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The trouble with Linux

Linux and the mainstream games industry have had something of an on-off relationship with one another. There are many reasons why this is so. Some are technical, some are practical, and some are philosophical. The outstanding technical issues are the continuing lack of open source GPU drivers for some high performance graphics cards on Linux, and lingering issues around patents.

Asked about the state of GPU drivers for Linux, Ryan Gordon recently said, "they aren't ready yet, and I think we're in a dangerous position where distros are treating them as if they are", before adding that it was "completely ridiculous that we're shipping open source OpenGL drivers without S3TC support because of patent concerns. Today, that's like shipping a web browser without .jpg support."

The practical issue is that the games companies haven't always believed they would get a financial return from Linux, or have decided it isn't worth bothering because "everyone runs Windows anyway." This perception is changing, not just because Linux is more popular and free software is better understood, but also because the rise of specialist games platforms has made portability less of an issue for the games companies. By definition a games engine that is portable from one platform to another should be easier to port to any other operating system or device.

The philosophical issues revolve around licensing, patents and DRM, and whether a user of GNU/Linux wants to be running a game that may not be free or open source anyway. Linux Game Publishing (LGP), which grew out of Loki, distributes closed source games with a limited form of digital rights management which allows users to install the game on multiple systems, but locks out users who share the same identity – although LGP has also sponsored some free software projects such as Grapple, which is used to add multiplayer support to computer games and applications.

Linux users are more generous

Inevitably, open source licensing is an issue for games manufacturers, as is the culture of do-it-yourself among Linux users. Free software is still a point of fear for mainstream games companies. So the rise of the Indie Game developers, who see themselves as a movement and now have better engines and tools at their disposal – and the recent popularity of the Humble Indie Bundles put together by Wolfire Games – may be an indicator of a more positive future.

The Humble Indie Bundles are sets of independently developed video games, for which online users can pay as much or as little as they want, giving to the developers and selected charities (Child's Play and the Electronic Frontier Foundation), in proportions of their choosing. The games are multi-platform and DRM-free, and must be available for users of Windows, OS X and Linux.

The first bundle was put on sale for a week in May 2010. The games were World of Goo, Aquaria, Gish, Penumbra:Overture and Lugaru. Samorost 2 was added later. The developers of three of the games promised to open source their games if the total exceded $1 million dollars. As it transpired, the total exceded $1.25 million, and Gish, Penumbra, Lugaru, and Aquaria were all made available under the GPL.

Intriguingly, Linux users were found to be the most generous, giving an average of $14 per bundle, followed by OS X users who gave $10 and Windows users who gave $7-8, leading a Wolfire employee, John Graham, to speculate that "If you support Mac and Linux as an independent developer you have a good chance of doubling your revenue."

The second Humble Indie Bundle in December 2010 achieved even better results, and resulted in Revenge of the Titans being released under the GPL. The third is still in progress at the time of writing. It remains to be seen whether the Indie Bundle initiative is a novelty, or becomes a sustainable model for the distribution of indie games for Linux.

The real problem is that open source hasn't been seen as a model for games development, although games like the prize winning World of Goo have been developed using open source tools and libraries. This may change as the new generation of indie games developers becomes more engaged with free software, but will probably come about through the will of users and independent developers rather than a change of heart by the mainstream games manufacturers.

For other feature articles by Richard Hillesley, please see the archive.

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