I have a confession to make. It’s not easy to talk about, but like pulling off a Band Aid, it’s best to do it quickly, and without too much thought. Here we go: I blew a whole Saturday – all of 14 hours – role-playing a barbarian. I don’t mean playing a role-playing game on the computer, I mean sitting around a table with five other people (who shall remain anonymous, lest I reduce their mating potential), battling the undead in subterranean dungeons, and rolling dice with 20 sides. I didn’t dress up in barbarian garb, but I may have misused the words ‘thee’ and ‘thou’.
In the decade or so since my last pen-and-paper session, things haven’t changed much – we still roll dice, we still pore over rulebooks, and simple things still take hours to resolve. There’s one major difference, however, and that’s the recent introduction of computer assistance. Pen-and-paper RPG fans will attest to the laborious number crunching when creating a character or conducting rounds of combat, but thanks to a slew of dedicated applications that help track combat and display maps, heavy computing tasks are offloaded onto a device that does it better than the human brain.
Most of the applications are open source downloads that have every possible feature you can ever want, for every rule system, for any occasion. But here’s the kicker: they’re buggy and incomplete, with startlingly poor user interfaces, and an unnecessarily steep learning curve. In other words, they fit the mould of most open source software.
In the early years of this century, I dedicated many column inches to open source software. That was partly because I was fascinated by the idea that people were donating their free time to community-run projects, but more importantly, it was a controversial and divisive topic, where supporters thought it was the way of the future, and detractors thought it was a bubble waiting to burst. These days, the controversy has all but dribbled away. Few would doubt that open source is now a viable model for software development, with its own economic advantages and success stories – and the same can be said for proprietary software.
But why are we still wrestling with interfaces, poor documentation, and nonsensical idiosyncrasies? This might be excusable if the audience is very large or disparate – but few things could be easier to cater for than tabletop role-players with a precise set of requirements.
The answer is actually quite simple: there’s no need. Open source defines a development process, where people donate their code and a gatekeeper chooses to put it into the product – if you don’t like, or want to change it, then start your own project. The other core focus of open source is its licence, restricting how the code is passed from one person to another.
Neither of these elements suggests any imperative to prioritise the end user’s experience. There’s a need to cater for developers or those with technical knowledge, as they are mostly likely to contribute to the project, but for the poor sucker using the software, there’s little need to keep them happy. And why would there be? It’s free to use, and if you don’t like it, you can go find something else.
Proprietary software, on the other hand, lives or dies by its end users, and consequently, most have a stronger focus on usability and common interface designs. Firefox and OpenOffice may sound like exceptions to the Open source rule, but remember that both of these applications where based on, or related to, proprietary software.
This is certainly a generalisation, but few could argue that proprietary and open source software differ greatly in how they cater for end users. And in this aspect, open source software doesn’t stand a chance.
This Feature appeared in the December, 2007 issue of PC & Tech Authority Magazine