On community, respect, and trademarks: the story of Nexuiz

About a month ago or so, I started playing a community-maintained GPL first-person shooter (FPS) called Nexuiz. I checked it out after tiring of OpenArena; I played tons of Quake 3 Arena back during my second round of getting into proprietary PC games back in the day, so OpenArena fit me style like a glove at first. But Nexuiz had a bit more of an allure to it, and after a while I realized the more I played Nexuiz, the more I liked it.

And it took me a while to really put my finger on why. I remember a certain player saying something like “I’m surprised you haven’t given up already” during a particularly bad game. And the players came to know me as the guy that has really weird taste in maps, but I’m welcomed and appreciated. That’s what it was: the community around the game, as much as the game itself.

So it was a bit of a shocker to pop on the IRC channel and read a whole bunch of flaming and controversy about a console (PlayStation 3) version of Nexuiz being made by a company called Illfonic. What upset everyone was not the console version itself, but that the domain name nexuiz.com had been repurposed to promote almost exclusively the console version, at the expense of the community-developed GPL version for the PC. (I’m not linking to them here for reasons that should become obvious.)

Now, there’s all manner of bad blood against Lee Vermeulen, the nominal owner of the nexuiz.com domain (he did not actually transfer the domain to Illfonic) and Alientrap (Vermeulen’s company). It’s widely believed that Mr. Vermeulen just saw the dollar signs and acted on his own best interests, caring little about the community around the game. Many consider Vermeulen’s actions paramount to theft and fraud against the community that made Nexuiz what it is while Vermeulen sat mostly idle. Contributing to the ill will is that Vermeulen’s idea of who was actually in Alientrap for the purposes of splitting the income from the licensing deal leaves out several people who thought they were “in” but are being left out in the cold.

In the coming days it would become more obvious that the name and goodwill behind it meant as much to the community as the game itself. I never really saw this happen with any other FPS game, whether it be any version of Doom, Heretic, Quake, Half-Life, etc. As it stands now, the next move is a fork of the Nexuiz codebase and probably a name change. I view this as very sad, very unfortunate, and something that should have been unnecessary, but it highlights the advantage of free software: if one doesn’t like the direction a project is taking, one can always take the source code, fork and begin one’s own.

I learned a lot about public relations, trademarks, goodwill, and community from this incident. I’ll summarize a few of the key points:

  • Communication is key when it comes to communities and community projects. If you’re part of a community project and the registration for the domain name or the Web hosting account is in your name, that does not make it yours outright. If there is any doubt at all in your mind as to whether others might object, consult with them before making any moves. This is especially true in the case of games being adapted to proprietary game consoles, something many who respect their freedoms will object to on philosphical grounds.
  • Goodwill and trust take a long time to build and can be lost very quickly. Few people in the community now trust Mr. Vermeulen. I sure don’t. I don’t really trust or like Illfonic a lot either. I cannot honestly say I wish the console port of Nexuiz much success. Now to be fair, it’s not really Illfonic’s fault that they are less liked than they otherwise might have been had Vermeulen been more transparent with the community in his dealings. But that’s the way things are. There are still people who will call it “FeeNex” or “Noxuiz” (the latter being pronounced a lot like “noxious”) thanks to the dubious circumstances under which the console port came to be.
  • Trademark law as it stands appears not to adequately recognizes a community-based or community-held trademark for a non-profit project such as Nexuiz. In general, copyright, patent, and trademark law needs to be brought up to current times now that free software and community-based projects are often the rule rather than the exception. This goes beyond software, it also extends to things like BarCamp and other community-based events.
  • The community is often just as important as the thing that brings that community together. I still talk to someone from the Dance Dance Revolution/Bemani games scene of the mid 2000’s even though that scene has mostly died off and I probably could not play DDR worth a damn today were I to try again.

As further developments arise, I may follow up on this post. This is still ongoing as I write this.