Friday, August 31, 2012

Parallels in the History of Operating System Development and Role Playing Game Design in Relation to the Old School Renaissance

(I suppose I could have picked a more boring title for a blog post, but it would have taken a lot of effort.  Hopefully the content will not be.  Well, at least to some.  This post kind of got out of hand and morphed into more of an essay, but is still maintains the style and inaccuracies of a blog post – so forgive the confused and melded style.)

Back when I was a kid, people were pretty unsure about what D&D was - much less all of the rest of TSR's products that revolved around the game.  I'd explain simply that D&D was a game with rules and procedures on how things worked, much like an operating system.  A module like Keep of the Borderlands was like a software package, or program, you'd run on the OS.  I, as Dungeon Master, was like the CPU of a Commodore 64, interpreting the rules and providing feedback to the users, or players.

Nobody understood.  It was 1982, for Pete's sake.  Pre-Macintosh – if you can imagine such a thing.

The Past is Prologue

Step back a decade to the swinging 70's.  About the same time that Gygax and Arneson were designing the first iteration of Dungeons and Dragons, researchers at Bell Labs were developing an operating system called UNIX for a honking big computer called the PDP-11/20.  Like the first edition of Dungeons and Dragons, UNIX was cryptic, spooky, and not for newbs.  You really needed to know what the hell you were doing to make it work, but if you did - wow - you never saw your wife again.

Bell Labs was a part of American Telephone & Telegraph, and as a behemothic monopoly, AT&T was subject to all sorts of governmental regulation.  One rule was that AT&T was forbidden from entering the computer business.  So, AT&T gave copies of UNIX away freely to whatever business or university that asked.  UNIX proved to be very popular since it gave system administrators a much easier interface to control how a computer ran, and provided a common platform for programers to write their programs.

Times, They are a-Changing

Then, in 1983, the U.S. government broke up AT&T into smaller companies and removed many of the regulations that controlled the giant.  Bell Labs decided to monetize UNIX.

Complete and utter chaos reigned as everyone tried to make their own UNIX, sell it, and sue competitors off the map.  Some lawsuits are still going on to this day.  To many businesses, UNIX was a hot potato.  Upstarts like Microsoft and Apple stepped in and succeeded in business where UNIX should have more logically reigned.

Microsoft and Apple had something going for them, though.  They concentrated on the USER, not the system administrators, with graphical interfaces and a click-drag mentality.  In fact, the Windows and Macintosh operating systems, in an attempt to simplify maintenance, took power and capabilities away from the admins, infuriating power-hungry computer science students everywhere.

In this same era, role playing games were undergoing a shift away from a kit mentality.  Role playing games once had more of a open point of view, where the game master took the rules only as a suggestion and borrowed ideas from other sources.  A large part of running a successful game was up to the game master’s ability to come up with new rules on the fly.

Newer games supplied more rules and attempted to be a ‘complete package’ for a game master, so that less preparation was involved, as well as on-the-fly making up of rules.

Furthermore, games like GURPS and Champions provided rules for creating exactly the character a player wanted to run in a game, while games like Vampire: The Masquerade seemed to shift RPGs from a gauntlet one had to survive into a cooperative social gathering where turmoils of the inner psyche were examined.  The person running the game became a ‘storyteller,’ rather than a ‘master’ of the game.

Free as in Speech, Not Free as in Beer

There was a backlash to the user-friendliness of graphical operating systems and the corporate greed that suffocated UNIX.  Hippie nerds at the University of California, Berkeley kept the old, free version of UNIX alive, writing additional features and increasing the types of computers their version of UNIX, the Berkeley Software Distribution, would work on.   At the same time, a computer anarchist named Richard Stallman created the Free Software Foundation, an organization bent on allowing software, and its source code, to be freely available to everyone.

These two movements gained steam in the 1990’s.  The Berkely UNIX, or BSD, was carried over into a multitude of projects, including FreeBSD, NetBSD, and OpenBSD, each with different goals.  And a Finnish man named Linus Torvalds began to reverse engineer UNIX and make it his own in a form he called Linux.

Linux was developed under the Free Software Foundation’s GNU Public License, or GPL.  Software written under the GPL had to be distributed with the full source code.  That way, no company could take Linux, alter it, and sell as their own.  Everyone would always ‘own’ Linux, and no one could steal it and make a profit.

BSD’s license was slightly different.  BSD was free to everyone, but corporations could take it and use it in whatever way they wanted, changing it and reselling it however they wanted.

The operating systems of the Open Source movement caught on like wildfire amongst software developers.  Students devoted huge amounts of their free time to make the operating systems better and better.

Linux itself became so popular that it began to threaten Window’s dominance in the field.  Microsoft’s competitors, such as IBM, pumped huge amounts of money and the time of their own software developers to improve Linux and help bring Microsoft down a notch or two.

Free as in Games

The desire to create a more open environment for intellectual property spread to the gaming world as well.  One of the earliest was Fuzion, which had an open-source type licensing, which basically allowed others to use the Fuzion game system in their own product.

In a strange move in 2000, Wizard of the Coast, who had recently bought TSR, open-sourced the bulk  of Dungeons and Dragons via its Open Game License.  The OGL was very similar to the Free Software Foundation’s GPL, allowing free distribution of the core System Reference Document – and derivatives, as long as a copy of the OGL was included, and due credit was given.  That doesn’t exactly seem to be WOTC’s intention with the OGL, but that’s what happened.

Thus, the Old School Renaissance was born.

Very quickly, people began to reverse engineer the earlier editions of Dungeons and Dragons and legally distribute the ‘new’ rules.   The earlier versions of D&D had not been in print for decades so and those who wished to play them had a difficult time.

While some have argued that the rewrites of D&D could have been done anyway, since rules cannot be copyrighted, only text, the OGL gave publishers the legal ‘safety net’ to do so.  Game distributions such as Swords and Wizardry and Labyrinth Lord take advantage of the license.

Open Source – Old School

The open sourcing of UNIX as Linux and the BSDs caused ripples and waves in mainstream computing.  Linux and OpenBSD’s focus on security forced Microsoft to address security issues with Windows.  Many ideas brought to Linux and the BSD’s by volunteers made their way to Window’s as well.  Apple completely tossed their original Macintosh operating system and replaced it with a BSD derivative, still in use today and known as MasOSX.  The Android phone operating system uses Linux as it’s core.

To put it in simple terms, a relatively small group of people with some free time, and a desire to keep operating systems and software open to the public, changed the face of computing.

Similarly, the Old School Revolution, taking open and available components of Dungeons and Dragons, reversed engineered the game, making it available to all.  Hobbyists and game companies can now publish content for the game, and even different versions of the game, as they see fit.

The somewhat nebulous goal of the somewhat nebulous Old School Renaissance was to bring back an older style of gaming.  The OSR succeeded in that.  But like Linux and the BSDs, the OSR caught the attention of the big boys.  WOTC, owners of Dungeons and Dragons, is currently redesigning the game to be more like its earlier versions.

I find some gratification in being there, at least in a tiny way, for both of these revolutions – both as a software developer and a old school game player.  It’s nice to see grass-roots, heart-felt movements be successful.

- Ark