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Subject: Open Board Gaming: A Free and Open Board Gaming site rss

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Marc Lanctot
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Hello,

I've had this idea for a few years now.. I've spread it out there without much response, but I think this forum is finally the right place to push this.

The Open Board Gaming site is a games site, like Yahoo Games!, BSW, GameTableOnline.. with one major difference: it's open! This means anybody (programmers) can write games for it, and after sufficient testing and polishing, the games can be hosted up on the site along with all the other games. The idea is to draw on the Web 2.0 paradigm of user-driven content or "crowd-sourcing". With proper documentation and good programming practices this can turn into a successful project and everyone benefits from it.

Why a new board gaming site, you may ask? The two biggest "free" sites (one of them isn't really free anymore) out there are: BrettspielWelt (BSW) and GameTableOnline (GTO). Well, there are problems with both of those sites.. and since there is one body in charge of decisions and development, anybody out there who wants to fix these problems has no way of doing so. BSW doesn't allow you to host games until you have reached a certain score, the players they attract are often impatient, overly competitive, sometimes outright rude, and often have problems communicating in English. GTO is having problems so they had to start charging for games, their client is in a pretty bad state and missing some pretty important basic features, it's also written in Java but doesn't support the Mac. And of course, the biggest problem with both of these sites: only certain people can write games for them. In this day and age, programmers are a plenty, especially games programmers. Many of them are willing to spend time implementing their favorite game in a well-developed, well-documented framework if it meant they could play it online... for free!

The free and open source development methodology is a lot different than the classical closed-source business model. You can attract developers from everywhere. It doesn't cost you money for their work. They are, by virtue of offering voluntary work, very enthusiastic to work on these projects. Often, open-source projects are even developed better than their closed source counterparts because the community forces good programming practices. There are many examples of great open-source applications: Linux, Mozilla, Firefox, etc. The downside, of course, is that development takes longer. But so what? If we have a high quality and free product at the end, then we're all happy.

Concerning costs and money. The biggest cost for an endeavour like this is labor. That's what we get for free. Hosting is cheap. Board games are cheap. Some initial investment might be necessary (and this I would be willing to put in), but after that, even the slightest little bit of advertising pays for monthly costs. This is how many crowd-sourced web sites operate.

That leaves us with legalities. I haven't looked into this in much detail yet, but it is a very important issue. You can't just host a free game that someone else owns the copyright to and expect to get away with it without a lawsuit. First of all, the rules of a game cannot be copyrighted, but any of the art is including "art" that is part of the rulebook. I do have a preliminary solution to this.. but lawyers would be needed to verify its validity. I've seen some gaming sites buy copies of games and keep them sealed for the sole purpose of allowing players to play online. For the open board gaming site, this would mean the number of copies of a game owned and sealed is equal to the maximum number of instances of that game that can be played simultaneously. It's as if these players are "using" that copy of the board game when playing it online.

The site could host tournaments, have leagues, have player match-up algorithms, favorites/friends, and keep track of histories (game logs, for review). It could have rated and unrated games; players could have an ELO rating per game and an overall rating. It could have AI bots for games that anybody can implement. It could have a cell phone or PDA client. It could hook into social networking sites.. it could have play-by-email options. The possibilities are endless once you open the doors.

Some of the development work is already done, but it's still early enough that the design and architecture could be discussed. I will leave out the details here unless anybody wants to know.

So this is a call for feedback, and a call for help. Would you play one such a site? Would you implement games for it? Would you tell your friends and family about it? Etc. Etc.

Marc
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Dr Caligari
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In the case of abstract games, something similar exists. You should check out how Super Duper Games works. They allow users to implement games using Perl to be hosted on the site. This may not be the open source you are thinking of, but it comes close. They also manage to obtain the rights to the games on the site.

An interesting idea and I hope it all works out!
 
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Pelle Nilsson
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I don't see how a sealed copy of a game would matter at all. It would still be a violation of copyright to distribute copies of artwork or text from a game. And you will violate trademarks by using the names of almost any game without permission (not to speak of using logotypes etc).

Probably the only legal way to do it is to stick to really old games (ie chess) and to do rethemed clones of games (ie look at lots of other open source implementations of existing boardgames).

EDIT: Ooops. Forgot about the most obvious solutions: To base games upon Open Boardgames or develop new games from scratch.
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Pelle Nilsson
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I hope that in the spirit of being open and Web 2.0 as you say, open technologies will be mandated, rather than some of the closed plugins commonly used at the closed sites. In that case the site sounds like a truly good idea.
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Marc Lanctot
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andre_sand wrote:

In the case of abstract games, something similar exists. You should check out how Super Duper Games works. They allow users to implement games using Perl to be hosted on the site. This may not be the open source you are thinking of, but it comes close. They also manage to obtain the rights to the games on the site.


Seems like they only do PBEM games. I should have also mentioned Richard's PBEM Server. He's been doing something like this via email for years.. I'm hoping to make a real-time version like GTO and BSW.
 
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Marc Lanctot
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Regarding legal issues.. yes.. so I still have to look into this. Maybe it isn't feasible without clones.

pelni wrote:
I hope that in the spirit of being open and Web 2.0 as you say, open technologies will be mandated, rather than some of the closed plugins commonly used at the closed sites.


Of course; that's the idea. We want to get rid of all the burdens and hindrances that come with closed development.
 
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Good luck for your endevour.

sharky6000 wrote:
First of all, the rules of a game cannot be copyrighted, but any of the art is including "art" that is part of the rulebook.


The exact text of the rulebook and all of the art can be copyrighted. The mechanics of the game would have to be patented - something not done often in boardgames.

sharky6000 wrote:
I've seen some gaming sites buy copies of games and keep them sealed for the sole purpose of allowing players to play online.


I have never seen nor heard of this practice before. What are some sites you know which have done this?

Even the use of tools like Vassal have been hindered when the publisher disallows distribution of modules for their game (of course, many other publishers see the advertising and goodwill opportunities).
 
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Pelle Nilsson
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It seems like SuperDuperGames are not for PBEM really ("Essentially, it is a PbEM paradigm on the web. Users can submit a move and continue on with their day. Should their opponent happen to be online at the same time, there is nothing stopping them from exchanging a number of moves in quick succession, but the design does not require it.").

But as someone said, all games on that site appears to be abstract. Maybe their game engine just can't handle the graphics required by most non-abstract games?

With the javascript support etc in modern browsers, I think it should be possible to do quite complex boardgames without (closed) plugins. The big work would be to get some sort of library/engine thing running that can handle all the cross-browser problems, so that the coder of individual games can work without having to be bothered with that stuff.
 
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Marc Lanctot
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Oh, another point regarding legal uses of the copyrighted art. BSW manages to get away with it.. if they got permission from the game publishers / copyright holders, I don't see why we wouldn't be able to for this.

The architecture is still a question. Java applets or a full-fledged Java plugin seemed like a good idea back when platform compatibility was an issue, but after using GTO's and BSW's clients.. I'm thinking twice about Java. It's slow, clunky, ugly. These days you can get platform compatibility by using other technologies, eg. wxWidgets, which are far more performant and nice-looking. And, there's also the full-on browser option like Flash + Javascript (AJAX). I haven't decided this yet.. I'm waiting to see if I get any other developers interested and willing to help me out before having this dsicussion.

At the moment, I do have a general game engine coded in both C++ and Java. I have a few example (simple) games coded in both, but the clients are just started. But, I would be open to discussions about the technology. If a networked-multiplayer game framework could be done nicely entirely by web technologies, I would consider it.
 
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Zach May
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I think straight AJAX is the best option. Using a library like Prototype would smooth over browser incompatibilities and make for easier front-end development. HTML, CSS, and JavaScript (with the help of a decent library) are more than capable of providing all the interactivity needed for board game implementations without needing to resort to Java or plugins like Flash.

For the backend, I would personally prefer Python, but Java, Ruby, etc. would be fine too. With the right framework and libraries for game system modeling, the technology doesn't matter so much.
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Dave Dyer
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There are good reasons both for and against open source as a model. It's certainly useful to newcomers to start with a working framework, but that doesn't require that the framework itself be open source. The development of the framework isn't directly related to the development of individual games.

There are plenty of useful frameworks around. Vassal and Sun Tzu come to mind. Or Zillions of Games. http://www.gamegardens.com/ will host any game you develop using their kit. Lots of the hobbyist sites have development teams of volunteers which would presumably welcome qualified new members.

My site, Boardspace.net, is mostly my own effort so far, but I would welcome volunteers who add new games to the site.

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sharky6000 wrote:
Oh, another point regarding legal uses of the copyrighted art. BSW manages to get away with it.. if they got permission from the game publishers / copyright holders, I don't see why we wouldn't be able to for this.


I believe that the publishers pay BSW to implement and host their games.
 
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Marc Lanctot
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funkhauser wrote:
I think straight AJAX is the best option.


So I see people taking this route for most games nowadays, and I have to admit.. the experience is smooth --- from a user's perspective, at least for simple games.

But AJAX.. it seems (I don't have much experience with it, personally) like a very awkward development model.. like a bunch of mixed technologies that were not initially intended to be used in the way that they are being used. Also, doing it this way forces everything to go through a web server and web client (browser).

So, my question is: is there a benefit to using AJAX over say, having an actual downloadable client (like BSW and GTO) and then doing straight TCP/IP? Yes.. it saves a download, but is that such a big deal? As long as implementing a client could be made to be straight-forward and easy through AJAX, and the client code could still be as clean, then I would be willing to consider it -- I invite you to convince me

For example, suppose person A wants to implement game X. They write the server-side module in whatever language (TBD). Then, they want to implement a client-side GUI for their game. Will this GUI be as easy to implement as say, using a GUI toolkit for wxWidgets? To test it, they'll need to install a web server. Kind of inconvenient.. where, if it was all networked, they could just run the server locally with their game implemented in it.

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Marc Lanctot
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ddyer wrote:
There are good reasons both for and against open source as a model. It's certainly useful to newcomers to start with a working framework, but that doesn't require that the framework itself be open source. The development of the framework isn't directly related to the development of individual games.


That's true.. and something I've thought about.. I'm not decided on it yet. But I can't answer this: why close the framework? The idea is to attract people to a completely open gaming service. If any part of the thing can be improved, it should be encouraged (within reason, as long as there are guidelines to maintain a high quality user experience, of course). The plan is not to make money from this.. so I wouldn't want to hide anything.

ddyer wrote:
There are plenty of useful frameworks around. Vassal and Sun Tzu come to mind. Or Zillions of Games. http://www.gamegardens.com/ will host any game you develop using their kit. Lots of the hobbyist sites have development teams of volunteers which would presumably welcome qualified new members.


I didn't know about these. I can't comment further until I take a closer look. I'm surprised Game Gardens hasn't caught on... I think a lot of potential for a great idea can be ruined by bad aesthetics.. and my first impression wasn't good. Take Facebook.. the idea of social networking wasn't new, but facebook looked a lot better than the rest of them, couple of years later.. bam.. from-student-to-millionaire.

There's also GNU Gaming Zone, but I think they made some bad design decisions quite early on. And them too, not-so-good looking.

ddyer wrote:
My site, Boardspace.net, is mostly my own effort so far, but I would welcome volunteers who add new games to the site.


Wow.. how much time went into this? It looks like you're quite far along. If you are willing to open everything, I think we'd have a real head start. I urge you to consider it.. if you do, and have proper documentation, people *will* improve it, and before you know it it'll be the most popular gaming site around ;-)
 
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Dave Dyer
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sharky6000 wrote:

That's true.. and something I've thought about.. I'm not decided on it yet. But I can't answer this: why close the framework?


Developing a reusable framework is 10x harder than developing something that's perfectly satisfactory for current uses. A large part of that extra work has no immediate benefit. Managing an open source project, and keeping it from fragmenting, is a lot of work too.

Have a look at sourceforge.net - there are thousands of projects there that had grandiose intentions, but which never got far. There are thousands more that are really fine programs, but are the work of one or two developers; and despite the grand gesture of making them open source, no one cares and no one is working on them.

My current theory is that a useful open source project has to start with a multiple developers, more developers clamoring to jump in, and users clamoring for new features.

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Dave Dyer
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sharky6000 wrote:

Wow.. how much time went into this?

See: http://boardspace.net/english/sitecomponents.html
sharky6000 wrote:

It looks like you're quite far along. If you are willing to open everything, I think we'd have a real head start. I urge you to consider it.. if you do, and have proper documentation, people *will* improve it, and before you know it it'll be the most popular gaming site around ;-)

At this point in time, my model is a new collaborator would establish their standing by implementing a few games. In my book, the steering committee is the same as the rowing committee.
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I think you will find it very difficult to combine open source with being able to get permissions from anyone to use their graphics. Unless you want the game to have a free license, but only be distributable without the graphics.

AJAX would be nice, compared to other in-browser options. For more complex graphics, but still possible to do on most or all major browsers, without plugin-requirements, you could have a look at HTML5 Canvas. Not sure you really need that to do boardgames though. For downloadable cross-platform clients I think PyGame is a good option.

Although anything that does not just run in a browser will require user installation and work to support each platform (even with a cross-platform toolkit like wxwidgets you would need people to download specific binaries or build from source; with pygame it is slightly easier, but still every user would need to figure out how to install python+pygame).
 
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I would suggest joining an existing project and helping them implement whatever you think is lacking. Starting from scratch is a waste of time if your goal is to get a functioning system which people will actually use.

VASSAL, for example, already is quite featureful and has a large userbase. But we could really use more developers than we have right now. We would welcome anyone who wants to help.
 
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Hey all - we developed tabletop network, more of a "whiteboarding" program for general game use. Our focus was on general tools for all sorts of board and card games. We didn't want to code rules enforcement, because it's so time-intensive. Our theory was that with voice communication and the right tools, players could use to play a wide range of games.
You can see our demo video at www.tabletopnetwork.com

The first version (in the video) was a peer to peer using skype. We recently have been migrating to flash 9(much faster) and have a basic table running there. The new version uses a socket server and would be embeddable in any webpage. Right now the project is on hold, since we're unsure how to make it a business. If there are other developers(ActionScript 3) willing to work with us on it, we'd be happy to open it up.

Tim
 
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sharky6000 wrote:
funkhauser wrote:
I think straight AJAX is the best option.


So I see people taking this route for most games nowadays, and I have to admit.. the experience is smooth --- from a user's perspective, at least for simple games.

But AJAX.. it seems (I don't have much experience with it, personally) like a very awkward development model.. like a bunch of mixed technologies that were not initially intended to be used in the way that they are being used. Also, doing it this way forces everything to go through a web server and web client (browser).

So, my question is: is there a benefit to using AJAX over say, having an actual downloadable client (like BSW and GTO) and then doing straight TCP/IP? Yes.. it saves a download, but is that such a big deal? As long as implementing a client could be made to be straight-forward and easy through AJAX, and the client code could still be as clean, then I would be willing to consider it -- I invite you to convince me

For example, suppose person A wants to implement game X. They write the server-side module in whatever language (TBD). Then, they want to implement a client-side GUI for their game. Will this GUI be as easy to implement as say, using a GUI toolkit for wxWidgets? To test it, they'll need to install a web server. Kind of inconvenient.. where, if it was all networked, they could just run the server locally with their game implemented in it.




The benefit to using AJAX over a downloadable client is portability. Android and iPhones support AJAX very well with their webkit-based browsers. Neither one does flash or java on the client yet.

It's also very easy to implement crossplatform vector and raster graphics with a good javascript UI toolkit.
 
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Pelle Nilsson
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I think it is the curse of open source that 99 % of developers seem to prefer to start a new project rather than joining an existing one.
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Marc Lanctot
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This will be answering a few points made in the last few posts.

Personally, I doesn't matter to me long it takes to build this. It won't happen overnight. If it takes five years, so be it. The point is that it has to be done well to succeed. Well-designed and well-developed open source projects succeed. Many don't get past the idea stage. Some do, and still fail, because for outsiders to actually contribute, it usually takes evidence that enough of the initial work has been already done. I agree that this initial hurdle is best to do between a small group of active developers, rather than a large group of people who just throw ideas at each other, which is why I already have some of the core already done. I have a general game framework in C++ with around 10 games implemented (only server-side) and well-tested. I know this code so well that I could implement something like Carcassonne in it in less than a day. With a close friend, we also have a Java framework. This one is a bit further.. it has the server-side architecture, a well-tested card game, and the start of a lobby client that currently supports logins, rooms and tables, but no game clients yet. The clients are the most laborious, and lack of time to work on this means its development is going in slow motion. All this to say I do realize that the "build it, and they will come" attitude is the way to spark good open source projects, and this thread was not necessarily meant to be a call for a mass of developers to start building the core.

I've had some reconsiderations about a Java client lately. They're just ugly, awkward, and slow. I don't know if I want to keep working with Java on the front-end. I haven't fully decided yet. As a user, I want something that has the professional look of the GTO client (not the lobby but the games) without the hit on performance that is inherent with Java clients. But I still think Java on the server side is fine.

Concerning the "don't re-invent the wheel" comments.. I'm not against using something that already exists. I didn't know about VASSAL. This thread was partly to see what people thought of such a service, and so I can get better informed-- the AJAX comments have been useful. I will have to look at VASSAL more closely when I have time, and see if its direction coincides with my vision.. and if so, I would gladly join it rather than start from scratch. But of course, if I see design flaws that make the project more of a hassle to work with rather than starting from scratch, then why would I work on it? This is how open source projects succeed.. they learn from others' mistakes. At the moment, I'm turned off by the idea of a Java client.. which is why, despite how much progress has been made with Boardspace.net, I'd feel unmotivated implementing games for it. Tabletopnetwork is a great idea, and I would probably use it as a player, but without enforcing the rules it would be too difficult to have AI players, log games, keeping track of ratings, hold tournaments, etc. which takes a lot away from a full game service. Part of what would be so great is this site would be able to let people learn how to play a game by playing an unrated game against a random AI, which is trivial to implement if you have something that gives you the legal moves. And letting outsiders develop AI for the games is another draw.

Another purpose of this thread was to spread the idea out there and get feedback. I want to know gamers think. So, let me repeat that this is not necessarily a call for developers. I have little free time, and will decide to continue with what I've got or to join an existing project, and the feedback from this thread will certainly influence what I decide on doing in the end (including the choice of technology to use). Either way, this project is years from a beta version meant for the general public, but I want it done right and done well rather than done quickly.

 
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Dave Dyer
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Just a few comments.

I don't believe your aversion to Java as a front end is well founded.
Ultimately everything that executes in the user's environment will have
approximately the same performance - be it java, ajax, flash or a
downloaded native client.

I don't believe game engines with game specific knowledge should
be embedded in the back end. It doesn't scale, and it loads the
complex, rapidly developing code into the server where it is hard
to debug. For some kinds of games it may be unavoidable, but it
shouldn't be the default model.

Developers need users to motivate them. The number of developers
you'll find who are willing to work for years, for free, on a pie
in the sky "do it right" project is going to be zero. Developers
also need users to point the way to go. Nobody is smart enough to
work in a vacuum.
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Richard Walter
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sharky6000 wrote:

Concerning the "don't re-invent the wheel" comments.. I'm not against using something that already exists. I didn't know about VASSAL.


Take a look at Jogre ( http://sourceforge.net/projects/jogre/ ). It's an existing open-source gaming platform. However, it is Java...

I think that you underestimate the problem that is getting a critical mass of players together. That is the hard part, not writing the code.

I have great respect for Dave and what's he's done with boardspace.net; don't discount his opinions lightly...

-Richard
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Marc Lanctot
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ddyer wrote:

I don't believe your aversion to Java as a front end is well founded.
Ultimately everything that executes in the user's environment will have
approximately the same performance - be it java, ajax, flash or a
downloaded native client.


I have dealt with Java for years and have made many Java apps with Swing. My experience has been that as soon as you add animations, sound, multiple threads, lots of networking, you start to notice the overhead a lot. And that's apart from the aesthetic issue, which can be solved, with a good amount of effort (eg. Yahoo Games, Lexulous). I just think relying on a "simulated cross-platform" GUI toolkit for the mere fact of getting platform compatibility is not much of a benefit anymore.

ddyer wrote:

I don't believe game engines with game specific knowledge should
be embedded in the back end. It doesn't scale, and it loads the
complex, rapidly developing code into the server where it is hard
to debug. For some kinds of games it may be unavoidable, but it
shouldn't be the default model.


Are you suggesting that the rule-resolving code be in the client? How do you prevent cheating via client-side hacks?

You can make the server-based rule enforcing code scale without much effort, but it may require more hardware. Just have multiple servers acting as rooms, which get open/closed dynamically based on their load. When users "sit down" at a table, the main server directs them to an unloaded table server.

ddyer wrote:

Developers need users to motivate them. The number of developers
you'll find who are willing to work for years, for free, on a pie
in the sky "do it right" project is going to be zero. Developers
also need users to point the way to go. Nobody is smart enough to
work in a vacuum.


Sure, of course. I don't need tons of developers to get it started. The best way to spark interest is just to do it (myself), as you did with Boardspace.net. The reason I say it will take years is because this will be something only I'm working on in my limited spare time.. I don't expect to start attracting users until it's ready to go public.
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