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Emmett Plant — Time City : Beginnings

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.