The end of the Nethernet(?)

Nethernet LogoThe Nethernet, a browser-based game formerly known as PMOG was an innovative attempt to make the whole internet a virtual playground where people could interact passively during their normal use. As a concept I found it brilliant and I blogged about it when I first started using it as I thought it had a lot of potential to spread ideas around while being fun.

However I soon stopped using it as the experience was very buggy on a GNU/Linux system and it was having very infrequent updates, not enough features to make it more addictive and it just couldn’t keep my interest (although that’s nothing new, WoW couldn’t keep my interest either.) Nevertheless, I had subscribed to their official blog to keep abreast of their progress and hopefully jump in at some point when it would be more fully fledged. And in fact I did, just a few days ago, shortly after the Nethernet toolbar finally hit version 1.0.0.

Well to my surprise, today my RSS reader brought up the post announcing the end of the Nethernet, ironically called “The Nethernet Moving Forward”. In short, The Nethernet is being shut down because of the very high costs associated with hosting and developing it. While the shutting down news came as a bit of a surprise, seeing as there was no warning at all and everything seemed to be like business as usual until the weekend, the ongoing troubles they were having with bandwidth were noted while their sudden and heavy handed attempt to introduce micro-payments were an obvious display of their monetary troubles.

Personally I smell the investor’s hand in this. Gamelayers and the Nethernet was quite a bit backed by venture capitalists and their board of directors is practically run by them. As such, it was a matter of time before a resource-heavy game that failed to find a business plan to monetize all their traffic would start to raise questions about its viability by the investors. My impression is that the developers were given an ultimatum on this by their investors: “Either find a way to make money out of this within the next month or we stop funding you.” Or something to that extent. As such we saw the wholly misguided attempt to introduce “bacon” (ie micropayments) to the game which had the effect of driving a very considerable number of the community away (Just look at the comments on their post about it).

And now, almost exactly one month later, once it became obvious that their community abandoned them (or once a deadline was crossed?) the plug is pulled. The question is, what now? I mean, it’s obvious that the hosting won’t continue for much longer by Gamelayers (possibly until their server leasing expires?) so at some point the Nethernet will go 503.

But what happens to the assets? Personally I think it would be a shame to simply lose all this effort in code and artwork and I think the very best idea would be to simply open source the source of the servers and the firefox extension (if it isn’t already) and allow people to possibly find a way to continue with it. It obvious from the developers’ point of view that they’re not going to be working on the game any time soon so why let it go to waste.

What I did find interesting as well was the number of people who suggested the exact same thing in the fora, before I even came around to add my own voice. There were at least 5-6 different people suggesting an open sourcing of the game which just goes to show how mainstream the idea of free software has already become. But I digress…

But if the costs were too high for gamelayers, why would a free software adaptation of it be possible? Well because the code might be modified so that the resource use becomes distributed. I think the biggest mistake of Gamelayers was their protective and secretive nature on all things related to The Nethernet, even up to and including the announcement of the shutdown that came as a surprise even to some of the most valued members of their community. If they had allowed far more crowdsourcing of various aspects of the game, (eg: badge creation), perhaps this unfortunate fate might have been avoided.

But where Gamelayers failed, perhaps the community driven creativity, from players, for players, might make the Nethernet what it could have been. I can only imagine solutions such as federated servers, each of them possible to be hosted by any person’s desktop, sharing resources to allow the game to run smoothly. A team of free software programmers simply coding in the tools that people really want to have, that will make the game far more immersive and exciting, instead of the semi-boring event it is now. And by the nature of Free Software, you might see other versions of the Nethernet spring up, based on different universes rather than the same Victorian Steampunk one PMOG was always based on, again connected via distributed computing.

The possibilities are always there, but it is the curse of closed source initiatives to be always be based on the limited perspective of the developers, rather than opening up to the creativity of people “scratching their own itch”. Lets all hope that in the end, they will at least do the right thing and release the code under the AGPL as Nethernet’s last hurrah.

Pathfinder Db0, signing out…

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