them so far: to raise funding to complete 0 A.D., or at least get it to a state where a release version is available. They’re seeking $160,000 over on Indiegogo right now, which is no small ask.

“We’re raising the money in order to complete the game much much sooner than we would if we continued with the current pace of development. To accomplish this, we will be hiring on two of our developers for up to two years full-time. This means we’ll likely more than double the number of person-hours spent on developing the game and managing the project.”

The other plan if this funding is raised is to bring the single-player campaign to the fans. 0 A.D.’s multiplayer is very popular and very important to the community, but a challenging and rewarding single-player campaign is something that 0 A.D., and, indeed, the RTS genre, is rooted in. The funding goal, if met, would enable Wildfire to reach the scope they have planned for 0 A.D.’s single-player component.

Even if 0 A.D. doesn’t make its funding goal, the project is far from over. It’s been kept alive for the past ten years, and it’s thriving with activity more than ever. People are contributing code, art and design ideas daily.

These same people share stories with each other, get to know the lives of others and become friends. It’s remarkable how a project of this size is sustainable with practically no budget, built from the passion of volunteers, who talk with one another, congratulate each other, see newcomers arrive and welcome them with open arms. They also huddle together when the occasional tragedy occurs and a member of the team, a friend, departs this world.

A unit lost in an RTS is frustrating, but you can just produce more of them if you have the resources. But a unit lost among a development community affects everyone. It’s tragic. They’re made of many, but they are one. And you can see a bit of all of them inside the game called 0 A.D.

0 A.D.

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