The state of gaming on Linux

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First Class Fun

Commercial game companies big and small, as well as various distributors, are starting to recognize Ubuntu as a viable gaming platform.

Any discussion about the benefits of Ubuntu usually involves the question, "How does it look with games?" For the past decade, the answer has been, "Rather limited." Purists point to Frozen Bubble, TuxRacer, or some other shooter, but hardcore gamers only shrug their shoulders and stick with Windows, because it runs all the big titles.

However, thanks to recent events within the game sector, Ubuntu is finally becoming a serious alternative. The Software Center has been selling games for some time (Figure 1), and by now it is well stocked, even boasting a bestseller list [1]. The new purchase options are attracting new developers that use the Software Center as their marketplace.

Figure 1: Commercial and free games currently hold an equal share of the Software Center market.

Start your Engines

Modern games usually aren't developed from scratch. Free and commercial game engines help developers turn their visions into working code.

The larger engines used to rely mostly on Microsoft and Direct X, but the number of commercial engines available for Linux and OpenGL is increasing, and the availability of Linux game engines has led to an increase in the number of Linux games. An ever-growing number of engines are adding or considering Linux for their list of supported platforms. Meanwhile, the free engines are also getting better: the Goodfolks game presented in the previous issue of Ubuntu User runs on the free Ogre 3D engine [2].

Valve, the company behind games such as Half-Life and Portal, turned the Steam (Figure 2) platform into the most successful distribution platform ever. The software provides easy purchase and installation of many big blockbuster games. With 50 million active user accounts, Steam is the heavyweight among gaming platforms.

Figure 2: The Steam client on Linux: the heavyweight Valve extends its feelers toward Linux, with Ubuntu playing a special role.

Gabe Newell – Valve's boss – made headlines when he called Windows 8 a "catastrophe." At Casual Connect, the gaming convention in Seattle, he said: "We want to make it as easy as possible for the 2,500 games on Steam to run on Linux as well." [3]. Valve has recently ported the source engine to Linux, and the company also plans to develop the Steam Box – a game console based entirely on Linux.

Of the 2,500 games in the Steam catalog, the system only offers 62 games for Linux (among them some well-known titles). However, a Linux port for game providers is making more and more sense.

Other Platforms

Steam is not alone. Even smaller game platforms, such as Desura and IndieCity, are developing games for Linux – the IndieCity games are still in development. Both platforms are similar to Steam but concentrate on games in the indie realm. Behind them are mostly independent, small game companies – among them two-person operations – that usually produce imaginative casual games.

So-called Humble Indie Bundles (Figure 3) bundle together cross-platform indie games and sell them at a "pay-what-you-want" price. Most of these bundles earn well over 1 million US dollars each, and the large (financial) resonance dispels any prejudicial attitude about free products on the web. Linux users spend more on average for the bundles than their Windows or Mac peers.

Figure 3: The success of Humble Indie Bundle caused a stir in the gaming world, shifting the focus on indie games and an alternative payment model.

Games were a big topic at the Ubuntu Developer Summit in November, 2012, and this should have an effect on Ubuntu. Valve sent its representative, Drew Bliss, to Copenhagen, and the Unity engine developers sent dedicated Linux fan Na'Tosha Bard (Figure 4) to UDS.

Figure 4: Na'Tosha is working on a game engine with the same name as Ubuntu's desktop: Unity. (c) Sean Sosik-Hamor, CC-BY-SA 2012.

In his keynote, Mark Shuttleworth also mentioned Electronic Arts (EA), the world's third largest game company (as of 2011) [4]. EA had published two of its games, Command & Conquer: Tiberium Alliances and Lord of Ultima (Figure 5), in the Software Center. Although critics moaned (rightly) about the lack of any native Linux games, Ubuntu's community manager Jono Bacon countered that these were EA's first steps in that direction. Not much news has followed as yet, but the situation could change in 2013.

Figure 5: Little game, big publicity: EA teases with two web games in Software Center.

Even bigger than EA is Blizzard, the world's second largest game maker after Nintendo and together with Activision. Blizzard hit it big with games like World of Warcraft, Diablo, and StarCraft. Michael Larabel, who runs the Phoronix website, has it from reliable sources that Blizzard is planning a Linux-related announcement in 2013 [5]. According to Larabel, an internal Linux version of World of Warcraft already exists. It was not released, he says, because World of Warcraft runs with Wine (Figure 6) and Blizzard considers the Linux landscape too fragmented, making support difficult.

Figure 6: Playing World of Warcraft has been available in Linux for quite some time using Wine.

Considering the increasing popularity of Ubuntu and the steps taken by Valve, the tide could turn for Blizzard games as well. On the other hand, certain speculations about Linux and game producers have proved to be wishful thinking in the past. (There is still no official Linux port of the Unreal 3 engine, for example.)

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