December 18, 2000

Linux gaming parity: Don't hold your breath

Author: JT Smith

- By Grant Gross -

Are you waiting for your favorite desktop game to come to Linux? Although there's a handful of big-name games available, people who are both gaming enthusiasts and Linux fans say parity in the gaming desktop is still years away.

"The question here is a chicken and egg one," says Volker Wiegand, president of SuSE Linux's U.S. operations. "Do the games make Linux mainstream on the desktop, or do the games come when Linux is mainstream?"

Wiegand and others say it's hard to predict when and if Linux will catch up to Windows on the gaming desktop. "It's probably far in the future, farther than I'd want to predict," says Jeb Bolding, a senior analyst with Enterprise Management Associates in Colorado and a Linux user for five years.

Bolding says the cost of porting a game from Windows to Linux is still prohibitive, and game companies don't see a big enough market of Linux users. Just recently, Slashdot linked to posts from id Software's Todd Hollenshead, saying the company had no plans to distribute the highly anticipated Quake 3 Team Arena on disk for Linux. "No offense, but it's a support nightmare due to the multiple flavors of popular versions and ever-changing kernel, retailers don't want it, and the Linux Q3A sales were disappointing," he posted on Quake3World.com in late November. "So the commercial reality is that the Windows version will go to retail and Linux will be available via a binary download pretty soon thereafter." (id Software people weren't available to comment on this story.)

Hollenshead did say that there will be a binary Linux version, but it probably would be unsupported. "Going forward, I fully anticipate that we will continue to push the platform in the hopes that one day soon Linux will be a viable platform for retail commercial entertainment software distribution."

Bolding believes that "code-to-code," Linux is a better platform to develop games on than Windows, "but there's not a concerted effort by anybody." Bolding sees more potential for a Linux console, such as Indrema, which recently invited developers to get involved in creating games. "It seems that Linux has a possibility there, building a console for an operating system, instead of building an operating system for a console."

In the meantime, Linux gamers are likely to see more role-play and strategy games ported to the desktop, Bolding says, because they tend to have longer shelf lives than shoot-'em-ups.

More optimistic about gaming on the Linux desktop are people like Scott Draeker, president of Loki Software, which has ported about a dozen popular gaming titles to Linux, including Sim City 3000, Heavy Gear II, Quake 3 Arena, and Descent 3. Available next is the strategy game Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri with Alien Crossfire, which was available for Windows early this year.

Draeker says the Linux gaming market can get a lot bigger, but the key may be to encourage game development specifically for Linux. "Keep in mind that we are focused on Loki's role in a Linux game market, not a Linux porting market," he says. "There's a difference. There are plenty of ports on the Mac, but almost no game development. Linux needs the latter if it's going to
stand on its own two feet. We're not in this so that we can forever be a distant second to Windows. And we're not limited to games on PCs. Where Linux goes, so goes Loki."

Draeker promises that Loki will continue to release a "steady stream" of Linux games. "We'll
keep building out the open source multimedia infrastructure on Linux so that Linux games will continue to meet or exceed their Windows counterparts, feature for feature and frame for frame," he says. "And, as we enter our third year of operations, we'll be addressing more of the challenges in our market. We want to see a thriving Linux gaming industry, and we're doing the
work to make it happen."

Edward Bender, a Linux user, game player, and chief content officer of the Speakeasy.net DSL service, also sees
potential for gaming on the Linux desktop. His company caters to Linux users, many of whom play games online against other players. The market shows promise, he says, because of "the general adaptation of Linux so far, and because the majority of Linux users are interested in games."

Still, Bender guesses Linux won't catch up to Windows for at least a couple of years.

SuSE's Wiegand believes that if hardware companies like Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and Gateway will start to sell computers with Linux installed, that'd spur Linux game development. He says it's important for Linux to have more games, and titles released at the same time as other platforms. "If Linux wants to be the dominating operating system on the desktop, it needs games," he says. "Hard-core gamers don't want to wait for titles."

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