Linux Games

Now is the perfect time for a revival of Linux gaming. By that, I mean middle-tier commercial games running on Linux natively.

The state of the desktop and Ubuntu in particular is advanced enough to be comfortable for many casual users. I know people for whom I feel gaming is the big drawback, the reason why it’s not worth living in Linux. It’s certainly a common lament on the Internet.

People keep saying ‘this could be the year of desktop Linux,’ enough so that the phrase is a joke. I’m not going to claim that (if it even has any meaning), but it’s ready. Gamers are just the sort of user that would warm to Linux. People that don’t balk at installing custom drivers for their video card or going through the kind of hoops that most games ask of you can certainly handle the learning curve of Linux. Or at least are familiar with searching online for troubleshooting.

If Linux could at least start being competitive on the games front, it would be a big win for it. It doesn’t need to be all games, or even many top-tier games. The goal would be reducing the need to reboot. Enough that one can live in Linux, and use Windows just for a couple games.

Technically, the biggest barrier is probably OpenGL. OpenGL works fine in Linux, but there are now common user-space programs that also want to write to the screen through 3D hardware. Like Vista’s UI. Video drivers are going through some API changes to flawlessly support that (and for other reasons), and we’re still in transition. An example of the problems this can cause are having to turn off desktop 3D effects before playing a game. A bit of a turn off.

Also audio. Audio works fine on Linux, but it’s not a cross-platform API. A developer would have to do the work of creating a little abstraction layer themselves. And learn ALSA.

Strategically, the biggest barrier is obviously Microsoft. They encourage DirectX, Games for Windows, and their whole ecosystem. Which buys a developer a lot these days, in terms of easy portability to the never-more-relevant console world via the XBOX.

I doubt it’s currently worth it for any single developer to bother with a Linux port. It would be too much work. They’d have to hire expertise in porting, they would have to figure out how to distribute it, which is non-trivial. If I wasn’t intimately involved in Linux land, I would be very intimidated by what I’d have to know to make a game that worked on the largest amount of distros. And to make it integrate well into the user’s computer (you know, install into the menus correctly, be a package that can be removed, installed, or updated via the user’s package manager), would be an extra level of complexity.

However, all’s not lost! The best hope I have is for someone at Valve to see the Linux light — or a competitor to arise and see the light. 🙂 If they ported Steam over, it would solve the distribution issues. The developer would still have to write a game that could work in Linux, which is non-trivial. But once accomplished, they just have to flip a Steam bit and be done with it. The various ‘accessories’ around a game, like an installer, an updater, and OS integration don’t need to be written. I think it would be a compelling story for a developer. There’s vague (denied) rumors of Valve already looking down this road, but I’m not holding my breath.

Still a lot of work to port a game. But smaller game houses already do that work, because they’re more desperate for any slice of the market. Games like Rain Slick Precipice or Savage. Steam carries those kinds of games (and does carry Savage).

It’d be a good way for them to generate some buzz and goodwill without too much effort (they only really need to make a little bit of middleware work). And if it succeeded, they’d be ever more entrenched as the distribution medium of choice. But still, it’s a gamble in which few game companies have had interest. But I maintain that now would be a good time for them to try it (recession notwithstanding).

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