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Emmett Plant -- Time City : Beginnings

Nov 12, 1999, 07:22 (6 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Emmett Plant)

By Emmett Charles Plant
Staff Editor, Linux Today

The story is becoming legend. I was watching Back To The Future II with my fiancé (now wife). I had an idea for a game where you would travel forward and backward in time at will, within the confines of a city. I quickly picked up a notebook and started sketching the size of my city throughout time. The idea sat in my head for a little while, and got pushed aside for about a month while I worked on other projects. The idea continued to grow in my head, including a storyline and basic game mechanics. I began asking people if they would be interested in working on the game. The fact that it would be an Open Source project was never questioned.

One of the major goals of the project is to create an incredibly popular game so that hardware manufacturers would wake up and start supporting Linux versions of their products. Time City is one of the most ambitious Open Source projects. The odds are against us. An estimated ninety percent of all computer game projects fail. Ninety percent! We're out to beat the odds and do the impossible. We're getting there.

IRC has got to be the most unprofessional environment one can possibly imagine. But if it weren't for IRC, the Time City project would have probably never come together. My new "hangout" in the IRC world was Slashdot's IRC server, irc.slashnet.org. A lot of people in #slashdot thought that Time City was an interesting idea, but don't think for a moment that we never had detractors. Before too long, #timecity was started, and it remains a staff hangout as of this writing.

We needed a Web site, and more than that, we needed a place to put it. We started looking around for a company that would be willing to host it for us. We had a really cool project with a lot of interest, and we thought that people would be rushing forward with space. We were dead wrong.

One of the first people I contacted was Robert Levin from openprojects.net. He thought it was a good idea, but after waiting almost three weeks to get a response from him, we had to go elsewhere. I met Chuck Jacobus from Cybermax at a conference in San Jose, and asked him if he would be interested. Cybermax is one of the companies that helped create force-feedback technology for joysticks and control yokes. They agreed and we were on our way, I thought.

The one unfortunate drawback with using Cybermax was that they wanted us to administer our share using their software, NetMAX. NetMAX is really nice software, but we needed the ability to have more than one user work on our site, and we had to reject a wonderful offer on that basis alone.

Finally, my friend Sean had a T1 installed in his house. I asked him if he would be willing to help us out, and sure enough, he was. Sean is now our official administrator, and all of Time City is hosted for free by his company, SHN. Sean's contribution is just another mark in the list of things that the community has done to help our project move forward.

We needed publicity. I'm friends with Teller from the magical duo Penn & Teller, and I asked him if he and Penn Jillette would be willing to provide "screams" for the project, as sounds in the game. They did it! This is probably one of the first times a celebrity has ever donated to the Open Source cause. It took a while to get the sounds, but they're fantastic. Everyone, including Penn & Teller's manager, Ken Lewis, helped out immensely.

There was one more thing we needed desperately: a mention on Slashdot, the popular "News for nerds, stuff that matters" Web site that all of the people on the project read at least twice a day. One of the Time City people wrote up a quick summary of what we needed, and created the volunteer form. Jon Pater posted our story.

Then all hell broke loose. My E-mail started to flood, and our Web site got slammed. Thanks to our system administrator Sean Sosik-Hamor, we stayed up the entire time. While the story was on Slashdot, we were getting a volunteer every 2 minutes.

The story was carried on Slashdot for two days. Over this time, the opinions expressed in Slashdot readers' comments went from middling to bad to horrible, but I remained optimistic. Slashdot comments are frequently negative. Slashdot has become a bit of a whipping boy lately, but if it weren't for Slashdot, there probably wouldn't be a Time City project.

It's funny. People feel that since the project is Open Source, they can start playing with my plotlines and story development for the game. I got some really, really stupid E-mails from people suggesting I change the story and plotline. You wouldn't believe the ideas I got. Other E-mails I got contained extremely wonderful ideas that I couldn't use.

A particular series of E-mails I got had to do with the theory and practice of Time Travel and we pulled a little from them. I never said that the idea for the game was Open Source. If people want to make a game with what we create, they should go for it. But don't try and turn my project into your project!

One of our early volunteers suggested forking the project before we had a single line of code written. He's no longer with us. People will attempt to change your project if they feel strongly enough about it. Plan early and often and remain active and aware of where things are going. We decided early in the project that we would use Crystal Space, an Open Source 3D engine to build our game. That choice hasn't changed. Big stuff is important; little stuff is not.

Clyde Williamson, one of our staff members, is always quick to inform me that I have no control over the project and what happens with it. He's absolutely right, and thank God for it. As the benevolent dictator of the project, I can only introduce opinions. People will do what they want to do. This is a very scary thing for companies to deal with, because they pay money every day to people who do what they're told.

If you want to support an Open Source project with your company, do it the right way. Give all the resources you can and then some more. If you're leading the project yourself, you need to able to listen to people to see what's going on and guide the project with an occasional post or two. It's not a job for a control freak.

Mark Johnson, our PR flack, originally had a problem with our tagline, "Time Travel, Guns, and Open Source." The Columbine Massacre was still completely fresh in people's minds. Mark raised some pretty strong points, but we stayed with it anyway. I think the decision to stay with it was fifty percent "We'll do what we want" and fifty percent "We can't come up with anything better." One of the alternate taglines, "When do you want to go today," got such bad response that we canned it after about 48 hours. I thought it was a cute, clever spoof on the massive Microsoft campaign, but apparently people just hated it. So it went. You can't be inflexible. There are some core ideas that we've never moved away from, but you'll shoot yourself in the foot if you can't bend with the wind. Always value the Open Source community's opinion over CNN's.

Next Time : Building The Project Staff and The Trials and Tribulations of Teamwork.

Reference Links :

The Time City Project: http://www.timecity.org
Slashdot, the "News for nerds, stuff that matters" news-site: http://www.slashdot.org
Crystal Space, the 3D engine being used to create Time City: http://crystal.linuxgames.com
Sin City, the closest thing to an official Penn and Teller Web site on the 'net: http://www.sincity.com
Open Projects, a site devoted to donating webspace to Open Source projects: http://www.openprojects.net

Emmett Plant is an editor for Linux Today and heads up the Voice Of Linux Today (V.O.L.T.) Linux radio. His previous writings have appeared on OpenSourceIT and BleedingEdge Magazine. Before joining Linux Today, Emmett worked as a Linux network administrator for a New York City high school.