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Food Force

Go on missions for the U.N. to bring food relief.

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A Guide to Freeware Games On the Mac

What are Freeware Games?

Freeware is a portmanteau of “free” and “software,” and as such, labels any kind of computer program that is available to the general public at no cost. There is a countless number and variety of such programs available online, including image manipulators like GIMP, office suites such as OpenOffice, and video players like VLC Media Player. As such, it should come to no surprise that computer games would also rank among them.

But why would anyone just put a game up for free? They’re not easy to make, and it can be a very profitable venture. Surely, one would think there has to be a catch of some sort. Sometimes there might very well be. Most of the time that’s not the case at all. The truth is people have a lot of reasons to freely share their work, reasons that extend beyond money.

Some aspiring game developers want to prove to prospective employers that they have what it takes to make it in the business. Producing a game requires a lot of talent, and landing a job with a developer is no easy task. But to make it possible, it never hurts for a job seeker to build a portfolio showcasing his or her talent. And what better way to do that than to make a game that anyone can try? By itself, it’s always a good thing to put on a resume, but if it also becomes an unexpected hit, hey, it’s even more publicity!

Related to the above, oftentimes, a game is the result of a university project. These are often team-based affairs, as game development often is, but the intent is more about studying, experimentation, or at the very least, getting a good grade. And like the above, it potentially provides free publicity to everyone involved.

Sometimes, a game is an open source project in progress. That is, an individual or team put together a game, a rough skeleton of a game, or at least some workable assets, and put it and its source code up for public use. Usually, the intent of this is to allow other skilled programmers to work on what has already been produced and add on to it, hopefully turning it into something legendary. Many programs, both freeware and commercial, found their origins this way, so it’s only natural that some games do the same.

In rare cases, games are used by non-profit organizations, like a charity or political group, to educate and inform the public about the organization and/or its goals. In a way, games can be used as propaganda, like any book, newspaper, and televised broadcast to be. This might seem a little scary, but games are just another means to relay messages, especially as they become a more common form of media.

In some cases, even profiteering companies get in on the action. They will happily put their products up for download, for purposes of advertisement, publicity, or to improve public relations with their customers. Oftentimes, they’ll release older games as freeware in order to promote their upcoming products, like sequels. In the end, freely providing a game can prove to be a profitable venture, albeit an indirect one.

But more often than not, some people just want to show off what they can do! The magic of the internet has allowed folks from all walks of life to exchange and share their creations to millions of people. There are artistic films to find on YouTube, pictures and paintings on deviantArt, and stories to read on, all of which prove that point. The reason why some people share their games is the same: because they can.

The History of Freeware Games

The history of the freeware game is closely tied to the history of the open source software movement. It’s difficult to pinpoint when exactly it began, perhaps because it in turn goes hand-in-hand with the development of both computer technology and the internet. It could arguably stretch back to the advent of UNIX as the first widely available operating system. As it went through tweaks throughout the 1970s and 1980s, there came to be several different versions of it, all owned by various companies and proprietors, and it was getting hard to keep track of them all.

In 1984, Richard Stallman attempted to rectify this problem by beginning the GNU project. The goal was to create a proprietary-free version of UNIX that could be used, read, modified and distributed by anyone and to anyone at no extra cost. Though Stallman was able to publish a public license in 1989, it wasn’t until 1991 when the project goal could finally be realized when a certain software engineer named Linus Torvalds developed the necessary kernel needed to complete it. That kernel was dubbed Linux, and it would go on as the go-to alternative operating system to Microsoft Windows and Mac OS in the coming years.

Business quickly went online over the course of mid to late 1990s, and with it came even more free and open source applications. For example, the Apache HTTP Server, created by the non-profit Apache Software Foundation, rapidly became the most popular web server software for this very reason. But it wasn’t just programs that were being shared. For the first time in history, anyone could exchange and present material to thousands, if not millions, at once, including news, stories, artwork, music, software and of course, computer games. Though these things could certainly be bought and sold as usual, physical distribution was no longer a factor, making the option to share for free easier than ever.

The 1990s saw a small library of high-profile freeware games. The most prominent were limited to user-made mods of pre-existing commercial games, like the innumerable map packs for Doom, or in games created using proprietary software, like Flash or RPG Maker 95. It wasn’t until the 2000s when the open source movement grew large enough for the public eye that games became easier to find on the net.

However, the year 1997 did mark the beginning of development of Racing Car Simulator. More commonly referred to as RCS, it was a two-dimensional racing game created by Eric Espié and Christophe Guionneau. They were later able to update it with advanced 3D graphics, and eventually finalized the name TORCS, or The Open Racing Car Simulator. It was produced for a wide variety of platforms, including Windows, Linux and Mac OSX. The source code was released online with it, and to this day, it is still being changed and updated by its fans, with the latest version at 1.3.2. TORCS’ code has even gone into other open source projects, such as Speed Dreams..

Perhaps one of the more unusual games to come out, in both the commercial and freeware world, was America’s Army. It was unusual in that it was not the work of any hobbyist or even a professional developer, but by the United States Army itself. In that, calling it freeware might be a bit of a stretch for anyone living in the U.S. as though it doesn’t actually costs money to download, it’s important to remember that it is funded by tax dollars regardless. Released in July 2002, it was intended to educate the gaming crowd on standard Army protocols and simulate realistic combat, all in an effort to step up waning enlistment. It played like many popular multiplayer first-person shooters at the time, but with a greater emphasis on realism, eschewing genre conventions like health bars, re-spawning after death, and running while firing a weapon. Official support for America’s Army has continued since its inception, with new levels, features, expansions, and sequels released periodically over the years. America’s Army 3, released in 2009, is the most up-to-date edition as of 2011.

It’s easy to see why the Army saw fit to make its own FPS. They had quickly become popular since the early 1990s, with the craze starting with Wolfenstein 3-D. Though that particular title quickly got overshadowed by some of its successors, like Doom, it nevertheless gained both a following and sequel in 2001. Return to Castle Wolfenstein as it was called was set to have an expansion pack called Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory, a joint-project by developers id Software and Splash Damage. That…unfortunately never happened. Repeated delays and problems with putting together a single player campaign resulted in its cancellation. Not wanting anything to go to waste, the developers decided to just release what was completed in 2003, which consisted of the full multiplayer game and six maps. Ultimately, it proved to be a surprisingly daring and high quality product despite the nonexistent price tag, combining elements of class-based shooters like Team Fortress with an RPG-like experience system that worked surprisingly well. Taking note of the fan base it had built up, the source code was released in 2004. A modding community for Enemy Territory built up from that and did wonders to increase the lifetime of the game for many years.

Meanwhile, following in the Army’s footsteps, the United Nations World Food Programme decided to make their own game to educate the public. They did this in the form of 2005’s Food Force, an educational game meant to teach children about world hunger and how the UFP provides relief. It was a medley of six bite-sized games, from simple arcade-like affairs to some light simulation, including one where the player would attempt to develop a poor village over the course of an in-game decade. Though its quality as both a game and educational tool is regarded as mixed, the ramifications of the project were quite evident; games could be used to bring a message.

Of course, typical arcade games and shooters are not the only ones people play. A lot of casual users enjoy those basic but timeless card games like poker, all of which can be played out of all sorts of online outlets. The problem with those, however, is that they’re usually gambling sites that require you to cough up some money. Hardly freeware, and dangerous to boot for anyone with a gambling addiction. That’s where PokerTH came in. Beginning development in 2006 by Felix Hammer and Florian Thauer, it granted enthusiasts the chance to play Texas hold ‘em against an AI opponent, or up to ten players online, purely for fun, no money required. Better yet, it came with a number of adjustable settings, allowing for further customization of play. Development has been slow, unfortunately, and as of 2011, PokerTH has still not reached a status that can be labeled as complete, being up to version 0.8.3. But it’s stable and there for poker enthusiasts to enjoy as is for the time being.

As said before, the development and distribution of freeware games is not just the act of independent enthusiasts, or educational material by larger non-profit organizations; commercial developers can also be involved. Sometimes, it’s just so that an otherwise unfinished product can at least see the light of day, as the previously mentioned Enemy Territory proved. But most of the time, companies take a far more pragmatic approach to making their games free.

Some of these are re-releases that stretch far back; one puzzle game entitled “3 in Three,” released in 1989 was made free by its creator, Cliff Johnson, in preparation for a sequel currently in production, called The Fool and His Money. In 2005, Bungie, having become famous for the Halo franchise, released the trilogy that put them on the map, called Marathon, for PC and Mac systems alike. And the original Command and Conquer real-time strategy game was released as freeware by EA in 2007, in celebration of the series’ 12th anniversary, with its sequel, Red Dawn, sharing the same fate the following year. Those are but a few examples, and all of them were done for the purpose of the companies promoting their latest products.

But perhaps the most high-profile case of a commercial game becoming free to play happened as recently as June 2011. The game in question? The wildly popular and critically-acclaimed Team Fortress 2, developed by Valve. This online FPS, originally released in late 2007 as part of the Orange Box bundle pack, became freely available on the company’s proprietary Steam distribution program. Where it differs from the previous examples is that it was far from dead when the motion was made, and showed no signs of slowing down. Team Fortress 2 is in fact still officially supported, with full dedicated servers and regular updates. This is due to the adoption of a brand new business model for it; funding no longer comes from people buying the game, but from purchasing virtual items, like weapons, taunts and clothing for their character sprites, from an in-game store using real money. Mind you, this is nothing new, as some MMORPGs have used similar models, but not only are the purchasable goods in Team Fortress 2 optional and not needed to stay competitive, but they can also be obtained for free by just by playing normally. Where it will go from here is anyone’s guess, but so far, many agree that it may very well change how companies treat their hit products in the future.

Who Might Like Freeware Games?

Generally, anyone who enjoys video games should like freeware games! Gaming’s great, whether you play on your own or with friends. But it can be an expensive hobby, with games running anywhere from $20 to $60. And worse, you never can tell what the quality will be; like everything else in this universe, not all games are made equally, and some are notably worse than others. And due to the way software usually works, with anti-piracy measures often in place, computer games can seldom be returned or sold secondhand.

Which is why freeware is so awesome! It allows you to test the waters of the game, to see if it works for you! Or if not for you, possibly for your children, to see if it’s the kind of thing they would enjoy, or if the material is suitable for them.

Better yet, if you have an interest in learning game development or programming, either for enjoyment or as a career, there’s no better place to start than with freeware. The open source movement started by Richard Stallman grows stronger everyday, and many games have their guts laid out waiting for prospective modders like you to have a look at them.

Freeware games come in all shapes and forms. Racing games, first-person shooters, puzzle games, strategy games, and card simulators have all been listed here. But there are also ample amounts of adventure games, RPGs, simulators, and others that just don’t fit anywhere else. They can range from simple to complex, produced in Flash or with straight C++ code, can go for a retro look or even have production values on par with many of today’s top commercial games. There’s always something new out there, and in playing it there’s nothing to lose!