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Mainstream Games on the Linux Desktop

The Realities of a Thriving Linux Games Market

  • Read Ian Bonham's plea for a Games-Based Linux Distro
  • Read yesterday's Slashdot thread on Ian Bonham's article "Is the Key to Linux a Games-Based Distro?"
  • Read more Gaming Round Table highlights here (cross-platform game programming and design)

    Linux Gaming Industry Round Table - Participants' Bios

    • Timothee "TTimo" Besset: Contractor with id Software, responsible for porting id games to Linux. Chances are that if you've played an id game on Linux (Quake, anyone?), you're familiar with his work.
    • Chris DiBona: Cofounder of Damage Studios, which is currently in development of an MMORPG (Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game) running Linux on the back end. The future includes a client for Linux, though not with the initial game's release.
    • Ryan "Icculus" Gordon: Former Loki freelance programmer working with Epic Games and other established game publishers to port their games to Linux, Mac OS X, and 64-bit platforms. If you've played Unreal Tournament 2004, America's Army: Operations, Serious Sam, or Medal of Honor (and this is just the short list) under Linux, you're familiar with his work.
    • Gavriel "Gav" State: Founder, co-CEO, and CTO of TransGaming Technologies, the people who bring you WineX, a re-implementation of the DirectX API under Linux. If you've played The Sims under Linux, you are familiar with Gav's and TransGaming's work.
    • Joe Valenzuela: Current games programmer, former Loki games programmer, and both the co-creator and current maintainer of OpenAL.

    What reasons do you feel the games industry has for not supporting Linux at this time?

  • Ryan Gordon: Financial reasons, and FUD.First, the market is tiny, that's a given, and that's enough to drive most companies away by default.Second, those who make decisions don't really understand Linux, and their brief interactions with rabid Linux zealots don't help. I get cc'd on all sorts of crazy e-mails Linux users send to game companies. Frequently I hear game producers say that they don't want to think about Linux because of the tech support issues. Heaven forbid they have to respond to a flood of people who have swooped in and inconvenienced them by purchasing their product! Seriously, at this point, you can train your tech support to deal with Linux by saying, "We don't support that"... People are happy to have a Linux port at all, and Linux users tend to be tech-savvy at this point... by the time Linux users are the AOLers and grandmas of the world and need tech support, it shows that you've actually got a large enough market to make it worth it. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  • Gavriel State: Primarily the issue has been one of opportunity cost. Triple-A titles today can take years to develop, at a cost of millions upon millions of dollars. A high-end publisher or studio doing the calculations will often come to the conclusion that their resources are best spent going after the larger Windows market.

    This is not because there isn't money to be made in the Linux market, but because for them, given their expertise at writing original titles, porting to less-popular platforms such as Linux (or Mac OS X for that matter) dilutes their talent.

  • Timothee Besset: Because the market is still way too small? Producers and game studios are unlikely to commit resources to a Linux port because they don't see any appreciable short-term revenue. In most cases the question "Should we release a Linux port?" is raised once the game is already out and has some success. But at that point, the game studio is already busy working on the next project and won't fork out any resources to do it... 


  • Joe Valenzuela: Because there isn't a sufficient home market for Linux. There isn't a home market for a lot of reasons. To avoid getting too controversial, I'll point out that even if Linux had its desktop politics worked out, it would be very difficult to make significant inroads into the Windows market. Even mature, well-funded efforts have failed to make many inroads.

  • Chris DiBona: I think that this question is not correctly stated. The industry has completely embraced Linux on the server; you'd be hard pressed to find any online component of a game based on anything but Linux outside of Xbox and Microsoft-related games.

    On the front end is where Linux has traction issues. Why? There are a number of technical reasons that are interesting to consider, and would be nice to overcome, but they're really tertiary to the main issue - that there are not enough spending gamers who run only Linux, so there is no reason for a game studio to consider it a primary platform.

    A number of my colleagues in this roundtable talk about some of the technical difficulties that Linux represents and they're right to consider and attack these problems, but they're all surmountable if the platform is popular enough with the gamers.

    In what ways is Linux already prepared to take on mainstream games?

  • Gordon: I'm looking at UT2004 running in an X11 window while I type this. The technology is clearly there.

    Looking at http://gamespy.com/stats, of the top 20 online games (in this case, this generally means "first-person shooters"), about half of them run natively on Linux...several of the others are built on engines that allow for relatively easy porting of the game client, even if there isn't a Linux version at the moment.

    The greatest asset for Linux adoption has, in my opinion, been its usefulness for running dedicated servers. This has gotten the proverbial foot in the door more times than I can count. Also, every major game engine (Unreal, Quake, etc.) runs on Linux at least as a server if not a full client. This leads to easier porting of game titles built on these engines.

    The problems are frequently a matter of development and management...having developers that "speak Linux" and managers that are keen to keep their games portable during the span of the project. This is a social, not technical, issue. 


  • State: While there has been much progress with the 3D drivers in the past couple of years, there is still quite a ways left to go for some vendors.

    Sound support is both good and bad on Linux. There are a plethora of different sound drivers available for different hardware, of widely varying degrees of quality. We work with users all the time who have poorly configured sound drivers, and helping them choose the right drivers can be quite painful.

    Finally, and most important, until very recently there have not been enough Linux distribution players who are seriously focused on consumer-focused desktop Linux systems. This is still a significant impediment to Windows users thinking of taking the plunge. While they have some great choices now, the "big names" in the industry haven't been focused enough on desktop Linux. TransGaming believes that 2004 will see a sea change in that attitude, and we're working with some of the biggest players in the industry to help make desktop Linux a reality for consumers.

  • Besset: Still missing some of that userfriendliness maybe? Sure, the new Linux distributions are easy to install, and provide a user interface for most configuration tasks. But is that enough to convince casual PC gamers to switch to Linux? 


  • Valenzuela: Although I could point out that Linux itself isn't really ready for the desktop, I think that would be misleading. The approach that Loki took kind of sidestepped the relative immaturity of Linux package management, desktop software, etc. Installing games on Windows isn't always great either. Again, I have to say it's just a lack of users.

    I spoke with Firaxis once about the possibility of porting Sid Meier's Gettysburg! This was the first title they had the IP to make licenses for, and they were pretty excited about the possibility of doing one. But there was no way to dress up the dismal sales for commercial Linux titles. 


  • DiBona: The only one that matters is users, but I'd love to see stronger sound and device support. Plugging in a force feedback joystick without too much trouble would be nice, as would proper six-speaker sound assisted by a good driver interacting with some of the very cool audio hardware out there.

    In what ways is Linux not yet prepared to take on mainstream games?

  • Gordon: 3D drivers. NVIDIA's are great; ATI's are flat-out useless. I really hope this situation will change someday. Better codegen and faster compile times would be wonderful. Visual Studio just beats the hell out of gcc right now. EAX support on Creative's hardware would be nice, but mostly so we can say we've got it.

    It'd be lovely if the glibc maintainers would stop breaking binary compatibility, too. Not that they are particularly sympathetic to those shipping binary-only products.

  • State: Widely adopted desktop Linux is the key to expanding the market for games on Linux. Having very serious players such as Sun, Novell, and IBM working to equip consumers with Linux systems throughout the world will spur hardware vendors to redouble their efforts to improve their Linux drivers.

    Having a more vibrant market will also help convince the large third-party game publishers that Linux is a market to watch more closely. While most of these companies are not currently developing triple-A titles [bestsellers] for Linux, companies such as TransGaming are demonstrating that tremendous consumer demand for Linux games does exist. We hope that our work will serve to bridge the gap for consumers, and serve as a demonstration of the fact that Linux represents a large and growing consumer opportunity.  

  • Besset: I don't have anything specific about games to suggest. Linux on the desktop keeps getting better; users try to convince friends and neighbors to switch...

  • Valenzuela: Not sure if anyone else agrees with my estimation of the teeny Linux gaming market, but I'll defer in case anyone does. 

  • DiBona: Time and more users. If Half-Life 2 were only released on Linux, that would help, but until then, it is just a matter of time. If the PS/3 is based on Linux it'll help a little more, but I disagree with one of the other panelists' assertion that OS X will mean more games for Linux thanks to system similarities. It won't. It will drive those interested in a compelling Unix desktop to OS X and away from GNOME and KDE, something that is not good for native Linux gaming.

    What might the Linux community do in order to change the thinking of the games industry?

  • Gordon: Buy games. Seriously. That's the whole equation.

    Game publishers speak one language, and it's American Dollar. Many publishers want a guarantee of 50,000 units moved before they'll talk to you. The big, big names (you know who you are) frequently want more than that.

    In the short term, Linux gaming is going to continue to be as much a guerilla tactic as it ever was.

    With the exception of Loki, a lot of the big Linux games are extracurricular in nature. Some programmer spends nights and weekends porting his day-job project from Win32. Someone has an explicit need to get a Linux dedicated server running, and does the client work while he's there. Someone has a friend at a game company that'll do the introductions so he can get permission to port a game. Someone will cold-call a developer and ask if he can port the game for free.

    All of these things have happened, and happened for top 10-selling games.

    Another interesting area is gaming in the indie/amateur sector. I think it's safe to say that open source game development is, at this point, stillborn. Many games are started; few are anywhere near finished before abandonment. The ones that are finished are crappy clones of '80s retro games. Programmers find they can write great code but can't scrape together free art assets to save their lives. This is unfortunate, but that's how it has been, by and large.

    The (commercial) indie scene, though, tends to put out some impressive titles on miniscule budgets. These people fall into the [serious enthusiast] demographic more often than not. The ones who don't specifically embrace the platform can at least recognize the sales potential. You might not be able to move 500,000 units of Diablo 2 on Linux, but these houses are thrilled to see 1,000 sales, and this is financial motivation to move to any platform where a few people will show up with their wallets. These houses also tend to embrace cross-platform development strategies, such as SDL and OpenGL, sometimes, I think, by lucky accident; this gets them running on other platforms faster. 


  • State: It's very simple. Buy more games and tell the industry that you're buying that game to play on Linux. Whether that's a Windows-only title that can run using TransGaming's WineX technology, or a title that has a Linux ELF binary that can be used to suppliment a Windows boxed title, let those publishers know that you're buying the game to play on Linux.

    Let your hardware vendors know that you're using their hardware on Linux, and give them feedback on how well you think their Linux support is doing. For those vendors whose support is not yet what you'd like it to be, write them and tell them nicely that you appreciate the efforts they've put in so far, and that you're looking forward to future revisions with bugs corrected.

    When we talk to people in the industry and tell them the number of users who are currently running WineX to play their Windows game on Linux, they're frequently surprised to hear that they already have thousands upon thousands of Linux customers. When they hear that, they begin to realize the potential of the market, and they begin to think more clearly about how they can better serve those customers.

  • Besset: Keep harassing them, and buy the Linux games that are already out there!

    There are several reasons why a game company should support Linux though. The main one would be that doing a Linux port and a Mac OS X port are not much different nowadays. And there are customers for games on the Mac. Clearly not a big amount compared to Windows, but still a lot more than Linux. Another reason is to make your code more robust. Your source will have to be cleaner, and you'll have to avoid ugly OS-specific hacks. Some bugs are easier to track down on one system or the other. Releasing your game on several platforms is a proof of technical expertise. 


  • Valenzuela: Mac OS X has shown that in order to even have a "niche" in the PC market, you have to be twice as good as the competition. If Linux had a similar group of people who would regularly buy six or seven titles a year - even a small group, say 50,000 people - it would be possible to sustain a market similar to the Mac gaming one.

    Even today, many triple-A titles find themselves on Linux. The difference is that these seem to be labors of love as opposed to money-making efforts, so future prospects are subject to the vagaries of whim. But since Ryan is probably responsible for 95% of these I'll defer to his thoughts on the subject and won't speculate. 


  • DiBona: Well, have patience. With time and enough hard work, more people will use Linux on the desktop, and that will bring the developers with it. Also, they should take a hard look at some of the cool games already out there for Linux.

    State your position on technologies that allow Windows games to run under Linux, as opposed to games that run natively under Linux.

  • Gordon: Honestly? I don't lose sleep over it. I don't believe it is preventing games from coming to Linux...there is anecdotal evidence that Game House X heard about WineX and decided that there was no reason to support Linux directly. I say these people never had any intention of thinking about Linux, so WineX makes a nice scapegoat.

    I think everyone, including TransGaming, can agree that a native Linux game is better than an emulated Windows binary. The sticking point, really, seems to be if the emulation is acceptable in lieu of a native version. 


  • State: Using TransGaming's WineX technology, Linux users can run games that they would otherwise have no access to whatsoever. From that perspective alone, we believe that we're doing the market a significant service, and we've got thousands upon thousands of customers who agree with us.

    Our technology is frequently classified as an "emulator," but that is no more the case than Linux being a "Unix emulator." WineX works by providing a real, highly portable implementation of the Win32 APIs required by most game titles, including the various DirectX APIs. WineX has itself been ported to a number of different hardware platforms, including the PowerPC-based Mac OS X, the MIPS-based Sony PlayStation 2, and a variety of other hardware.

    On x86 platforms, TransGaming's WineX is capable of directly loading and executing Windows PE format binaries. But the only way that this loading process is significantly different from loading a Linux ELF binary is that the Windows PE binaries are frequently more highly optimized due to higher quality compilers available for Windows.

    On the performance front, things vary depending on the title. With some of the technology we have in the lab right now, we're seeing games that perform absolutely 100% identically to Windows. In other cases, when we've done Linux-specific optimizations on games such as TimeGate's Kohan series, we've seen performance that's significantly higher than the same code running on Windows. We're working hard toward making that happen for all the titles we support and we're also working more and more with game developers and publishers to help release Linux-optimized versions of their products.

    Ultimately, seeing a thriving market for Linux games helps to wake up the rest of the industry to the potential of bringing their titles to the platform. We're in talks with a number of companies and want to reach out to more in order to help them realize the potential of the Linux market. If they don't have the expertise or the resources to deploy their games on Linux, we are happy to work with them directly to bring their content to the platform. 


  • Besset: I'm not a big fan. It is a valid business model; it gets you to sell licenses of your emulation software right here, right now. I'm sure that's reason enough for a lot of people.

    As a game company, is it a good thing to do all the development for a Windows platform, then expect Linux and OS X users to play it emulated? You might get a few sales without too much effort, but you won't have the technical benefits of doing the development on Linux.

    As a game buyer, should I buy the Windows games and run them emulated? They will run a little slower, is that good enough for me? If everyone is buying the Windows games and running them emulated, companies won't release native ports anymore. Guess what? At this point you have a Microsoft-like company controlling gaming on Linux through their emulation technology. Not mentioning the fact that the more game companies working with Linux there are, the more pressure on hardware vendors to release good drivers. 


  • Valenzuela: If I thought Linux had a long-term chance for a sustainable gaming market, I'd say "100% against." For the moment I'll say I'm 70% against.

  • DiBona: Bah. If you want to run Windows apps, use Windows; if you try to fit a square peg in a round hole you'll always get caught on the sides. I'll admit that for some this is a decent solution, but I do think that having emulation bring Windows games to Linux will delay making Linux into a game platform with any kind of parity with Windows or OS X. That's not a bad thing if you just want to play a game on Linux, but it is if you want Linux to be a premier platform for gaming. I'm just glad Icculus [Gordon] and the other panelists are here making Linux safe for gaming. I like playing games, after all.

  • More Stories By Dee-Ann LeBlanc

    Dee-Ann LeBlanc has been involved with Linux since 1994. She is the author of 12 books, 130 articles, and has more of both coming. She is a trainer, a course developer - including the official Red Hat online courseware at DigitalThink - a founding member of the AnswerSquad, and a consultant.

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