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Creative writing and open source development

June 17, 2011

The Battle for Wesnoth project has been an interesting experiment in collaborative world-building. All of the mainline campaigns except the original one, Heir to the Throne, started out as user-made add-ons, only later being incorporated into the “official” version of the game. And, except for a ban on explicit contradictions, there are few requirements for acceptance other than that the campaigns be of high quality, as judged basically by the community as a whole, and that they be set in the mainline fantasy world.

The up-side to this user-made approach is that there’s a superabundance of campaigns out there, and more are always coming. The down-side is that the campaigns available are generally subtly contradictory and of low quality. Even the mainline campaigns, supposedly the cream of the crop, do not come anywhere near the quality of the writing in a modern professional game.

This may be a somewhat inevitable result of the collaborative approach. Each campaign is usually written by a single individual, but they are supposed to all fit together into the same fantasy world, and so constantly reference each other, which sometimes leads to problems of consistency. Things don’t need to just be factually consistent, after all, though even that is sometimes a problem (a rule against explicit contradictions doesn’t always keep out minor inconsistencies involving geography or history). They need to be tonally consistent: characters have to stay “in character” across campaigns, species and races need to involve more than just physical differences without reducing them to stereotypes, magic needs to have the same “feel” whenever it’s used. Tonal consistency is more difficult.

There’s a lot of effort being made now by various Wesnoth developers to straighten these things out, and they’ve made some progress. The world is more consistent than it used to be. But no one thinks that the world of Irdya will ever be as strongly defined as that of The Lord of the Rings or Dune or even Half-Life. This is perhaps not surprising, and most people don’t expect it to be, but personally I find it somewhat disappointing that all aspects of Wesnoth are of professional quality, including gameplay, user interface, pixel art, portraits, and music, except for the dialogue, characters, and setting. Why can’t we make writing collaborative while still creating a high-quality product?

There probably is a way to do it, but it probably can’t be as decentralized as open-source projects tend to be, and no matter what it has to attract high-quality writers in order to produce high-quality writing. I don’t know if writers are really interested in this sort of collaboration. Any sort of literary collaboration probably involves a smaller group of people who can interact regularly, rather than a loose assortment of contributors who come and go at will.

(Note: much of the above is a shortened version of my response to a question about the GPL and Wesnoth during an interview with Giacomo Poderi about the Wesnoth project)

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