The WorldForge Project began in October of 1998, under the original name of "Altima." It was originally envisioned to be an "Alternative to Ultima." It would most likely have foundered and disappeared like so many other Internet-based game development projects, but was mentioned on the Slashdot news website, and thereby drew in a vast horde of interested developers.
The original founder of the project (in fact, pretty much all of the pre-Slashdot developers) disappeared, but the community had become populous and was able to "take care of itself": It determined a new governing system for itself and selected coordinators, established a new direction and a mission. The community wished to work on something much more significant than a "mere Ultima clone," and voted itself a new name.
WorldForge's objective is to be for games what GNU and Debian have been for general purpose computer software. It focuses on providing frameworks for making free games, rather than merely producing a single game. The idea is that the more widely used the framework and libs are, the more incentive there will be to make them very good.
While it still emphasizes "massively multiplayer online fantasy roleplaying games," it has much broader interests. It adopts the view that "massive" is unnecessary in a non-commercially motivated game project, and has focused on "community" sizes - a few hundred players per game world, rather than thousands. Given the bandwidth and machine requirements of large scale gaming, this principle has practical benefits, too.
Several independent game projects have joined the project, so that there is a healthy amount of parallel development. One game, a pig farming simulation called Acorn, has been produced and released by the project as a prototype, testbed and proof of concept for its software and its development processes. This is (intentionally) a rather simple game by commercial standards but it is significant because it provided proof that the project can actually integrate and deliver software, artwork, and media, and that it possesses enough creativity within its community, that it need not merely clone an existing game.
Development of Acorn has tapered off, as the project has obtained the bulk of value out of this prototype, and is ready to begin focus on new games.
The primary focus is shifting to a tactical building game called Mason, which focuses on competitive construction and invention of buildings, traps, and mechanisms. The intent is to use this as an opportunity to develop powerful, generic "item invention" algorithms that can bring a new dimension of dynamic content to interactive gaming. Other games have been and will continue to be developed alongside Mason.
The project is also beginning to branch out into other forms of entertainment (e.g., comics, paper-and-pencil gaming), as it finds that its processes and multi-disciplinary nature are equally applicable there.
WorldForge is not without its problems. Because it insists on being innovative and unique, it incurred a long early development period during which it had to hash out its own protocols and processes. This has given it an air of being in "perpetual development." It seems geared more for people interested in developing game software than playing games (its developers may well admit the truth to this, but point out that it is an obviously necessary phase - the software must be developed before it can be played).
Because it supports many different game development efforts, and because much work goes on in parallel, it can confuse outsiders. The use of wiki has been accused of worsening this situation.
Since volunteers come and go, and software development is iterative, the project has frequently restarted pieces of software (such as the server). While this can achieve perfection, it seems like a wheel re-invention conspiracy.
The project grapples with being thought of as mere "vaporware" - more bold promise than solid delivery. The project has attempted to seek a balance between gaining enough public profile to gain new participants, yet not so visible that it incurs the wrath of gamers sick of overly hyped commercial online games.
Other than release announcements (which tend to be infrequent yet very significant), it is rarely seen in the news. This sometimes gives the impression to other software and game projects that WorldForge is "remote."
Time will tell what significance WorldForge will play in the game industry. As it has survived nearly three years as of this writing, and is developing more swiftly than ever in its history, it's unlikely to disappear any time soon. Will its current inward focus continue indefinitely, or will it one day emerge into the mainstream? Will it be usurped by commercial interests or find a mutually beneficial balance (as Linux has)? Or will it somehow manage to remain staunchly non-commercial in an industry becoming as highly commecialized as the film industry?