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Opinion: Can Linux Be A Viable Gaming Platform? Thoughts From A Sympathetic Game Developer

By f25025105 - | Views: 27,762
In the beginning, a brief historical overview.

While PC was the platform that enabled mass-scale game development as we know it now, its Golden Age only lasted from about 1992 to 2005. Back then PC replaced the arcade machines as the primary target for both AAA and smaller game developers, while console ports usually came after a successful PC release and were inferior due to a weaker console hardware.

Things have changed in mid-2000s, when consoles that were at least as powerful as a typical user’s PC appeared. Hard-core gamers with their beefy rigs still had the upper hand, but a mass user’s desktop (slowly turning into a laptop at that point) was outclassed by the console hardware - and this hardware came bundled with online services which were better than what was available on PC (Steam and GameSpy, let alone Games For Windows), without the need to muck with the drivers and run PunkBuster to weed out the cheaters. And, more importantly, the games on the platform were designed to be played from the couch, often together with a friend or a partner - very important thing if you consider the prevalence of casual players over the hard core ones on any platform.

Sales quickly reflected the changed environment - take any cross-platform game of the era and compare PC and 360 copies sold on a sales tracking site like VGChartz - PC figures will be consistently smaller (and don’t forget that PC price is usually lower).

No wonder that for non-indie game developers, PC has not been a popular platform since then. Game developers and publishers alike are more than willing to concentrate on the console market, which consistently accounted for the majority of the sales while being relatively easy to develop for.

What has changed?

“PC renaissance” of early 2010s happened largely due to two factors, one of them being proliferation of the “free to play” format. Initially unpopular in the console-dominated West, F2P spread like wildfire due to the success of MOBA type of games. Both because F2P favors a large installed base and because it is inherently resistant to piracy, F2P once again made PC a viable platform for making money.

The second important factor was the “indie revolution”. Easier access to professional tools (e.g. Epic’s UDK released for free in 2009) and inexpensive engines (Unity, Cocos2D), widespread acceptance of the digital delivery (Steam) and significantly improved compared to early 2000s hardware and software (on Windows side) of an average PC allowed small teams to develop games that could be played by millions.

That said, these days PC is still an “ugly duckling” of the AAA game development. Contrary to its golden age, it is now the PC version that is released after the game proved to be a success, if at all. For whatever reasons, AAA games that don’t utilize “free-to-play” mechanics but are instead sold traditionally, enjoy larger sales in terms of profit on the console platforms - and this is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.

How does Linux fit into this picture?

I dare to say that it was PC renaissance that enabled Linux gaming and not vice versa. While it is certain that Humble Indie Bundles benefited from claiming Linux support, the Linux ecosystem was not (and is not yet as of now) able to sustain game development even of F2P games and has to piggy-back on OS X porting efforts - or, sometimes, on the fact that the Linux port is comparatively cheap due to a cross-platform engine.

Demands for the Linux version of a game can be sometimes quite vocal, but its actual release does not seem to bring much, if any, profit. This is not because Linux users are not willing to pay in general; rather, it means that targeting the platform is more expensive than the price that can be reasonably charged for a single copy. Other platforms are helped by the economies of scale, but this is not the case for Linux.

The above applies to the traditional model of selling games; targeting Linux for a F2P game is probably even worse, since this model relies on the large player base, which is seemingly not there in Linux case according to statistics.

All in all, it seems that releasing the game on Linux now is done mostly due to developers’ enthusiasm about the platform, goodwill or - rarely - “long term” investment in making their tech cross-platform in case SteamOS turns out to be popular (there’s no immediate value in being cross-platform - developers may fix some bugs while porting, but if those bugs never mattered for their best selling platform, this is still a waste of time).

What are the problems with Linux as a gaming platform?

The overarching problem is that Linux-based operating systems are not designed to facilitate running closed-source binary blobs, let alone blobs that depend on so many system components at once. Graphics drivers are the most visible part, but problems with window, audio and input systems can also be severe, if games are to be held to the strictest standards of competitive PC gaming, particularly for e-sports.

Part of the problem is what we call “Linux” is vague - there are several related, yet different OS sharing that name. Even within a single OS there is sometimes a multitude of choices, sometimes subtle, that can make a problem reproducible only on that user’s machine. There are numerous micro-decisions to be done while writing the software, and sometimes there’s no other specification than the de-facto behavior of the developer’s system. If a user’s system behaves differently, we have a problem.

This, to an extent, applies to Windows as well (which is one of the reasons why console platforms with their deterministic behaviour are cheaper to develop for), but the FOSS principles that put everything on user’s system under the user’s control greatly amplify that problem.

Another problem is the cultural clash. Game developers make money from selling their proprietary software (even if sometimes indirectly), and as such are inherently incompatible with FOSS goals. The effect of this is two-fold: not only the likelihood of the developers’ prior experience with Linux is smaller than what would be expected from an average user, but this operating system is built on the principles that are contrary to and sometimes outright incompatible with their modus operandi, which presents them with unique challenges not encountered on other (proprietary) gaming platforms.

To add insult to the injury, Linux gaming community abounds in radically minded folks, who often are not willing to bridge that cultural gap - in spite of Linux gamers themselves being an eclectic minority within the larger, and even more radical, Linux community. It is curious how people could hold seemingly incompatible beliefs at once, both despising the closed source software and demanding its authors to support it on more FOSS platforms (yes, there are people who attempt to run Steam on gNewSense).

What can be done to improve Linux gaming?

First of all, we (all people interested in Linux gaming) should understand and respect the status quo before attempting to change it. Linux users are the minority among computer users, and that applies to game developers as well. A typical game developer does not possess an intrinsic interest in Linux, they may not have necessary knowledge nor patience needed for an enthusiast OS based on principles hostile to them - and they may happily live the rest of their lives without it. Their enthusiasm lies in creating games, and the proprietary platforms are not hindering their creativity anyhow significantly - learn to understand and respect this world view.

Second, understand where the money is. For a typical, non-indie game, Linux sales constitute negligible percent of the overall PC sales, which are themselves dwarfed by the console sales - to such an extent that even Windows version can be cut. Even for indie games that only sell on PC, Linux sales are unlikely to surpass 10%. It is safe to say that turning profit on a Linux version is extremely hard - if you are a developer, expect to lose money. If you are a gamer, be friendly to developers who are not doing this for profit and can be sometimes bitter about their experience. Also, when trying to reach out to devs for the help, keep in mind that players usually outnumber the developers by several orders of magnitude.

Third, understand the platform - both as a user and as a developer.

As a user, realize that the freedom to build your own system has an associated responsibility - you get to maintain it. You may be the only person on the planet who runs this particular combination of software on this hardware! If anything goes wrong on your system, you - first and foremost - are responsible for fixing it, or at least diagnosing the problem. This is both the blessing and curse of FOSS.

As a developer, do not claim to support more than you actually do. If you only packaged the game for Linux without even running it, state so. If you only can afford to run it on Ubuntu using NVidia drivers to make sure it starts, be upfront about this. Try not to use vague terms as “Linux version”, don’t be afraid to brand it as “Ubuntu version” or “SteamOS version” (if you are testing on these OS of course). In the latter case, I hope that Valve will start a certification program to help provide a consistent experience.

Fourth - pay attention to the attitude and the self-fulfilling prophecies it starts. Support companies that invested into Linux. Right now the best thing you can do for Linux gaming is switching to SteamOS for your gaming purposes (Ubuntu is reasonably close). Embrace the proprietary drivers. Run Steam. Be friendly and supportive to proprietary software developers. This seems to be anti-FOSS - it’s not in the big picture. What is at stake now is whether free software can be used as a foundation for a large scale digital entertainment platform (which involves compromises with proprietary software). It certainly worked for Android, so let’s hope it can work for the SteamOS. Article taken from GamingOnLinux.com.
Tags: Editorial
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Plintslîcho 6 Jul, 2015
Quite an interesting read. Thanks!
Beamboom 6 Jul, 2015
Great article.There are some minor details I'd comment on if I was in the mood for nitpicking, but I'm not :-)
It puts things into the right perspective, that's the important thing. This is a must-read for all Linux gamers.

You've had some fantastic guest submissions lately Liam!


Last edited by Beamboom on 6 July 2015 at 8:07 pm UTC
throgh 6 Jul, 2015
From my point of view a game developed only for "Ubuntu" or "SteamOS" is not the way to go. In fact it is no problem at all to release a working application for more than only one or two platforms. So the user should be capable of knowledge about the platform he / she is using. Only some basic knowledge and the motivation to ask questions at the right places, also having some basic interest about finding information on their own at a concrete point. There is no need for some kind of standardization or certification. What do you want to reach? Another Microsoft, this time only with the penguin on it? No thanks!

For me Linux and Open-Source is about the freedom to choose and not to be regulated by another ruleset and the dictate of some companies / groups which say this has to be the way of some kind of standard.


Last edited by throgh on 6 July 2015 at 8:09 pm UTC
muntdefems 6 Jul, 2015
Quoting: BeamboomIt tells it exactly how it is.

Allow me to disagree. In my opinion, none of the author's alleged "problems with Linux as a gaming platform" are true:


Quoting: f25025105The overarching problem is that Linux-based operating systems are not designed to facilitate running closed-source binary blobs, let alone blobs that depend on so many system components at once. Graphics drivers are the most visible part, but problems with window, audio and input systems can also be severe, if games are to be held to the strictest standards of competitive PC gaming, particularly for e-sports.

Part of the problem is what we call “Linux” is vague - there are several related, yet different OS sharing that name. Even within a single OS there is sometimes a multitude of choices, sometimes subtle, that can make a problem reproducible only on that user’s machine. There are numerous micro-decisions to be done while writing the software, and sometimes there’s no other specification than the de-facto behavior of the developer’s system. If a user’s system behaves differently, we have a problem.

I'm not particularly tech-savvy, but isn't this just the "fragmentation" fallacy all over again? Aren't the vast majority of these problems solved by shipping the game along with the needed libraries?


Quoting: f25025105Another problem is the cultural clash. Game developers make money from selling their proprietary software (even if sometimes indirectly), and as such are inherently incompatible with FOSS goals. The effect of this is two-fold: not only the likelihood of the developers’ prior experience with Linux is smaller than what would be expected from an average user, but this operating system is built on the principles that are contrary to and sometimes outright incompatible with their modus operandi, which presents them with unique challenges not encountered on other (proprietary) gaming platforms.

To add insult to the injury, Linux gaming community abounds in radically minded folks, who often are not willing to bridge that cultural gap - in spite of Linux gamers themselves being an eclectic minority within the larger, and even more radical, Linux community. It is curious how people could hold seemingly incompatible beliefs at once, both despising the closed source software and demanding its authors to support it on more FOSS platforms (yes, there are people who attempt to run Steam on gNewSense).

If anything, I find this vision of the Linux gaming crowd as highly stereotyped and narrow-minded. Of course Linux gamers are OK with purchasing and running closed-sourced software, like most comercial games are. If everybody was a FOSS zealot as it's suggested here, almost nobody would be playing games and there wouldn't be any digital distribution platform supporting Linux.


Last edited by muntdefems on 6 July 2015 at 8:10 pm UTC
Liam Dawe 6 Jul, 2015
Quoting: BeamboomGreat article.There are some minor details I'd comment on if I was in the mood for nitpicking, but I'm not :-)
It puts things into the right perspective, that's the important thing. This is a must-read for all Linux gamers.

You've had some fantastic guest submissions lately Liam!

Yeah, it's really great to see people coming here and doing this :)
Liam Dawe 6 Jul, 2015
My thoughts on this:

QuoteDemands for the Linux version of a game can be sometimes quite vocal, but its actual release does not seem to bring much, if any, profit.
This is sadly true. Unless you're getting that 1-3% developers usually see from Linux on a big amount of sales, it's currently not going to net you much.

QuoteAnother problem is the cultural clash. Game developers make money from selling their proprietary software (even if sometimes indirectly), and as such are inherently incompatible with FOSS goals.
To me, this sounds vaguely like the old "linux users don't pay for software" remarks I still see. It's not true though of course, and everyone here can attest to it I'm sure, otherwise they wouldn't be here. Hell, anyone using Linux on Steam doesn't fit into that quote, they will have all purchased at least one game, or someone would have for them.

The thing to remember is being on a FOSS system, doesn't mean we agree/stick to the rules the OS is made under. I sure as hell don't.

QuoteAs a developer, do not claim to support more than you actually do. If you only packaged the game for Linux without even running it, state so. If you only can afford to run it on Ubuntu using NVidia drivers to make sure it starts, be upfront about this. Try not to use vague terms as “Linux version”, don’t be afraid to brand it as “Ubuntu version” or “SteamOS version” (if you are testing on these OS of course). In the latter case, I hope that Valve will start a certification program to help provide a consistent experience
This is gold. It's also something that should be very obvious for developers to do, but a lot don't. Sadly, when a developer does state they only support say "Nvidia" you then get the AMD camp claiming the developer is rubbish or something.


Last edited by Liam Dawe on 6 July 2015 at 8:21 pm UTC
PublicNuisance 6 Jul, 2015
Well done article. I am glad that developers are finding a place they can speak up on without giving their name. Hopefully it keeps up.
Speedster 6 Jul, 2015
Quoting: liamdawe
QuoteAs a developer, do not claim to support more than you actually do. If you only packaged the game for Linux without even running it, state so. If you only can afford to run it on Ubuntu using NVidia drivers to make sure it starts, be upfront about this. Try not to use vague terms as “Linux version”, don’t be afraid to brand it as “Ubuntu version” or “SteamOS version” (if you are testing on these OS of course). In the latter case, I hope that Valve will start a certification program to help provide a consistent experience
This is gold. It's also something that should be very obvious for developers to do, but a lot don't. Sadly, when a developer does state they only support say "Nvidia" you then get the AMD camp claiming the developer is rubbish or something.

As an AMD user, I'd probably still buy a game having "Tested on" list with only NVidia cards, long as the developer is still willing to work with AMD users to fix major bugs (with the understanding that such users must be patient, it won't be high priority and might take a while). I can be patient, not one of those who is offended at having to wait until after the general release.
ricki42 6 Jul, 2015
Quoting: throghFrom my point of view a game developed only for "Ubuntu" or "SteamOS" is not the way to go. In fact it is no problem at all to release a working application for more than only one or two platforms. So the user should be capable of knowledge about the platform he / she is using. Only some basic knowledge and the motivation to ask questions at the right places, also having some basic interest about finding information on their own at a concrete point. There is no need for some kind of standardization or certification. What do you want to reach? Another Microsoft, this time only with the penguin on it? No thanks!

For me Linux and Open-Source is about the freedom to choose and not to be regulated by another ruleset and the dictate of some companies / groups which say this has to be the way of some kind of standard.

I don't think that the author is suggesting that Linux as a whole be regulated, or that the "SteamOS version" should only run on SteamOS. The way I read it, is that devs openly say what they tested on, and then you can run it on whatever you want, but there may be issues that didn't show up in the testing. So it's exactly what you say: the user should know the platform they are using. And having SteamOS as a general test OS is not a bad idea, makes it easier than everybody testing on something different. And considering that (pre-built, pre-installed) Steam Machines are largely aimed at people who don't care about OSs and just want to play games without a hassle, it makes sense to pick SteamOS as the default.
Tchey 6 Jul, 2015
If people are mainly playing on Windows, it's because the market targets Windows. OK they have a huge amount of money to brainwash people. But, if games were available to Linux in a more regular and stable way, players may try Linux more and more, without thinking "ho but my favorite game(s) will not run on Linux". In many places, non-techy offices, i've seen Windows (XP !) computers, but mostly Linux-friendly software (Libre Office, Firefox, mainly). Because it's free or less expensive, and more secured, and easy to handle.

Common people are completly ready and able to use Linux and linux friendly software. They only need to be fed.
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