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No complaints here: Linux gaming is gaining steam

The buzz around Linux gaming has never been louder

(LinuxWorld) — I was surprised at the amount of "friendly fire" I took as a result of my last Linux-gaming article, which was about BioWare's betas of Neverwinter Nights for Linux. Some of the core group at Icculus.org — maybe most of them — were furious at me for one reason or another.

Some felt I had been too harsh with Epic Games when I wrote about Unreal Tournament 2003. Others said I was paranoid for suggesting Microsoft might be using exclusionary terms in its contracts with game publishers. Some said I shouldn't have even brought up the question, because even if my suspicions proved to be right, it was "just business." Still others raged against me without citing specifics, saying only that I was too clueless for them to even bother explaining it.

Fearing that there may have been some validity in that last item, I've been hanging around all the gaming channels I can find on irc.freenode.net over the past week or so, trying to learn more about the Linux gaming scene. I'm definitely still persona non grata with some, but others are starting to accept me on friendlier terms. One thing I've learned is that the fault line over which the scene sits — the thing that makes it such a volatile and dangerous place for clueless journalists like me to visit — has little to do with me. It's more about game-players and developers from the world of Windows and proprietary software coming into direct contact with the great unwashed hordes who love open-source and free software.

Putting aside my natural distrust of Microsoft's business practices, there really are other things to consider as explanations for why Linux games continue to be afterthoughts. Things like ports of games previously released for Windows. Things that usually require Linux users to buy the Windows version to run the game on Linux.

Some say there simply aren't enough Linux gamers to make it worthwhile for big game companies to publish Linux games that stand on their own. Those that hold this position maintain that Linux folk are lucky to get anything at all, afterthought or not. It's just too small a market. Another view is that however many Linux users/game-players there may be, they are just not willing to buy software. They say Linux users believe everything should be free (as in beer) and shun everything else.

Some may wonder, as I do, exactly why such an insignificant market of die-hard, penny-pinching geeks engenders as much interest among game-publishers, game-developers and game-players as it does. As huge as the gaming industry is, and as small a percentage of Linux desktops as there are to sell to, something doesn't add up. For example, Slashdot reports that at the recent LinuxWorld conference in New York, the Icculus.org booth "was the darling of LinuxWorld (Conference and Expo). Their booth drew more traffic per square foot than any other display."

Ryan "Icculus" Gordon seems to be the man in the center of the storm. Gordon worked at Loki Games before it went bankrupt. Now the site he hosts, Icculus.org, has become central to Linux gaming. While working at Loki, Gordon ported such well-known titles as Descent 3, Kohan, Unreal Tournament and Quake 3, among others. He doesn't seem to have slowed down any since Loki's demise.

Gordon makes his living as a contract programmer. He also does, helps with, or simply supports the porting and enhancement of games that have been open-sourced by their original publishers. Duke Nukem 3D is a recent example. A few days after the source code was opened by 3DRealms, a Linux port was available on the Icculus site. While the code for Duke Nukem 3D is now open, you still need to buy a copy of the proprietary version in order to be able to play the Linux version.

Over the weekend, word spread of Gordon's latest endeavor: the port of the popular new ARUSH Entertainment/Groove Games first-person shooter called Devastation. It's been less than a month since Devastation went gold, so the Linux faithful won't have to wait long to be able to play this one on their home turf.

You might think with the flurry of activity following the opening of Duke Nukem 3D and starting to work on Devastation that Gordon is a busy guy. You don't know the half of it. He is also at work on ports of Medal of Honor Allied Assault: Spearhead from Electronic Arts, Serious Sam 1 and Serious Sam 2 from Croteam, and America's Army from the U. S. Army.

Linux Game Publishing is a new force

That's not all of what's going on. A new force called Linux Game Publishing has appeared on the Linux gaming scene, cranking out projects as well. LGP is hard at work on a number of ports, including Ballistics from Xicat, Bandits: Phoenix Rising from PAN Vision, Disciples II: Dark Prophesy from Strategy First and Majesty Gold from Infogrames. Already available from LGP are Candy Cruncher, Mindrover and Creatures Internet Edition. Majesty Gold has gone gold and will be here in a matter of days.

Of course, there are some who are not happy just to port games from other platforms to Linux. They want to write games for Linux in the first place. The LGP has helped to form Angry Pixels to do just that. They have put together a team of developers and are looking for musicians and artists to join them as well. Keep an eye on Angry Pixels; they could become yet another major force in Linux gaming.

I asked Mike Phillips, lead programmer at LGP, what he thought of Linux's game scene today and how he thinks it may have changed over the last year or so. He said:

Two years ago, it was clear that the eggs were all in one basket, and it was starting to unravel. Although several solid releases were still ahead of Loki, the bulk of the developers had already left, and it was becoming clear that no new titles were forthcoming. Tribsoft and Hyperion were becoming quiet, and retailers were dropping Linux games as if they never existed.

One year ago, Loki folded, and it looked like the life had gone out of Linux gaming. In fact, it really was looking like dual-booting was the only reasonable gaming choice.

Today, however, it looks very promising. It reminds me a lot of the heady days of late 1999, but with a much more diverse development base.

Ryan "icculus" Gordon, one of the Loki alumni, is doing a great job on his contracts and seems to be doing a good job of covering the FPS arena (Unreal Tournament 2003; Serious Sam, First and Second Encounter; Medal of Honor: Allied Assault; Devastation). Bioware's AAA title Neverwinter Nights released the client, id has promised Doom 3. And there have been rumblings of others...

And, of course, we (Linux Game Publishing) have quite a few titles in the pipeline. It feels like this time, the user base is better positioned and there is a wider range of offerings available.

That's how it looks to my eyes as well. There is a healthy interest and vitality in the Linux gaming community today that wasn't there previously. While LGP and Icculus.org are the two primary players, they aren't alone. Some ports, such as BioWare's Neverwinter Nights, are done in-house by the publishing company. Apex-development is another example. They are including Linux as one of the supported platforms for Payback. The game is described as gangster warfare, with attitude.

What about my suspicion that Microsoft is doing business the same way they always have, forcing exclusionary terms into its deals with game developers? I don't know. I still have the suspicion. I asked both Epic Games and BioWare if they have any contracts with anyone that limit or curtail the ability to port games to Linux or to promote games ported to Linux. The fact that neither company responded to my questions does nothing to dispel my suspicion.

On the other hand, it also seems clear to me that even if Microsoft is behaving badly in this regard — and we won't know whether or not that's the case until the next antitrust trial — it doesn't seem to be doing them much good. The buzz around Linux gaming has never been louder. There are more top-quality games available today than ever before, and the pipeline is filled with more jewels to come.

More Stories By Joe Barr

Joe Barr is a freelance journalist covering Linux, open source and network security. His 'Version Control' column has been a regular feature of Linux.SYS-CON.com since its inception. As far as we know, he is the only living journalist whose works have appeared both in phrack, the legendary underground zine, and IBM Personal Systems Magazine.

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