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Linux Gaming: Open-Source Is Better For Everyone

The open-source operating system has long been the exclusive domain of programmers and other DIY computer nerds, but big players like Valve have recently begun making real progress in supporting Linux for heavy-duty gaming. Here's why you should cheer for those efforts rather than laughing them off or feeling like they threaten your existing PC gaming domain.

You can't throw a virtual rock on the Internet without hitting a game developer commenting on how dealing with platform holders takes time, effort, and money away from making better games. The additional coding required to conform to standards that affect a tiny portion of their audience in order to pass Microsoft certification comes at a cost. The thirty percent or so (an extremely vague figure, as it varies from game to game and platform to platform) of revenues that platform holders take off the top make it harder for developers to profit from their work. The requirements and restrictions of a platform's exclusive marketplace can make some ideas impossible to bring to life - witness the lack of MMOs on Xbox despite a strong network infrastructure. Finally, onerous burdens like having to pay a platform holder to patch your game make games like Minecraft and Team Fortress 2 lag far behind their PC versions.

With an open-source platform like Linux, there is no platform holder to deal with. Nobody can stop you from making and distributing whatever Linux software you like, charge you a fee for it, or tell you what you can and can't do with a Linux game. That has been the advantage of PC gaming since its inception, and it's done wonderful things for creativity, flexibility, and pricing over the years. With Microsoft pushing Windows in the direction of being a closed platform with Windows 8 (ARM-based tablets running Windows 8 can only run Microsoft-approved programs, and only software sold through Microsoft's digital storefront can access the full suite of Metro UI features), this massive advantage that PC gaming holds could be lost. Linux's open-source nature prevents it from ever being pushed down a similar road.

Valve's Steam service (which recently launched in a Linux incarnation) shares many of the downsides of closed platforms like consoles, iOS, or the Windows Marketplace. However, Valve doesn't control your hardware and cannot prevent any games or content from working on your machine whether it runs Windows, Linux, or Mac. Lacking that stick, Valve and competing companies (including GameStop, which owns Game Informer) must resort to carrots like seamless patching, community features, sales, and other ways to add value in order to attract games and players to their services. Many developers are happy to give Valve and other retailers their cut of a game's sale price in exchange for the visibility and marketing they receive in return, and others prefer using the pre-fab solutions for anti-piracy measures, community/online integration, and other developer-focused added value that Steam in particular offers.

Though Steam and similar services share some downsides with closed platforms like consoles, the key ingredient is choice. If a company doesn't like the way Valve does business, or doesn't think that Steam's positives outweigh its negatives, they're free to ignore it and release their game through other channels. NCsoft and ArenaNet probably didn't need any additional exposure for Guild Wars 2, and obviously decided to avoid losing the revenue that using a reseller like Valve takes off the top. Nonetheless, Guild Wars 2 is available to all PC gamers who own the requisite hardware. Blizzard sticks with its own Battle.net service. EA and Ubisoft insist on annoying players with their own proprietary Origin and Uplay systems. Hundreds of indie developers sell games through their own websites. The PC gaming ecosystem is wider and more diverse than closed platforms by orders of magnitude, and it's all due to its open nature. Game development on Linux will remain open to all business models, types of content, and services, forever.

Finally, a Linux gaming machine will by definition cost around $100 less than the same machine running Windows. Not having to pay Microsoft for its operating system is a huge boon, particularly at the lower end of gaming-capable PC building like Valve's "SteamBox" initiative. A high-end $1,900 machine going up to $2,000 isn't that big of a deal, but bringing a $600 box down to $500 is huge.

As glorious as a Linux-centric PC gaming future would be, there are a number of hurdles that must be cleared for any serious Linux development to take root. Come back Friday for a look at those, and leave your thoughts in the comments section below in the meantime.

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