Rich: I’m speaking with Kieran Pilkington, and Erik Johansson, and Aviv Sharon. They are all involved with the 0 A.D. project.
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Rich: 0 A.D. is a strategy, civilization building game. Thank you so much for speaking with me.
Erik: Thanks for having us.
Rich: I gotta mention, one of the really cool things about this interview is that we span seventeen timezones within this phone call. This, to me, illustrates one of the great points of Open Source software, which is that it really doesn’t matter where in the world you’re located, you can participate in a project like this.
How long have you guys been working on this game? What inspired you to start working on it?
Erik: Actual work started in 2003, 2004, but the idea existed a bit earlier. The inspiration came from … they (the developers) decided to bring the civilizations in Age of Empire I to the engine of Age of Empire II: The Age of Kings. But then the ambition increased a bit, and we decided to try and create our own engine, and all these years later, here we are.
Aviv: It started out as a mod for Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings, and it ended up being a standalone game. Development for the most of the time was for a closed-source, proprietary game, but it was always meant to be freeware. And then in the summer of 2009, we decided to go Open Source, and we haven’t looked back.
Rich: How many developers are there on this project?
Erik: That’s the hardest question to answer. There are, say, five to twenty that are reasonably active, but some people are old team members who stay around as advisors, and some additional are contributing without being official team members. It’s hard to say an exact number, but, say, about twenty at any given time. But over the years there have been many many more. At least …
Aviv: In the hundreds. Easily in the hundreds.
Rich: Wow. Is there room for other people to come in and participate? And what sort of openings would there be for those folks?
Aviv: We’re glad you asked that because we’re always looking for new contributors to join 0 A.D. and help promote the game to a more complete state. We are always seeking new programmers in all fields of programming from low-level code to AI and random map scripts and higher-level programming. We are always looking for graphic artists, both 2D, and textures, and user interface, and also 3D models and animation. We’re looking for people to help us organize the development, document it, manage contributions in sound, and many more openings we have which we constantly promote in the designated thread that we will happily link to.
For most positions we ask applicants to fill out a short form. We are pretty open about who can join, and programmers are welcome to join at any time without any application process.
Erik: Programmers start out as community members, and add their patches to the code. If we find that they continue to add lots of good stuff, we ask them to be on the team. The only real difference there is that they get commit access to our SVN, but apart from that we’re really open in the programming part.
Rich: To what degree do you strive for historical accuracy in your game?
Erik: To a great degree, but on the other hand we let game play and fun go before history. So, like if there is a situation where they go against it, we decide in favor of fun, so to speak.
Aviv: We plan all our units, and all our buildings based on reconstructions of how the units and the buildings might have looked like in the ancient world. For each civilization we plan technologies based on the distinguishing features of each civilization. We even give the units and the buildings names in the original languages. We try to construct the original ancient Greek, Latin, Punic, Celtic, etc., in order to give the game some real historical depth, and perhaps teach players something about ancient history.
Rich: Is someone on your project a historian?
Erik: Not per se, but over the years we have had both professional historians and amateur historians review everything. That’s continually going on – if we find something that seems to prove something that we’ve done wrong, we go back and look at things again.
Kieran: Over the years we’ve had several people come in to the community and actually tell us that certain names of units and buildings and such were incorrect, and so we’ve taken their feedback and actually incorporated it into the game. So it’s a continually ongoing process.
Aviv: Our main menu screen used to depict a scene from Sparta, and somebody pointed out that the shield actually belonged to Athens, so we changed it.
Rich: [Laughs] That’s very cool. How much of the world is covered by the game?
Aviv: Right now it covers six civilizations. It covers three city states in Ancient Greece: Athens, Sparta, Macedonians. Other civilizations are Rome, Carthage, the Celtic tribes, the Iberian tribes, Persia, and we’re adding, now, the Mauryan Indians, which are the original civilization of the Indus valley in the Indian subcontinent. We’re actually crowdsourcing the design for this civilization, and we’re welcoming the community to contribute historical information for us to design the buildings and technologies for this new civilization we’re adding.
Rich: Do you have much interaction or collaboration with any of the other Open Source gaming communities?
Aviv: We’re kind of in the middle between the Indie game world and the Open Source software world. We don’t quite belong to either culture entirely. We certainly invite more projects to reach out. Perhaps we can find new ways to collaborate. We do believe that a large part of the code that we developed can be used for other projects. But at the moment we’re more focused on developing 0 A.D. to completion, and writing a lot of code and implementing a lot of features that are specific to 0 A.D., than implementing general solutions for all sorts of games.
Rich: What does “developing to completion” mean? Where do you go from here? What do you have still to do?
Kieran: At the moment we’re still in the Alpha stages, which is essentially meaning that not all of the major features are completed yet. We still have a few to go. Namely: gates, and separate civilization technology trees and other bits and pieces. Once all of the major features have been implemented, we’ll move to the Beta phase, which is essentially just refining things, adding bug fixes, and making sure that the game is balanced in terms of game play and that sort of thing. Which hopefully isn’t too far off. Each release has a various set of features that are targeted for that release. And the current amount of tickets left numbers about three hundred. That’s another emphasis for extra developers. We’re always happy to have them come on board and help us out. Get this game completed faster.
Aviv: Unlike other Open Source projects, we actually have an idea of a completed game. And we have an idea of when we’re done. We do want to reach this state of completion and reach some closure, and not just keep this project developing endlessly. And we hope to reach that state in late 2013.
Rich: As you’ve been working on this project, what’s been been your biggest surprise that’s come along during this process?
Aviv: The biggest surprise would probably be the excellent reception that 0 A.D. has had in many different communities of fans. From indie game and modder fans to Linux communities – Linux and Free Open Source software communities, and all sorts of fun comments that we keep getting. It’s like Empire Earth, and Rise of Nations, had a baby and it came out free. All sorts of funny, heart warming comments that we keep getting from our fans, and we’d like to reach out and say thank you for all this encouragement that really keeps us going.
Rich: Thank you so much for being willing to do this interview and gathering across many less convenient times than mine. Good luck with your project.
Erik: Thank you. It’s a pleasure.