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I've had an idea for a multiplayer game, and ideally, I'd absolutely love for it to be open source.

However, I also want to make a profit from it so I can make more games and maybe even have a dev team.

Is it possible to keep it open-source and generate revenue?

One idea I've had is to charge for online multiplayer services, but then users could easily circumvent that by patching in their own servers.

Is there a revenue model that can work for this kind of game project?

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    \$\begingroup\$ This site is for questions that have definite answers. You'd be welcome to come discuss it with us in Game Development Chat! :D \$\endgroup\$ – Almo May 15 '18 at 2:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ If your game is open source, you won't make money from it. However, you can provide a paid service (such as server hosting), related to the game, which users can chose to pay for. Ubuntu does something similar, it's open source but you can pay for support. Yes, people will be able to just set up their own servers, but that's a massive pain; many would rather just pay someone they trust for instead. \$\endgroup\$ – oscar toomey May 15 '18 at 6:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ A pattern I've seen used a few times is open sourcing the source code, but not the assets, so if one wants to play with the correct assets, the game must be bought. \$\endgroup\$ – Tyyppi_77 May 15 '18 at 6:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ Related question on open source stackexchange: How can large open source projects be monetized? Not a duplicate, IMO, because the business models for games are quite different from those for other kinds of software. But some of that information can also be useful for game developers. \$\endgroup\$ – Philipp May 15 '18 at 11:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Almo, I think the question "how can I generate revenue from..." has answers that would fit our format here. We can evaluate an answer on whether it defines a well-thought-out revenue stream suitable to games - similar to how we approach proposed solutions to game design problems. "Profit" is more speculative though, as it's hard to estimate how much people will pay / how many paying users you'd attract. If we focus on revenue models then I think this question could be on-topic \$\endgroup\$ – DMGregory May 15 '18 at 13:25
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How much do you believe in the open source idea? When you are not 100% committed to the free software philosophy, then there are some interesting variants:

  1. Release the client under an open source license, but not the server. Any private servers will have to write their own server software. That software will always be behind yours feature-wise, so those who want to experience the newest features and content will have to play on the official server. And this can be a serious competitive advantage when you consider how impatient players can become when a new update to their favorite game is about to be released. (Possible risk: If a private server project manages to mobilize more development resources than you, then their server software might actually become better than your own and you will become the one percieved as lacking behind feature-wise)
  2. Release server and client under copyleft, but not the assets. Most software licenses don't apply well to works of art anyway. If they want to run their own servers, they can use your software, but they will have to design their own content. So it will end up being a completely different game. In addition to making money with your game, you can make an additional income by offering paid consultant services to people who want to build their game using your technology.
  3. Release the server and assets as open source, but not the client. Make money by selling the client and leave the expensive long-term commitment of hosting the servers and constantly releasing new content to the community. When it comes to picking a license for your server, I would suggest to take a look at the AGPL. It forces people to publish changes to the server software even when it only runs on their own servers. The normal GPL does not have that requirement. That way the community is legally obligated to collaborate instead of monopolizing any new features they come up with.

But if you decide to completely commit to the idea of FOSS and open source everything, then you have to live with the fact that anyone can compete with you when it comes to offering your own game. Everyone will be able to fork your project and offer a new server with your content plus their own. The upside is that if you pick a strong copyleft license you can also use their content.

Still, if you want to make a profit, you have to offer a better service for a competitive price. As the official project maintainer, you will have a certain amount of momentum which is hard to compete with:

  • Only you have the reputation of being "the official" server.
  • Because your server will be the only server for a while, it will be the first to form a large and stable player community. Multiplayer games live from their community, so already having the most players will be a competitive advantage.
  • The player community of the official server is the community which is closest to the mainline developers. Their feedback is the feedback which is most visible and most important to you. Their problems, needs and suggestions are what guides your game's development. So players who want to have influence will want to play on the official server.
  • You can set your server as the default in the official client, so all new players will start playing on your server.
  • You can also register your game's name as a trademark. Most large open source projects do that. So if others want to fork it, they can do that, but they have to do so under a different name. That makes them hard to find.

But if you rely too much on your reputation and offer a bad service, then parts of the community will split off and set up their own servers.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I like the third model because it's similar to how Minecraft operates with Realms and Bukkit, and Mojang was doing well enough to be approached by Microsoft. Of course, that also takes into account the quality of the game, but that's for another day. Thanks! \$\endgroup\$ – robbie May 15 '18 at 19:32
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Disclaimer: I do find the other answer from Philipp to be excellent

I approach this from a much different point of view. I'm going to focus on Magic The Gathering: Online (Mtgo)

Mtgo is something with many (illegal) free competitors. First, it is illegal not because of the client/server, but the assets that are under copyright and the game rules itself (I believe.) There are people who play these, but there's a big second point here:

Tournaments.

If you're hosting tournaments for this game and other companies can't because (while your source is free) the assets are copywritten, then you have the only legitimate tournament platform. Tournaments in Mtgo are very well designed and influence the buying of product in game by giving hints of the workings of the metagame. These results (or at least, some subset of them) offer prestige on their website by showing you're good at the game with your build, or that you've come up with a new deck that eats the current meta-game (gaining prestige for being the first to find a new approach.)

While you're probably not doing a trading card game; it could be tournaments allow you to gain good items or people in the Top-X% of players within the last Y-days have special blessings (not even items!) that give them bonuses, abilities, etc.. making content easier, or accessible, etc.

Anyone can print sheet after sheet of fake magic cards and attempt to play, and they do! But they also buy the real product, want to play in the real tournaments (that require the real product), and want the prestige in that community.

NOTE: And Mtgo is famously bad as a platform. Despite being a glitchy, laggy, terrible user interface, garbage fire of a piece of software; it has entire businesses built around it for the secondary market, continuous tournaments all-day every-day (that are utilized by hundreds of players), professional grinders constantly tweaking their builds via the tournaments and twitch streamers and blogs and My Oh My is that a lot of community, secondary businesses, etc for something that is a true masterpiece of mediocrity.

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