December 22, 2006

Commercial gaming: Can it thrive on Linux?

Author: Joe Barr

Can a game company make a profit producing commercial offerings for Linux? Two cross-platform offerings that run on Linux are hoping to show that it can be's Dirk Dashing and Sillysoft's Ancient Empires Lux, both of which are available as free downloads in demo form, are just the thing for reducing holiday stress.

According to the the game's Web site, Dirk Dashing is a secret agent working for a secret government agency called GOOD (Government Operatives On Duty). His mission is "to protect the world from terrorists and power-mad megalomaniacs." As an added bonus for families with young children, he does his job without ever killing a bad guy. No blood, no gore. He uses knockout gas to deal with bad guys.

Dirk Dashing reminds me of Commander Keen, one of my favorite games from the early '90s. Just like Commander Keen, Our hero Dirk has to walk, run, and hop over all manner of obstacles, gathering goodies as he goes, being careful not to fall into pits or be gotten by one of the bad guys.

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The demo is good for at least a couple of hours fun, and when you're ready for new adventures, the full version, which includes 30 levels of play plus three secret levels and more goodies, can be had for $20.

The game's author, Troy Hepfner, explains how he came to offer a Linux version of the game:

Our company switched to Linux as our primary development platform earlier this year, for various reasons. I have been using Linux myself at home for several years now, and am quite satisfied with it. As a Linux user, I naturally want to see more games available for Linux. And I certainly want to play our own games on Linux.

When one of our Windows machines went down earlier this year due to a virus and impacted our development schedule, I decided it was time to switch to Linux. Not only did this result in a safer and more stable development environment, but it forced us to change the game source code to be cross-platform. Even though this delayed our release by several months, I think this is a very good thing, both for gamers and for our company.

Hepfner says, "We've had a few sales of our Linux version already, which is encouraging, but it's really too early to tell. However, I am encouraged and excited about the level of interest we have received about our Linux game so far. I wasn't sure how the Linux community would respond to the release of a commercial game for Linux, especially from an independent developer, so I was pleasantly surprised at the level of enthusiasm."

Hepfner plans a "major upgrade" to the company's flagship game, Fashion Cents, during the coming year, and that will include a Linux version of the game. In fact, Hepfner says, "Now that we are using Linux as our primary development platform, I expect we will be offering Linux versions of all of our new games from now on."

Ancient Empires Lux: Risky business?

Unlike Dirk Dashing, there is plenty of blood and gore in Ancient Empires Lux. But don't worry, it's a modern day kind of warfare, always seen from 30,000 feet as opposing armies slug it out on the ground. Sillysoft offers several games, all of which appear to be based on the popular board game Risk, but each of which presents a unique twist by basing the warfare on, well, ancient empires, for one, American history for another, or interstellar space. The games are all cross-platform on Windows and Mac OS X, and there are Linux versions of all but Pax Galaxia. They are written in Java, so you'll need to have a JRE to run them.

I downloaded American History Lux and, following the instructions on the download page, installed it by entering java -jar American_History_Lux_Demo.jar in the download directory. A dialog appeared and walked me through the install, offering to run the game when it finished. I chose that, wanting to fight the war in Vietnam again as soon as I could.

I had to settle for the French and Indian war, however, because all the other wars are reserved for paying customers. The game displays a Risk-like map, along with an Info screen detailing each player's holdings. Game play is familiar to Risk players and easy to learn by those without Risk experience. Each turn awards you a certain number of armies, which you place in countries on the map that you own. Then you attack neighboring countries. At the end of your turn, you can relocate armies as you think best. The play is fast, and you can be wiped out or conquer the world in only a few minutes -- at the beginner's level, that is.

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Next, I tried Lux Delux, and Vietnam was the default campaign there. All's well that ends well, eh? I went toe-to-toe with five evil rogues and must admit I didn't fare too well the first time. One twist to this game is that you can set the nicknames and skill levels for your opponents. I need to remember to do that before I play the demo again. This version also offers online play, which is like Risk on steroids. The demo limits you to playing the game 20 times. The full version sells for $25.

I asked SillySoft how long it had been making Linux versions of its games and how they had found the market for them thus far. Dustin Sacks, the "founder and big kahuna" at SillySoft, replied:

We've offered games for Linux since June 2004. I personally support alternatives to Microsoft, including Mac OS and Linux, so that's a big reason why we support Linux. Since we're using Java as a development environment, the porting is pretty easy, so that's another big reason. Extra testing and support is also required, so even with Java it's not a fully free porting process.

Selling games to Linux users is definitely not easy. There always seems to be some backlash from Linux users about the commercial nature of our apps. Still, I view Linux support as a very valuable asset for the future, since I see the commercial Linux app market growing tremendously as Linux growth continues.

Linux a hostile market?

Apple's success as a desktop OS and the success of third-party offerings on its platform proves that it is possible for commercial software to prosper and thrive outside the Microsoft monopoly. But the Linux market is different, as the question of whether to buy software for many is not about its quality, but rather about its license.

The computer gaming industry is huge, and that Linux's share of it is tiny. Most of us would like to have the latest and greatest titles on the market, but the still unanswered question seems to be how many of us would pay for it? Enough to make it worthwhile for publishers to port?


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