Faster and sexier, but will it work?
By now I'm sure everyone has read or heard about Valve not liking the upcoming Windows 8 and that they are working hard on making Steam and some of their flagship game titles run on Linux. More importantly, on their new Steam'd Penguins blog, Valve recently published their first major step in making this a reality: their port of Left4Dead2 actually ran 16 % faster on Ubuntu Linux than it did on Windows 7 on the same hardware (315FPS vs. 270.6FPS). What's more, Valve says that they have been working with Nvidia, AMD and Intel to improve graphics performance on Linux. As graphics driver performance has always been the weak spot of Linux performance, this is great news indeed.
But what exactly is required to make Linux a viable gaming platform? The simple answer is games, but when we dig deeper, the question becomes a lot more complicated. My simplified list of sub-questions include hardware support, ease of use and games. Since Valve is already working hard on making the hardware and OpenGL support work, I will focus on the two other questions.
Ease of use
For most of its history, Linux has basically been the hackers' OS. It has been meant for people who understand computers and are willing to spend time solving hardware and software problems. There are, however, many modern distributions, such as Ubuntu, that aim to make the OS easier to use for those of us who just want to focus on what we want to do (gaming, word processing, animation, graphics editing etc.), rather than on trying to make the OS detect the sort of wi-fi card or graphics card the system has installed or to make UK English spell checking work properly in their word processors.
However, even with all the progress made, Linux distributions still require more from their users than modern Windows systems do. For one, the end user will usually have to install the OS themselves, as there are no gaming grade desktops sold with Linux pre-installed. Second, the user will have to be willing to learn a new OS to use, but this should not be a problem for anyone who has experienced OS changes before (such as from Windows XP to Windows 7) and might actually be a smaller step to take than the transition between Windows 7 and the upcoming Windows 8. Third, there will still be problems with the use of the OS that will require the user to delve deeper into the system or ask for help on the – fortunately usually very helpful although too often the advice is to use command line commands to fix the situation – Linux forums. With backers such as Valve, however, there will hopefully be more push to make these remaining problems in the usability of the OS disappear.
Overall, the ease of use question is less of a problem for gamers, since most of them are already used to taking care of their hardware at a deeper level than your average computer user, and they should find new OS's as easy if not easier to learn than the short-cuts and commands and options that every new game they play requires them to learn. Heck, many of them even mod their games, or at least install several mods to their games, which already shows that they know how to use their computers.
That's the big question, isn't it? Gamers need games and the only way to get them to adopt a new system is to have fantastic games waiting for them there. Games are what sell consoles to console gamers and games are what will sell – or not sell – the Valve supported Linux OS to PC gamers. Valve is already working on a selection of their own titles in order to make them work in the Linux environment, but a lot more are naturally needed in order to make the transition.
In their original announcement, Gabe Nevell stated that “We want to make it as easy as possible for the 2,500 games on Steam to run on Linux as well.” While this is a great goal to have, it is certainly a long-term one. After all, Steam arrived on Mac in 2010 and even though more and more games are available for it, the numbers are still low in comparison to Windows titles and will certainly not persuade core gamers to switch from their trusty Windows machines.
You should also note that Nevell did not say that Valve would make the games work, but that they would make it as easy as possible for the games to work. This means that the original developers and publishers of those games will most likely need to come aboard with the new system. That is, unless Valve is going to present some sort of a Wine add-on or emulator to help run older games through their Linux Steam platform. But even if that is their plan, we will still be left with the hottest modern titles that will not run smoothly unless they are designed to run natively on Linux. And the hottest modern titles are the ones that core gamers really need to see if they are to believe in the transition and consider switching their OS.
The titles that have been mentioned thus far include the above-mentioned Left4Dead2 as well as Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Team Fortress 2 and Half-Life 2. One non-Valve title has also been announced and it is Serious Sam 3 from Croteam. While these titles are certainly a good start, we need a lot more. And, what's even more important, Valve needs to understand their customer base and how PC gamers differ from console gamers. A fellow Hooked Gamers writer, Marcus Mulkins referred to an interesting set of data recently in his blog. A report called "Essential Facts About the Computer and Video Game Industry" from 2011 by The Entertainment Software Association and NPD research group shows that the most sold games by genre on consoles in 2010 were Action, Sports and Shooter titles (amounting to c. 53.9 % of sold games), while on PCs the most popular genres were Strategy and RPG (amounting to the same 53.9 % of sold games). In this year's report, the situation was very similar, so the "divide" is not only dependent on the hot releases that happen to come out each year, although such factors certainly affect it.
The problem here? Well, all the titles announced for Steam Linux thus far cater to the console profile and we are yet to see any big Strategy and RPG titles committed to the new platform. Steam Linux will definitely need giants such as the Elder Scrolls series (most importantly Skyrim) and Civilization series to run smoothly (and natively) on Linux if Valve hopes Steam to become a success on the Linux desktop. A lack of such announcements in the near future may well feed the rumour mill going around that Valve is really aiming to release their own Steam console (running Linux) and any benefit to desktop Linux and PC gamers in general will be purely a side-effect. A focus on games that cater to the console gamer profile could certainly be natural in such a case.
With Windows 8 just around the corner, Valve is certainly going to move quickly with their plans. The beta of Steam on Linux should be just around the corner and will probably carry at least Left4Dead2 at that time, as well as a selection of older games and indie titles that already have Linux versions out. The fourth quarter of this year should bring us a lot of new announcements of titles being converted to run natively on Linux. It is these announcements that will tell us the direction that Valve is aiming for and I hope to see some big RPG and Strategy titles in the mix.
Personally, the only thing that has kept me using Windows 7 for the past few years has been my urge to play modern games. With Steam bringing core gaming to Linux, I'm sure I'm not the only one who holds his breath, hoping that the launch will be a success and that I may never have to experience Windows 8 on my home computers.