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Linux for Gaming: Achievement Unlocked

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Caveats make me itchy.

Not the “I wore a wool sweater” kind of itchy. More the “I just saw a bunch of bugs and even though not a single bug is crawling on me, I'm itching like Gary Busey at a Renaissance fair” kind of itchy.

Any time the answer to a question begins with “Yes, but...” I start to develop imaginary rashes, especially when it comes to me recommending Linux to non-Linux-using folk.

In years past, the problem was far worse than it is today. It used to be that if someone asked you “Should I use Linux for my home computer?” your response required a small mountain of caveats: “Yes, but there's a big learning curve”, “Yes, but only if there are good drivers in the kernel for your hardware” or, my personal poison ivy, “Yes, as long as you don't need to play video games.”

Luckily, over time, most of those caveats have gone away. Linux distros are, in general, far easier to install and use nowadays. And hardware support, while not always 100 percent, has improved to the point of not being a blocking issue for the vast majority of people.

But video games... that caveat is still there. Or is it?

That very question got me thinking... when will the time come that we, as a people, can proudly proclaim Linux as a successful gaming platform? I mean, what does it even mean to be a successful gaming platform? Is there some sort minimum number of users needed?

The Xbox One, for example, has shipped over 5 million units. How does that compare to Linux? I'm not exactly sure. We know that Linux (the non-Android kind) accounts for between one and two percent of all traffic from web clients. Two percent means there are, roughly, eleventy billion Linux desktops. Okay, so we don't have reliable stats on the total number of Linux desktop installations. But, even if “eleventy billion” is a tad inflated, there are certainly far larger numbers of Linux PC's than of Xbox One's.

Which means, from the numbers point of view, Linux is doing just dandy. But numbers don't really tell the whole story. In 2011 over 36 million Twinkies were sold. And, as I found out the hard way, Twinkies play Portal poorly. Obviously install base alone does not a game platform make.

[Side Note: “Twinkies play Portal poorly” is great fun to say. Highly recommended.]

After much debate, with a fellow gamer about what makes a successful game platform, we came up with this:

“The measure of a great gaming platform is if people want to use it to play games on, rather than another platform. At least on occasion.”

Simplistic, I know, but it makes a good deal of sense. Which would mean Linux is a verifiable success as a gaming platform and has been for a good long time.

As good as that declaration feels, it doesn't remove that caveat when recommending Linux to people. Sure, Tux Racer is cool. But it's not exactly going to draw the hardcore (or even casual) gamer to the Linux side of the Force.

[I'm going to get angry emails for badmouthing Tux Racer... I just know it.]

Well, how about big name titles like Team Fortress 2, XCOM, Civilization V or DOTA 2? Would that do it? Would that convince people that Linux is a serious and worthwhile gaming platform? One that could power a person’s primary gaming machine? Can I write an entire paragraph using only questions? I think I can?

The answer to all of that is a resounding “Yes.”

And those four game examples are only the tip of the iceberg. The flood of commercial (and often big budget) titles coming our way via the Steam store is nothing short of astounding. Since the Linux launch of Steam in the beginning of last year, the number of Linux native games being sold through it has skyrocketed to more than 600. That's faster than one new, commercial Linux game every single day.

Here's the really crazy part: Steam isn't the only game in town. Desura has been providing a Linux desktop-focused game store since 2011. And let's not forget the Ubuntu Software Center or the Humble Bundle. Or GoG.com – which just launched official Linux support.

The fact is there are an amazing variety of distribution channels for video games on Linux nowadays easily competing with any other platform (both in terms of quantity and quality of games available).

To go back to the Xbox One comparison for a moment, there are currently (roughly) 260 games available for Microsoft's console. There are more than 600 Linux games on Steam. And another 600 on Desura. And more than 50 on GoG. Sure this comparison is a tad bit like comparing Apples and Mini-vans, but it still drives the point home:

As a gaming platform, Linux is not only a viable option, but a smart option. It is a caveat-free option for hardcore and casual gamers alike.

Now I'll be the first to admit that this article reads like a bit of a cheerleader piece. But why shouldn't it? As Linux users, we have long struggled to get to a place where we can proudly proclaim to our friends and family “Yes! You should use Linux as a gaming PC. That is a highly recommended way to go!” We should be proud! All of us. We made it to this point as a community.

It feels good. It feels really, really good. And far less itchy.

[Phew! I made it to the end of an article about gaming on Linux without, even once, referencing any of the games I have developed for Linux. Achievement Unlocked: “Self-Promotion Self-Restraint”.]

 

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  • VV Said:

    You make some great points in the article and there are starting to be some great offerings for games on Linux, mostly thanks to Steam. However, your point rests on quantity over quality. For Linux to be considered a successful gaming platform by mainstream gamers that today use XBox, PS, and Windows PC's. Linux will need the support of the AAA publishers. I'm not saying EA and Ubisoft make the greatest games ever made, but them and others will need to start to publishing for Linux in order for Linux to achieve mainstream support and popularity. I'm hopeful the push from Steam will help greatly in this regard.

  • Luke W. Said:

    I couldn't agree more. I am thrilled that Linux is a viable gaming platform, thanks mainly in part to Steam / Valve and others like them. We still need the support of the Big Game producers. Mainly we simply need to be able to say "Yes, of course all the new games are made for Linux/Mac/Win! Why wouldn't you use Linux?!" People need to know its a worthwhile investment of their time. They not only can use it now, But they can look forward to new games being released for Linux as well as Windows.

  • kevin Said:

    Success of Linux gaming will hinge on Valve's ability to keep up their momentum on supporting Linux, and the success of Valves SteamOS/Steam box.

  • Sumit Bhardwaj Said:

    Hey Bryan, nice piece. Linux is as viable a platform as any other os out there. The only issue is graphics drivers from manufacturers apart from the game developer's love for the Direct X platform. But this is rapidly changing now. With hardware manufacturers like Intel investing resources in the Open Source software development, and more and more game devs supporting open source graphics stacks like OpenGL, things are going to change pretty soon. And that is also fuelled by the increasing popularity of the GNU/Linux platform as a whole in the Desktop world. :)

  • Mohamed Ali Said:

    Hello Sumit I completely agree with you that one of the major issues regarding gaming on Linux and overall performance is graphics drivers. Manufactures like AMD and Nvidia need to start developing quality drivers for Linux.

  • xbruce Said:

    Caveat: Many games require Wine and even then have less than perfect play. I recently switched from rebooting into Windows to play Skyrim to using Wine. It works! But if I switch to another program then go back to my game there are graphical glitches. (To be fair, the same thing causes a minor glitch on Windows too.) It would be great if major distros supported Steam-via-Wine and gave it a little more tester/developer love. Steam won't even work on LMDE - I had to switch back to Ubuntu.


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