Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The changing face of Linux gaming

Anyone who is interested in gaming on the Linux environment must have heard the news of Valve porting the Steam client as well as a number of AAA games to run natively on Ubuntu. What I am going to be proposing here in this article is not based on any insider information. I don't know know Gabe personally nor do I have any insight into Valve as a company or their ultimate goals. But if you look at the things that have been said and the direction the company is staking, there can be some very interesting conclusions drawn.

First of all, lets go through what has been said and done by Valve so far. A few months ago, Gabe Newell came out and said (and I'm paraphrasing here) "Windows 8 is a catastrophe for games and game developers". He should know. He is an ex Microsoft employee and probably has a lot more insight into what is coming from Redmond in their next incarnation of the Windows OS. There's our first point to consider. Windows, the dominant gaming environment for PC, is moving in a direction that does not please the big games developers (Blizzard has apparently made similar statements).

Valve have been working hard on developing for Linux. They have hired a lot of top talent and have already gotten to a point where Left For Dead 2, their premier game at the moment, is running on Ubuntu. In fact, more than just running as the latest post on the Valve Linux blog shows, getting the game to run faster in Ubuntu than in Windows.

Valve has also made numerous statements that they want to work with Intel (and potentially other GPU hardware makers) on making the open source drivers for the GPU's a lot better. As well as looking into submitting patches to the Linux kernel to improve its capabilities in running games.

With all this going, I am seriously led to believe that Gabe (and by extension, Valve) is looking to make the Linux desktop its premier platform for gaming. In other words, focussing primarily at the Linux desktop instead of Windows as they do currently when it comes to building games.

Why would I say this? Well, think about it from a business point of view. Valve's biggest income generator is not just one game, but their Steam distribution platform. And the single biggest risk facing the companies future is the platform that those games run on. If Microsoft continue to push Windows further down the same path, Valve could find themselves in a tough spot. The biggest risk to Valve is that Microsoft essentially makes gaming on the PC nigh-on impossible with Windows. They will be left with a product they just cannot, or would be allowed, to sell.

Contrast that to a Linux desktop. Here is an environment where you may not have complete control over its direction, but you are at least able to contribute and help make sure that the needs you have for the environment are met. In fact, collaboration is encouraged in the FOSS world. Graphics driver a bit buggy or not performant enough? No need to wait for a third party to fix the problem, get in there and do it yourself. Kernel not handling things the best way possible for your needs? There's no big proprietary conglomerate to fight with and hope they eventually fix it. Spend a bit of money and get devs on it yourself.

Within a FOSS community, Valve can help to ensure their own future. They have a say. They can be a valuable member of the community while still making sure that they can continue to provide the service that makes them their profits. If Valve and other games developers really got stuck in, the Linux desktop can be the ultimate home for PC gamers.

"But gamers won't switch Gareth!" I hear you argue. But why won't they? Linux distributions are free and thanks to advances in ease of use over the last few years, dead easy to setup and install yourself. You really don't need to be some basement geek to make the move these days. In fact, I think most gamers would love to be able to get their hands on an OS that costs them nothing, free upgrades FOR LIFE, and that performs better than what they used to run on. Not to mention the possibility to tweak the crap out of the OS if they so choose to get those extra few frames per second.

Lets just get the list of evidence lined up here so everyone can see exactly what I mean and then you be the judge:


  1. Valve and other games developers have already expressed their concern (to put it conservatively in some cases) with Windows 8 as a gaming platform.
  2. Valve has invested a lot of time, money and effort into porting their games distribution platform (Steam) to Linux as well as a number of other games.
  3. Valve has already invested work in helping improve the quality of FOSS drivers for GPUs.
  4. Valve has already mentioned possible tweaks they want to make to the kernel in order to make it more performant for gaming.
  5. Valve has no way to guarantee that their current platform for delivery of games (Windows) will continue to be reliable for gaming and so can affect their ability to provide their service and make a profit.
  6. Valve may not have complete control over the Linux kernel and FOSS driver implementations but they can have a significant impact on changes to these critical pieces of software to help ensure they CAN continue to provide their service.
  7. Linux based distributions are cheap and (these days) easy to install and setup so there should be little to no barrier for gamers to be able to make the move across
When its all summed up like that, the conclusion I come to is that, if Valve and Gabe have their way, Linux will become the premier choice for gamers on the PC. And with that, it means a helluva lot more users, a bigger market share, and hardware vendors sitting up and taking notice to the point where they can no longer ignore support for Linux based Operating Systems. Valve and Gabe can do more to bring about the vaunted "Year of the Linix Desktop" than any other single act ... bar Microsoft going bankrupt over night.

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