Copyright is failing Nicky Liow. The developer got his start rearranging code in open source games passed around for free online. He’s a self-taught programmer that learned by doing, and did so with the help of the free spread of ideas and information.
Now he’s giving something back. Nothing to Hide is his upcoming puzzle game — an “anti-stealth” game where the goal is to constantly be seen. It’s a blunt statement on the nature of surveillance culture and it’s completely without copyright. The art, the code and the music are entirely in the public domain, even as the game is being developed.
The game’s funding, too, is open to the public. Nothing to Hide is offered through Liow’s own site in a way that keeps him accountable. He only takes 25% of a pledge for each milestone (once at the start, and again when the game hits alpha, beta, and final release). Anyone unhappy with the state of the game can withdraw their remaining funds at any time.
I spoke with Liow to discover why he sought to create an entirely “public” game. His inspiration, it seems, comes from the same place as his skill as a programmer.
“People would offer their open-source Flash files online and I would take them, modify them, hack around a little bit, change the art, change the code a little bit,” Liow told Gamezebo about his early days in programming. “Open source art and open source code was what really helped me get to learn how to get into games.”
The free spread of ideas isn’t just a cause to rally behind. For Liow, it was the start of his livelihood as a game developer. It allowed him a mode of expression, and it’s because of this that remix culture is so important to him. Even the financial support for his own game is based on the free idea of crowdfunding; an economic meme with roots in the 17th century.
“Compared to, like, Code Academy, and what other code teaching sites are doing right now… They teach you how to create things like ‘Hello World’ and a bunch of other stuff,” he said. “It’s just … not as as exciting as creating a platformer game.”
Working with predesigned code gave Liow practical inspiration. He explained that “compared to something that reverses an array or some very beginner program stuff, even if they take the same amount of skill, the pure code one versus the one where you’re modding an open source game — modding the open source game brings a lot more satisfaction.”
“In the beginning you have a game, and at the end you also still have a game, but it’s also now sort of yours.”
The original game is still there, and so is the new creation. Nothing has been “stolen” as the friendly, accusatory “You wouldn’t steal a car!” ads explain. Something new has been created after the fact.
The motives behind this are satirized by Nothing to Hide’s plot. On pain of death, the game’s fictional government requires its citizens to spy on themselves. It’s not about fear, of course. The big, bad government isn’t afraid of its red-haired protagonist. It wants to feel a measure of power and security by putting a stamp on something that shouldn’t be controlled.
Such is the case with the corporate culture that clings behind “life of the artist plus 70 years” and attempts to trademark common words like “saga.” It’s about holding a measure of power over things that don’t belong exclusively to anyone.
Liow is concerned with power as well, just not in the same way.
“By giving up power over our art, our art has more power,” his website states.
It’s a philosophy that seems to be working out. Liow has already been reached by individuals looking to help him spread Nothing to Hide’s message. One other developer is trying to help port the game to iOS, while another is working on optimization fixes one man couldn’t find on his own.
“I was hoping this game, with its art and code being open, could help other people. Maybe they want to reuse some of the art, because I know a lot of programmers that are crappy artists.”
The system may have failed Nicky Liow. That’s not stopping him from creating his own system, a better system, on the back of what came before.
You can find and help support Liow and Nothing to Hide on back.nothingtohide.cc. There’s an HTML5 demo and open source toolkit available now with Mac, Windows, and a possible Linux version dropping shortly.