The lights are on
An open operating system that you don't have to buy sounds
like a win-win for gamers and developers, but many obstacles prevent Linux from
moving past its current niche status. Here's what needs to happen to break
Windows' dominance of computer gaming.
As awesome as a Linux-driven future sounds, we gamers can do
little to bring it about. Two things bind computer gaming to the Microsoft
platform so tightly that the Linux and Mac ecosystems are still only sideshows
at best: driver support from Nvidia and AMD, and low-level application
programming interface (API) software like DirectX. Understanding these
challenges, even if you're unable to address them yourself, is the first step
Graphics drivers aren't just a way for Nvidia to annoy you
by making you download another couple hundred MB every few months. Think of
them as the bridge between all that fancy custom graphics hardware and your
operating system. These hideously complex pieces of software translate what the
computer is telling it about what it should display onscreen into commands that
can be taken advantage of not only the GPU, but the advanced shaders and other
bits of silicon that make up a graphics card. A modern CPU is an unbelievably
powerful computational device, but it and its supporting architecture on the
motherboard are general-purpose silicon that accomplish tasks by brute force. A
modern graphics card, on the other hand, has highly specialized subsystems that
can do very specific tasks extremely quickly. The driver is the software that
makes those specially designed bits work, and how well the driver itself is
written has huge effects on stability and raw performance.
Because Windows is so ubiquitous, both Nvidia and AMD expend
massive resources in making their drivers as efficient and stable as possible.
Linux drivers, on the other hand, are a much lower priority and in some cases
are even hacked together by the open-source community (which brings its own set
of problems). Both Linux and Mac use the OpenGL API framework, and so drivers
written for both can share large portions of their code – but they're far from
100-percent compatible. This presents a chicken-and-egg problem: Few people
game on Linux because there aren't many games, and companies don't bother
making competitive drivers because the market isn't large enough to make it
This all sounds like doom and gloom, but good news exists in
all this. The traditional solution to this kind of chicken-and-egg problem is
for someone to break the cycle with a large, one-time expenditure that gets
things moving in the right direction. In this case, the obvious target would be
for a company to bite the bullet and invest a big chunk of money into better
driver/API support on Linux, making it easier for developers to port their
games over. Enter Valve and its SteamBox initiative. Making a gaming-ready
computer available at the low cost Valve seems to be aiming for is a lot easier
when every box doesn't include a $100 Microsoft tax. Valve cracking the code to
either make WINE (a Windows emulator for Linux) or native Linux support
approach Windows in stability and performance would be exactly the kind of kick
in the pants Linux gaming needs to get off the ground, especially coupled with
a growing install base thanks to low-cost gaming computers like the SteamBox.
Much of this analysis has focused on Valve, because frankly
the company is exactly the kind of technically talented, cash-rich entity that
might see pushing Linux infrastructure as a good investment. Plenty of other
developers and retail services would no doubt love to expand their businesses
onto Linux, especially in the face of Microsoft's steps with Windows 8 to lock
down its ecosystem into something more akin to the walled garden of Apple's
iOS, but none fit the bill quite so perfectly as Valve.
So what can you do? Let your favorite developers know that
you'd love to see their games on Linux. Making your voice heard does make a
difference. Even if they don't respond, every developer I've talked to about it
insists that they read all their fan feedback. Give Linux a shot yourself – after all, it's free, and dual-booting Windows and Linux is easy to set up.
Popular distributions like Ubuntu are much more user-friendly than they were
years ago, and free software is out there to handle most common computing
tasks. Grab Linux clients for any games you already own, and connect to Steam
and other services with Linux. Seeing their number of Linux users inflate is
one of the most powerful arguments to sway developers into pushing for greater
This may seem like a whole lot of pontificating about a
solution in search of a problem, but I absolutely believe that even though I
like Windows 7 and other Microsoft products, an open-source platform guarantees
a much brighter future for computer gaming. Maybe Microsoft has no plans to lock
down Windows 8 further than it already is, but I'd feel better if my favorite
hobby was immune to being held hostage by any single company. Executives retire
or are replaced, businesses evolve, and priorities change. I'd rather not tempt
Creepy picture is creepy.
I wish they would take your advice.
Linux is absolutely fantastic but there's something to be said for consistency. I like knowing I can turn on my Mac or PC and the OS is mostly the same for all users. Its a little bit like the argument for why its easier to develop for iOS vs Android.
meh, whatever. I just follow the path to the games I like. I don't pick sides. I don't like EA, but I like SimCity games, so what to do? Just buy and play the game I like. Same in this situation, I don't care what OS its on, as long as I can play it!
OpenGL is a very big one. It's pushed by basically every company but Microsoft (who does directX). Mobile platforms (android, blackberry, ios) use it, playstation supports it (ps4 has pc architecture...), and of course Linux and Mac. Only windows, win phone, and the xbox don't support it natively (it does work on windows, just not as well as directx).
The big push for games on Linux would come from game makers creating their games with OpenGL in mind and then DirectX as secondary. The PS4 and mobile platforms could be strong incentives for companies to do that. Once the game is built with openGL in mind the work needed to port to opengl compatible platforms will be significantly reduced.
Great read. It would be neat to see Linux getting more support from games (as in more AAA games making the transition to Linux) and from both AMD/Nvidia in the graphic card department.
Adam, I'm curious, what is this "set of problems" you see from the open source community?
And please consider using Fedora for your OS. It's free, secure, and sponsored by Red Hat, makers of the most stable, secure Linux distro on the planet.
FWIW, Valve is working with Red Hat on bringing Steam to Fedora, so the OS developer community is listening.
I'm truly enjoying these Linux features, Adam! I really would love to see an open-source platform used more for gaming.