Linux Games

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© John Spangle -

© John Spangle -

End of the Clones

"We can do anything except games" might be the lament of a Linux fan who has to turn on a Windows computer just to play a computer game. In this issue, we explain why that could change soon.

One thing that Linux is not, is a gaming platform … yet. Common Windows games often won't run at all or will run only with the help of Wine. This situation can present problems for newcomers and often harms game performance.

Moreover, the choice of high-quality games is limited for Linux users. If you look at the Linux games listed in Wikipedia [1], you'll currently find fewer than 500 entries – including some that have been around since the 1990s (e.g., Heretic). On other platforms, at least 10 times that appear annually.

After perusing the list, other things become clear. Titles such as Hedgewars, Teeworlds, and WarMUX have one thing in common: they're all clones of the Windows classic Worms, where worm-like creatures blow each other up with comical weapons. The Worms clones are not alone. Others clones include Lincity-NG, Freeciv, FreeCol, Widelands, UFO: Alien Invasion, SuperTux, and Tux Racer  – clones are everywhere you look. But, are there any original, new ideas? Negative.

Many native Linux games are copies of well-known console or Windows games. These are by no means bad copies – on the contrary, some clones even surpass the originals, as fans equip them with features that were missing. But implementing innovative game ideas with free software is an exception. That's also the case for the previously mentioned games listed on Wikipedia: The original ones mostly began as commercially successful indies.

Game Heroes

The original games include titles such as Braid, Cogs, Hammerfight, Super Meat Boy, Aquaria, and Shank. Even these have something in common: They were all ported by Ryan C. Gordon (a.k.a. icculus ) [2]. Over the years, Gordon has almost single-handedly brought various Windows and console games to the Linux platform – partly in his free time and partly on contract with game developers. Without him, the already narrow range of Linux games would be even more limited, underscoring his important role in making sure Linux maintains at least a small game community.

Another important Linux user in the gaming arena is Sam Lantinga [3], the inventor of SDL (Simple DirectMedia Layer), an important Linux multimedia library. Lantinga co-founded Loki Software, where he worked with Ryan C. Gordon. Loki gained some recognition in the 1990s, because it ported Windows games like Sim City, Unreal Tournament, and Railroad Tycoon II to Linux. In 2001, when the end of Loki was becoming apparent, Lantinga moved over to the well-known gamesmith Blizzard Entertainment (World of Warcraft and Diablo), and he now works at Valve Software, where he's currently helping port Steam and Left 4 Dead 2 to Linux.

Ubuntu as a Gaming Platform

Here we come full circle – almost – because Ubuntu has played a not insignificant role in converting Linux to a gaming platform. Ubuntu not only will profit from the developments described here, it has made some significant contributions. As a contemporary platform with nothing to fear from the market, it has already become interesting for the larger game-makers. The era of Linux clones is likely to end when the original games also run on the Linux platform.

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