March 23, 2001

New kernel improves gaming for Linux, but it's still a small market

Author: JT Smith

- By Grant Gross -

The team that worked on the Linux 2.4 kernel didn't have gaming as their top priority, but in making the kernel more friendly to use in the business enterprise, they've improved on its gaming capabilities as well.

The improvements in gaming under 2.4 may be more "evolutionary" than "revolutionary," as Loki Entertainment Software president Scott Draeker says, but the 2.4 kernel sports improvements such as USB and plug and play support. Combined with XFree86 4.0x, the 2.4 kernel also includes improved 3D graphic accelerator performance and compatibility, say Linux gaming experts.

Scott Handy, director of Linux solutions marketing for IBM, says that while IBM isn't focused on gaming, the same improvements exciting the the Linux people at Big Blue should turn on gamers. The kernel's improvements in dealing with multiple threads, those pieces of information needed to serve a user or a service request, should make games perform better in Linux.

The kernel's improved handling of symmetric multiprocessing should also be of interest to gamers, he says. "What we're seeing from our preliminary benchmarks is that the same efficiencies are evident even on a single processor," Handy says. "We're pretty excited about the overall enhancements of the 2.4 kernel."

Ray Sanders, president of QLITech, says the Linux hardware company is planning to put 2.4 on the company's advanced multimedia workstation (AMW), a Linux machine optimized for gaming. Sanders says he sees big advancements in 2.4 over 2.0 and the early 2.2 kernel, but the biggest advance comes from XFree86 4.0x.

The decision to make the gaming machines came because "we're a bunch of geeks here at QLI," he says. "Basically we hated only having Doom and Quake to play,
and knew that we couldn't be the only people in the world who do not
want to cripple a high-end system with an inferior OS. "

Draeker, whose company ports top-selling games to Linux, says promoting gaming concerns among the kernel developers is not an easy task, because gaming hasn't been a top priority. "You kind of have to follow the money to see what people are focused on," he says. "We can't just be there by ourselves saying, 'Hey, we'd like to see this.' The Linux community does itself a disservice as a while because it de-emphasizes desktops and workstations."

But the Linux gaming industry needs improvements to build momentum, he adds. "As these games come out, they keep pushing the limits of what technology can do. And if we can support the next generation of features, then it's really the same game in Linux as it is in Windows."

But Dirk Hohndel, president of SuSE Inc. and CTO of SuSE AG, says "high-quality, high-end" games for Linux are now possible with improvements in the kernel and XFree86. What Linux gaming needs now, he says, is more people playing games on Linux.

"The 2.4 kernel is providing the infrastructure those companies need, and hopefully, those companies will be able to create a reasonable number of good games for Linux," he says. "To improve the gaming experience, we need to have more high-quality games that are available for this infrastructure. Quite frankly, I hope that more of the traditional gaming software vendors will target the platform. To that extent, the 2.4 kernel does indeed help gaming in Linux."

Hohndel says it's difficult to speculate about whether many gaming companies will jump on the Linux bandwagon. "We obviously feel quite confident that there is a very big market for Linux on the desktop, which means it's going to be very interesting for those game manufacturers to be in this market space," he says. "But talking to those people, you feel some uncertainty whether or not the investment is worthwhile."

He believes that if one major gaming company will take the first step, others will follow. "Some big [gaming company] will be the first. This will create the market, this will create the market share, and this will bring the others out of the closet."

But the next step needs to come from Linux users, he adds. "If you want to see games on Linux, buy the games that exist. Show them, 'here is the market.' It's very simple ... we need more software, and in order to get more software, vote with your dollar."

Mark DeLoura, editor in chief of Game Developer magazine, says Loki Games is creating more demand, but what would really jump-start the Linux gaming market would be unique, kick-ass games in Linux. "There needs to also be unique titles, in order for people to say, 'I need to have Linux on one of my machines to play this game,' " he says.

DeLoura, a Linux user, says his magazine and its parent company, CMP Game Media Group (which also produces the Game Developers Conference), encourage game developers to write portable code, so that games can easily port between Windows, Linux, Macintosh and the various gaming consoles. If a developer team starts a gaming project with portability in mind, it's not difficult to achieve, he says.

"It really behooves the developers at this point to make sure the code is portable, because there are so many game platforms," he says. "If you make a game and it costs you $2 million to $4 million ... to recoup those costs, you want to make sure it runs on as many platforms as possible."

QLITech's Sanders says that selling Linux to the major gaming developers is an uphill battle, but he's optimistic it can happen. "I guess until the average person on the street knows about Linux, and why Linux is better, it will be difficult to get
major retailers to carry Linux games," he says. "A lot of major retailers are
starting to carry the major brand Linux distributions, so I'd give it another year or so."

He adds a side note: "I'd probably never leave my house if Everquest and Perfect
Dark were available for Linux."

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