Actually, “franchise" is a financial term for the way that “character franchises" are sold and/or retained as intellectual property, so you may have to bear with me on stretching the meaning a bit (or maybe not—hold that thought).
Part of the success of gaming companies like Nintendo is their cultivation and use of trademarked characters like “Mario" and “Princess Peach". If you think about it, these characters are basically the only reason anyone ever buys games like “Mario Kart". But it works—this kind of stuff really sells. And when I say “works", I mean “works on me" not just the stereotypical Walmart shopper who buys into “Hello Kitty" or “The Disney Princesses".
I’d much rather race as Princess Peach than the SuSE Lizard (does that ugly thing even have a name?) anyday (I’ll hesitate to dis Tux, he is awfully cute, and even the BSD Daemon isn’t too bad).
Furthermore, these need to have a more developed character. We know for instance that Mario is a plumber and that he hails from the Mushroom Kingdom (at least you know this if your 10-yr-old son tells you, I have to admit to not being so involved myself), and you know that Princess Peach is a princess of the Mushroom Kingdom (also that her last name is “Toadstool"). More importantly, we know that Peach always wears pink, is perhaps a wee bit vain, but is very cute and well-liked nevertheless.
Okay, I admit they’re still pretty flat. It’s a video game, not Tolstoy, folks.
But we still have less characterization for our favorite free software mascots. We do have a teensy bit of character development in a game like Slune, in that we know that Tux and Gnu are counter-culture AIDS drug runners and the SuSE Lizard is a slimy corporate stooge (gosh I hope no one gets legally offended by that—it’s a cute game). Too bad the graphics don’t really do the characters justice in Slune, because it’s some of the best writing improvement these characters have seen.
But this is definitely the exception. For the most part, I’m afraid that Tux looks like a lifeless stuffed animal.
But the truth is that Tux is primarily there to sell Linux, Daemon is there to sell BSD, and Gnu is there to sell the Free Software Foundation.
So, in their day job as “mascots" they don’t necessarily have to be good “characters". The main reason free software game designers have used these characters (or turned these mascots into characters) is desperation! There just aren’t enough free characters available, and there’s certainly no effort to build a good free software game character franchise.
Is anyone bothered by the fact that there are NO GIRLS in the free software universe? Oh yeah, I forgot about “Gown"—which is Tux with a pink pallette or a bow on her head. Okay, so maybe just NO COOL GIRLS in the free software universe. Still, we can do better than that!
Nintendo isn’t totally cleared on that score either—Peach is pretty much it for the Mario franchise, although Nintendo does have a lot of other characters to draw on, from games like Zelda, Star Fox, and Metroid. Maybe this is because Girlz Don’t Exist on teh Intarweb, but my own experience says differently.
It’s useful to remember that Mario and Peachy came the other way—they started out just as characters in their games. The first game for Mario didn’t even have his name or image on it—that was Donkey Kong (who is still included in the franchise, but not nearly as popular). It was only after these games became popular that Nintendo started using the characters to sell more games, which is what made the franchise grow.
Now, people know the characters so well that they sell games just because of their presence. This is pretty much the whole premise behind Super Mario Smash Bros, which is just all the Nintendo franchise characters hammering at each other in a hand-to-hand martial arts fight game. My kids love it.
Tux is nice, but he doesn’t inspire that kind of loyalty. Mainly because he just sits there. Since he didn’t start out as a character, though, that shouldn’t really surprise anyone. He just has no back story, and I’m not sure that he really needs one.
What we need is better and more popularized characters. And more girls, too.
Despite the assurances that it’s not true, there actually is an anti-commercial bias to a lot of free software development. One of many reasons for writing free software is getting fed up with “commercialism".
Some will argue that the only purpose for this kind of character franchise is to sell games, and we free software folks are above all that.
But of course, that’s not true. We’re trying to sell free software pretty hard, in fact. We want a world with more free software and more free software games in it, so that we don’t have to rent our culture from commercial organizations (or not all of it, anyway). The whole concept of copyleft is about leveraging our own effort to get more free software created.
So what can be done?
So, is there a free analog to the commercial game character franchise?
From a technical perspective, such a thing is just a conveniently re-usable set of game resources, and we don’t necessarily have that. As things stand, game creators generally have to make their own game resources. So before Steve Baker made TuxKart, he pretty much had to do all his own 3D sprite modelling work for Tux and company (whoops, it turns out Steve’s Tux was actually for his earlier game “A Quest for Herring", he has a History of Tux, BTW). Same when Ingo Ruhnke did Pingus or Jasmin Patry made Tux Racer.
A common distribution of resources in re-usable forms—2D sprites at different sizes, SVG vector renderings, and 3D models (usually in more than one style—such as “full size" and “chibi" in high- and low-poly versions), would go a long way to making it easier to incorporate a range of characters in various games. That would be pretty much a pure artist project, and leave the game design and programming up to programmers who wouldn’t have to do all custom character artwork.
From a legal perspective, artists would want to make sure that these characters can be used in free-licensed games, and they might want to restrict them to free-licensed games.
Interestingly, a copyleft may not be good enough for that. On the plus side, an artistic copyleft license like the Creative Commons By-SA, which is popular for this kind of work is generally compatible with GPL games for the simple reason that character resources are game data, and so are not covered by the GPL copyleft on the software, while the By-SA doesn’t cover the game. So, some of the “license proliferation" and “incompatibility" fears can be overlooked.
In fact, it’s usually going to be true that a commercial proprietary game can use By-SA game data without freeing the game’s source code. Many artists might not care about that, but if you do, you may find this a bit dismaying.
Worse, artists, for whom the anti-commercial motivation is often stronger, may naively think that using a “non-commercial" license is the way to do this. It isn’t! A non-commercial license will prevent most free-licensed games from using it, too. Even if there is no actual legal condition preventing them being combined, most free software distribution channels cannot distribute “non-commercial" licensed art—so they’d be forced to strip the NC characters out of the game before distributing it, which defeats the purpose.
You should know, though, that most character franchises aren’t just copyrighted, they are also trademarked. It is the trademark on Mickey Mouse that makes it impossible to use a hand-drawn image of the character on a product, not the copyright. This is because the fact that you drew it from memory usually makes it yours under copyright—this is fuzzy, but it’s roughly true: if it were only for copyright, “"fan art" would generally be legally owned by the fans, not the company that first created the characters. That’s because copyright protects “expressions of ideas", not “ideas". Copyright also only affects “copying" and "public performance"—not use.
Trademark, on the other hand, controls the use of specific symbols, icons, or words. Linus Torvalds took out a copyright on the name “Linux" so that he could have some control over what products get to use “Linux" to market themselves and what gets to represent itself as a “Linux" product. Likewise, Debian (the name) and the Debian Logo are trademarked, with appropriate guidelines for compliant usage which can be found (along with the logos) on the Debian website.
You can bet that every single one of the “Mario" characters is under a Nintendo trademark as well as being copyrighted. This is why other console game companies cannot use these characters in their own games (nor can we use them in free-licensed games).
In order to give free-licensed games a similar edge by restricting the use of free-licensed game characters to them, it might be a good idea to consider following a similar strategy: trademark the character designs, then offer a blanket license for inclusion and use with games that carry free-licenses. You’d have to define “free license" by listing specific licenses, or referencing OSI or FSF definitions, and you’d have to do a little research to make sure that the trademark license is compatible with inclusion in free-licensed software distributions, like Debian, but as these are not the only trademarked images on those systems, I think it’s fairly clear that it can be done.
A side benefit, of course, is that artists who want to could sell proprietary licensing rights to their characters if there starts to be a proprietary interest in them (other artists might want to avoid this, because they don’t want to dilute the "brand" by having non-free games carry them).
In fact, there are other free-licensed game characters out there, though I don’t think there’s been any effort to organize them for use by other games than the ones they are designed for. I think it would be an interesting resource to make available. Perhaps it might be managed in a way akin to packaging upstream sources for distributions—the infrastructure to support such a project would definitely need a bit of work, though.
However it’s managed, I think the free software gaming world could definitely use a bit more character.
A friendly reader of the PyGame mailing list at SEUL pointed me to a somewhat similar resource site: Charas Project. While technologically interesting, the site also illustrates a problem with most sites of this type—more than 9/10ths of the content is illegal ripped-off art from commercial proprietary games. Look hard enough, though, and you will find some original sprite art on this site. Even so, most of that art has non-existent or unclear licensing (“Credit me if you use this" or “These are mine" or my favorite “ripped by me" (which I interpret as “hey don’t steal from me what I stole"), and it’s not always clear who “me" is).
Another worthwhile link is the Tux Gallery, which has wonderful pictures of Tux and the BSD Daemon, but does underscore the scarcity of characters.