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Today is a good day. I had the pleasure of speaking to Feral Interactive on their porting work for the Linux version of XCOM and games in general and here it is in all its glory.

Can you introduce yourself and tell us what you do at Feral?

My name is Edwin Smith and I am Head of Production at Feral. My main job is to facilitate other people’s work. Most of my time is spent co-ordinating our internal developers and QA with the companies with whom we work. The aim is to make sure that there is a good flow of communication, so that we avoid misunderstandings and hopefully head off problems before they arise.

Why did Feral decide to get into Linux?

The catalyst has been the Steam OS and the Steam Machine. That convinced us that Linux could support AAA games.

OS X is a UNIX-based platform so from a development perspective Linux feels like a natural extension of what we already do as Mac developers. We also felt that a lot of the experience that we had in publishing for the Mac and marketing to and providing support for smaller audiences would be applicable to Linux.

So, essentially without SteamOS & Steam Machines Feral wouldn't be porting games to Linux?

The scope and quality of Linux gaming have been steadily improving for a few years. However, Valve’s decision to use Linux for SteamOS was in our view a big validation, and certainly made the decision to develop for Linux easier.

For a company just getting into Linux what roadblocks did you encounter in bringing XCOM to Linux?

No roadblocks, just a few speed bumps ;-). A few things are different, for example 64bit support. 32bit libraries are no longer the default on Linux as they are for Windows and OSX. That means the game has to be updated to be 64bit clean.

Is the port just to confirm properly a 100% native port? So, no wrappers (Wine, eON, Crossover etc)?

This is a 100% native application. Just like our Mac games, all our Linux games will be 100% native. We never use WINE, Crossover etc style wrapper technology. Promise!

We avoid wrappers because we believe they do not allow for the same level of platform-specific tailoring that native ports do, so they don’t often provide gamers with the best experience that the platform – and the game - can provide.

Making a native application allows us to give the game that extra bit of platform specific polish.

Two examples in XCOM:

- We modified the videos to use VP8 on Linux, as that was the best codec to use.
- We wrote a Linux-specific pre-game launcher for the Complete Edition of XCOM that allows you to choose between the main game or the expansion pack, XCOM: Enemy Within. We rewrote it for Linux to support Big Picture mode (with HD graphics) and gamepads.

XCOM for Linux has lots of small changes like these, all of which contribute to making the Linux version feel like it has taken advantage of everything the platform has to offer.

And, once the game is released we are committed to maintaining it based on feedback from the community.

What tools are you using in porting XCOM to Linux?

We use a large number of tools and custom libraries during development. A few examples are: QTCreator, gedit, CMake, apitrace, systemtap, perf, git-svn, meld, libvpx, SDL2 and webm. We also have our own custom libraries designed to help game development on Linux

What do you think about Steam Machines and SteamOS and what it means for the future of PC gaming?

The Steam Machines and SteamOS have great potential as an alternative to Windows, but it's a braver man than me who will forecast how that is going to play out.

What sort of sales numbers are you expecting from the Linux crowd given that many may already own it?

For now we're more focused on the reception that a native Linux port of XCOM gets from Linux gamers than the sales. We are committed to bringing AAA games to Linux and making sure those games are completely awesome to play on the Linux platform; if we do a good job of that then over time we trust that the sales will follow.

The game is currently 64bit only. Is there a certain reason this was done and will a 32bit version come?

The latest Linux distibutions are primarily 64bit, and libraries are increasingly being developed and maintained in 64bit. In gaming terms, we’re seeing more and more 64bit-only games released for Linux, so overall we think 32bit has a limited future in AAA gaming.

As our first game for Linux, the decisions we made about the hardware and software XCOM supports have long-term implications. Since it was apparent to us that 64bit is the future and that 32bit is being phased out, we decided to support only 64bit from the beginning.

Although we have had a few requests for 32bit support, we’re unlikely to support it.

We asked about the tools used to port the game, but what about the platform? Were you able to develop any of it on Linux directly or was Linux more of a testing environment?

The entire development process, from alpha to the final release build, took place on Linux. Having developers run the OS they are targeting is key to attaining the best gaming experience.

It also helps that everyone on the Linux team at Feral were either keen Linux users before they started working on the project or adopted Linux as their primary platform during the development process. This means they get what Linux is about. We wanted the game to be more than just a Windows (or Mac) application dropped into Linux, we wanted to optimize it for Linux as much as we could.

This relates to your earlier question about wrappers. Because XCOM for Linux is a native application that is optimized for the platform at a source code rather than just a runtime level, it can be adapted to Linux’ usability conventions and features, not just its technical features (such as OpenGL).

What's your position on open-source GPU drivers (radeon, nouveau) vs. proprietary drivers (catalyst, nv) on Linux?

It depends on the drivers, and what works best for the project in question.

For example, XCOM only officially supports the proprietary Linux drivers for AMD and NVIDIA cards. Although some users have been able to play with the open source drivers, we have found they are not as stable. They are also missing some features that the closed source drivers have, so we aren't offering official support right now.

However, XCOM does support the open-source Mesa drivers for Intel cards, and we actually logged and fixed a bug in the driver during the development of XCOM.

Although we are open to supporting more open source drivers in the future, our immediate goal is to get great performance and stability in complex 3D environments and for that, the open source drivers for AMD and NVIDIA cards aren't quite there yet.

That said, we hope that the combination of more AAA games coming to Linux, the feedback we give and receive and the efforts of the Linux community will mean that the open source drivers keep improving in the future.

When you say you are committed to bringing AAA games to Linux, does that mean you are already working on more ports?

That's the plan! Although I can't give you any clues about what's next in line, I can say that the coming year should be a good one for Linux gamers!

How have you felt the reception has been for the port so far?

So far we are extremely pleased with the reception from Linux gamers and for the amazing community spirit on forums. We have learnt a lot from them and are using that knowledge to make sure that our future Linux releases are as good as they can be.

Any words of wisdom for developers looking to port to Linux?

Here are a few short points I think would be helpful to anyone thinking about it:

1. Develop on the platform for the platform. This helps you debug on the hardware / software that people will be playing on.

2. Decide early on what hardware and software you want to officially support; there are lots of hardware and software configurations. For an initial release, it is arguably better to have a small list of officially supported set-ups that offer great performance than a large list that you aren't able to QA and fully optimise. You can always extend the official support at a later date.

3. Polish, and hold your nerve. It's worth spending the time to make sure the game you eventually release is one that you are proud of. People will forgive a delayed release, they won't forgive a buggy one.

4. Engage the community. The Linux gaming crowd are enthusiastic, knowledgeable and helpful. We have already had a lot great feedback on XCOM, which has really helped us to understand what the community values.

5. Don't be scared, penguins don't bite!

Many thanks to everyone at Feral (special thanks to Brad Gibson for sorting the interview out and Edwin of course for answering!) for the port and for future ports to come, it was really great to speak to them about everything and I think we are onto a winner with these guys. It's extremely refreshing to have such a good developer supporting Linux, and this is another thing we have Valve to thank for.

What port would you like to see come from them next and how are you enjoying XCOM? Let us know! Sadly I've had very little time to play it, but the first mission was very smooth for me!

Final note: XCOM is still 50%, so grab your wallets and grab it on Steam now!
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I am the owner of GamingOnLinux. After discovering Linux back in the days of Mandrake in 2003, I constantly came back to check on the progress of Linux until Ubuntu appeared on the scene and it helped me to really love it. You can reach me easily by emailing GamingOnLinux directly.
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Beamboom Jun 26, 2014
I'm playing Xcom: Enemy Unknown these days and would like to use this opportunity to say a big THANK YOU to Feral Interactive for such a silky smooth port of a fantastic game.

Seriously guys: This game is a must-buy for all Linux gamers.
Lapinopl Jun 26, 2014
Love it! I was reading this article and all I could think of was :" yes, Yes! YES!" I like how straightforward he was. the bad new is that if they will release some CoD game now, I'll have to buy a freaking CoD game:(
FutureSuture Jun 26, 2014
CD Projekt RED, take note. This is how it's done. Feral and Aspyr FTW.
Jajcus Jun 26, 2014
Yes, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a great Linux port. I had some doubts if I should buy it, as my hardware is below the official requirements (I have a laptop with Intel i3 CPU and the integrated Intel HD4600 GPU), but I took the risk and the game works great (or well enough for my needs). So the official requirements seem a bit too pessimistic.
toor Jun 26, 2014
Wow… I'm impressed…
What a serious and open-minded company o_o
And it isn't just talking, I have bought xcom and it is indeed smooth and cool.
MayeulC Jun 26, 2014
Thank you for the port, I never played XCOM before, but I am enjoying this ;)
However, I encounter some random segfaults when playing the game with Mesa. I am trying to fix it.

Seems like they are respecting the XDG specification. Yay! Tired of all those ".minecraft"-ish popping in my ~ folder.

A future game? Batman, Bioshock (unfortunately, I already own these in my steam Library, but I never played Batman. I couldn't finish Bioshock 1 due to a broken savegame, I hope a port would be sufficient for be to get back into it). Borderlands - 1&2&Pre-Sequel. Deus Ex. Of course, Deus Ex! The Total war series are great too.
I have never played Tomb Raider, due in part to the lack of Linux Support. A port would change that.
Why not Mafia II, too? I didn't finish it, but I was close to.
Fable? Hitman?

Wow, that makes a big wishlist! Hopefully more of these ports are coming. I will have to upgrade my hardware, too, but I think I will wait until I'm done with my engineering school.
drmoth Jun 26, 2014
Wow, what a great company. They understand how it should be done. Very impressed. Needless to say I've been thoroughly enjoying XCOM of late, very easy to pick up and very enjoyable.
dude Jun 26, 2014
Thanks for the interview. I think the work was worth it, the first impression is always important and it's really a great port! No problems so far in 12 hours of play. Incredible to see XCOM native on Linux. Full Feral support from now on :) Keep it up.
fedso Jun 26, 2014
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Awesome interview, thanks Liam!
And thank you Feral Interactive :)
FutureSuture Jun 26, 2014
Quoting: Edwin Smith, Head of Production at FeralHowever, XCOM does support the open source Mesa drivers for Intel cards, and we actually logged and fixed a bug in the driver during the development of XCOM.
This open source stuff seems really useful. :D
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