January 24, 2007

How not to release a live DVD game

Author: Joe Barr

I was intrigued when I heard about SuperGamer, a beta live DVD based on PCLinuxOS. The DVD includes, in demo version for the most part, 3-D shooters America's Army, Doom 3, Postal 2, Cube, Enemy Territory, Nexuiz, Quake 4, Soldier of Fortune, UFO: Alien Invasion, and Wesnoth. Unfortunately, my SuperGamer/PCLinuxOS experience was as bad a Linux experience as I can remember having.

I tried to download the DVD with BitTorrent, but gave up when the estimated completion time started at 7 days in the future and slipped badly beyond that mark after only an hour or so. Instead, I ordered a DVD from On-Disk for $8.75, including postage.

When it arrived, I booted my system from the DVD and noted that I had neither sound nor an Internet connection. I also found myself suffering from the poor performance live CDs are notorious for, so I decided to install the game on a test machine -- specifically, one with an AMD Athlon 64 3200+ CPU, 1GB of RAM, and an MSI K8 mainboard with onboard Ethernet and audio. It has a Logitech USB mouse, an Nvidia GeForce 6600 PCI-E video card, and a ViewSonic V17B flat screen display. In addition to a single 160GB Maxtor hard drive, it has a Sony CD/DVD ROM drive.

The good news is that SuperGamer installation is simple and takes only about half an hour. The bad news is that it may not leave you with optimal configurations for video, sound, or network connectivity. Further, your faith in PCLinuxOS as a stable and reliable desktop distro may be tarnished by a few rough edges.

I first became concerned about the install when, after turning over the hard drive to the installer to partition according to its own tastes, a screen appeared that is designed to allow users to follow the progress of the disk formatting, copying of files, and so on. The problem was that the "time remaining" for each tasks tracked almost exactly with the "time elapsed" for the same task -- so after 25 minutes of installation, for example, the "time remaining" was 25 minutes and increasing. No, it's not a serious flaw, but it's not exactly reassuring either, even for a beta release.

There isn't much to do during the install except click Next when each stage finishes. At the end of the installation, I was asked where to write the bootloader information. I chose the master boot record (MBR) of my hard drive, a.k.a. /dev/hdc, since my CD/DVD drive is at /dev/hda.

The last step was to enter a password for root, a user name and ID, and a user password. You are also given an option to delete the "guest" account, which is used for live DVD sessions. When I selected that option, however, I got an error message. Again, this sort of thing does not build confidence.

My first boot following the first install failed. Only the "L" from the LILO bootloader printed on the screen before it hung up. The second install mirrored the first one exactly in all respects, but this time the LILO bootloader install worked. Looking at the install help after the fact, I read that if another distro had previously written to the MBR, LILO might not install correctly. How hard can it be to include a command like dd if=/dev/zero of=/dev/hda bs=512 count=1 in the installation process?

After the second install, I noted that the system automatically logged me in as the indelible Guest, rather than the user I had created. I also noted that I still did not have decent screen resolution, sound, or an Internet connection.

It only took a second to cure the connectivity issue. Clicking on the PCLinuxOS Configuration Center icon, I easily configured the on-board Ethernet adapter. Encouraged by that success, I also changed the auto login configuration to start my user instead of Guest. Those changes made, I ended the session and logged back in as Gamer to see what life would be like as a real user.

Alas, there wasn't much improvement. I want two things for my 3-D fantasy games: good high-resolution graphics and booming sound. I had neither. But I did now have an Internet connection, so I went off to find solutions there for my sight and sound woes.

The first place I looked for help was on the PCLinuxOS (a.k.a. PCLOS) IRC channel for which the developers provide a desktop icon. I got two tips there in short order, one of which worked. I was told to try FXdrake to configure my video, and in about a minute my screen was at 1280x1024, where it belongs.

The second tip was to run alsaconf to cure my sound blues, but that tip didn't work. The software still didn't recognize the onboard Azalia soundchip. I tried to get around the problem by using a USB Sound Blaster card. It worked with the operating system right out of the box. Finally, I was ready for some gaming -- or thought I was. I still got no sound from Doom or other games. This problem was not a SuperGamer or PCLOS problem, however; it's simply the lack of an adequate driver for the Sound Blaster.

Next, I borrowed a Sound Blaster Audigy PCI card from another system and installed it in the test box. SuperGamer/PCLOS seemed to see the card, but it couldn't correctly install it. Alsaconf tried to install the correct driver, and thought that it had done so, but I ended up with no /dev/dsp device and no sound. Just to make sure the hardware was good, I installed Ubuntu Edgy on the test machine, and it detected and used the SB Audigy just as it should. Repeated trips to the IRC channel and a post on the SuperGamer Forum were to no avail. My problems fell on deaf ears.

To be fair, SuperGamer probably works just fine on some systems, though I think that failing to work with onboard AC-97, onboard Azalia, and SB Audigy shows there are a lot of systems out there that it doesn't work on. But I have given up on SuperGamer without ever having shot a bad guy. The DVD's rough edges, failures to detect and configure components, and non-functioning sound far outweigh whatever its good points may be.

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