The Uphill Climb of Linux Gaming

linux_gaming_feat

For years, there has been one constant for users making the switch to Linux: gaming was going to be a thing of the past.

Not that people haven’t tried, of course. Software like WINE (with its gaming spin-offs like Cedega and PlayOnLinux) have made it possible to run Windows games on Linux with mixed results. There have also been the occasional forays into official Linux support in a handful of titles, but outside of the Humble Indie Bundle, Linux games sales have never been able to touch even Mac OS, let alone Windows.

Linux users who wanted to do any serious gaming were left with the unpleasant prospect of dedicating a partition on their machine to Windows for the express purpose of gaming.

But if recent news is any indication, we may finally see that changing.

Opening the Valve

Certainly the biggest piece of gaming related Linux news has been the long awaited arrival of Steam for Linux. For the uninitiated, Steam is a service where users to can purchase and play PC games. Instead of purchasing games separate from various online and physical retailers, and having them scattered all over your computer, Steam consolidates everything into one application. Steam also uses DRM to tie purchased games to a specific account, ensuring you can install them again the in the future without having to repurchase them.

Steam for Linux had been rumored and hinted at for years, but it wasn’t until recently that, ironically, Microsoft made it official. The outspoken head of Steam developer Valve is so unhappy with Windows 8, that he’s gone on record stating Linux may be the saving grace of PC gaming:

The big problem that is holding back Linux is games. People don’t realize how critical games are in driving consumer purchasing behavior.

“We want to make it as easy as possible for the 2,500 games on Steam to run on Linux as well. It’s a hedging strategy. I think Windows 8 is a catastrophe for everyone in the PC space. I think we’ll lose some of the top-tier PC/OEMs, who will exit the market. I think margins will be destroyed for a bunch of people. If that’s true, then it will be good to have alternatives to hedge against that eventuality.

Gabe Newell

Steam is the dominant game delivery service on Windows, you’re unlike to find a gaming machine that doesn’t have Steam installed. Bringing Steam’s extensive catalog of games to Linux would represent the largest software migration the platform has ever seen. Even if only half of Steam’s collection of games made the jump, it would completely change the landscape of gaming on Linux.

Performance Follows Politics

While Valve may have started it’s migration to Linux due to Gabe Newell’s concerns over the future of Windows, it may end up that Linux is where Steam is better off anyway.

Just a few days ago via their blog, Valve noted that the development version of their wildly popular “Left 4 Dead 2″ was able to achieve an incredible 303.4 Frames Per Second (FPS), easily outpacing Windows on the same hardware, which clocked in at 270.6 FPS. Valve believes this is a very promising start for bringing their games to the platform:

That the Linux version runs faster than the Windows version (270.6) seems a little counter-intuitive, given the greater amount of time we have spent on the Windows version. However, it does speak to the underlying efficiency of the kernel and OpenGL.

The fact that Linux is more efficient than Windows on the same hardware is probably not much of a surprise to anyone who has used it for very long; increased performance is one of the reasons many people made the switch in the first place. It’s good to see the subjective observations of Linux users backed up by some hard numbers from a respected developer, and goes a long way to legitimizing the platform as a whole.

Carmack Claims DOOM

Not everyone in the game industry is quite as convinced about the success of Linux as a game platform as Valve. John Carmack, the co-founder of iD Software and creator of milestone titles such as DOOM and Quake, doesn’t think Linux has what it takes to become a viable source of income for game developers:

Linux is an issue that’s taken a lot more currency with Valve announcing Steam for Linux and that does change things a bit, …but we’ve made two forays into the Linux commercial market, most recently with the QuakeLive client, and that platform just hasn’t carried its weight compared to the mac on there. It’s great that people are enthusiastic about it, but there’s just not nearly as many people that are interested in paying for a game on the platform. And that just seems to be the reality.

John Carmack

The “reality” that Carmack refers to here seems a bit questionable, however. As Carmack himself has said previously, Quake Live has been a financial failure in general, so to claim that Linux has proven itself to not be a viable source of income when even the Windows build didn’t generate a positive cash flow seems a bit disingenuous.

As for the second attempt iD software made to monetize Linux gaming, there is actually some debate as to what Carmack is referencing. iD has released Linux builds of a few of their games (such as DOOM 3), but they were simply Linux binaries on iD software’s FTP servers that required the Windows version of the game to play. How can you track sales of a game which was never technically for sale? Is Carmack using their FTP server logs as a metric to determine how many people played DOOM 3 on Linux? Not quite the scientific approach that Valve has taken.

Carmack’s claims are also in direct opposition to the wildly successful “Humble Bundle“, which has shown time and time again that Linux users are very much willing to put the money out for native Linux games.

More to the point, iD Software’s halfhearted attempts to bring a handful of FPSes to Linux simply cannot be compared to Steam and its catalog of multi-genre games. The failure (if it can even be called that) of one has no bearing on the other.

Free As In FreeCell

Of course, it wouldn’t be a debate about Linux unless the Free Software Foundation (FSF) chimed in. Recently, FSF founder Richard Stallman recently went on record with his uncharacteristically mixed feelings on Steam’s arrival on the operating system he had a hand in building:

Nonfree game programs (like other nonfree programs) are unethical because they deny freedom to their users. (Game art is a different issue, because it isn’t software.) If you want freedom, one requisite for it is not having nonfree programs on your computer. That much is clear.

However, if you’re going to use these games, you’re better off using them on GNU/Linux rather than on Microsoft Windows. At least you avoid the harm to your freedom that Windows would do.

Thus, in direct practical terms, this development can do both harm and good. It might encourage GNU/Linux users to install these games, and it might encourage users of the games to replace Windows with GNU/Linux. My guess is that the direct good effect will be bigger than the direct harm.

Richard Stallman

Stallman has often gone on record saying that, if given the choice between expanding userbase or compromising freedoms, the FSF would rather maintain the rights of a smaller group. The GPL v3 specifically includes a clause ensuring just that.

It’s somewhat surprising then that Stallman has taken his current stance on Steam. While he doesn’t agree with the idea of DRM in general, it seems he at least concedes that it’s better people run DRM-controlled software on an operating system which otherwise respects the user’s freedom. This is something of a change of heart for the usually unwavering Stallman, and may dictate how rigorously the FSF will be speaking out against DRM in the coming years.

Pledging Support

If one thing is for sure in this debate, it’s that the community needs to give whatever support it can to Valve. Even if you aren’t a gamer by nature, browse through Steam’s collection and see if there isn’t something that might interest you for a few dollars. Without the financial support of the Linux users themselves, the dangerous opinion harbored by industry leaders like Carmack could be irreparably cemented into the minds of developers.

 


Tom Nardi

Tom is a Network Engineer with focus on GNU/Linux and open source software. He is a frequent submitter to "2600", and maintains a personal site of his projects and areas of research at: www.digifail.com .

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  • niagr

    great article. thanks :)

  • Dave

    I’m not too surprised that Carmack is speaking negatively about Linux as a gaming platform considering how it looks like he’s not too fond of Windows for gaming either. Look at how the PC version of Rage stumbled out of the gates… it was clear that the priority at id was to create a console game first, then half-ass a port to PC. Where Valve is hedging on Linux I think id is hedging on the console sector.

  • madjr

    great article.

    Stallman is opening up slowly.

    Before he didnt care if the userbase grew.

    But now that open source is sky rocketing in many areas and also in phones thanks to android, even thought is not fully open is still leaps ahead in freedom to IOS and WindowsPhone (or apple and microsoft).

    Is hard to go back. Linus is extremely happy and am sure Stallman is proud too of how popular the kernel has become :D

    With time the open philosophy/standards movement can move on to many other areas and maybe even coexist with some forms of closed source (as long as they dont break standards or monopolize).

  • michael boston

    the epic beard man may be loved by all, but that doesnt mean we share his opinions

  • conmaggot

    John Carmack is missing an important piece of the puzzle. The best games have been restricted to windows. The users who focus on them have remained with windows. Current linux users are those who can do without gaming. As the better games get ported, the user base of linux will grow to include those who have gaming as their primary activity.
    The market will grow as the games arrive. Valve’s effort is a key improvement.

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  • wastn

    Carmack seems to believe that the “starved” for gaming Linux users would throw their money on anything. Since its launch, QuakeLive has been a derivative and substandard experience and its failure was deserved if you ask me.

    Also, Stallmans’ heart is in the right place. As Linux spreads, the people trying to profit from it will increase, and only with a steadfast approach to things can we progress (see the OpenOffice fiasco).

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