by Krishan Sharma @pcauthority
Could Linux end up the default OS for gaming on the PC – it’s more possible than you think…
For a long time the Linux gaming scene was stagnating, relegated to a limited number of open source games and a few popular but very old closed source games such as Doom 3, Quake 4, Unreal Tournament 2004 and whatever game you could force to run using WINE, an open source software for running Windows applications on Linux. Let’s face it, most gamers who have attempted to run games on Linux in the past probably spent more time wrestling with installers and searching for the right drivers than actually playing the game on their specific Linux configuration.
However, recent developments have given the Linux gaming scene a much-needed shot in the arm and is turning the OS into a viable gaming platform.
It started with the Humble Indie bundle, which has long been a driving force for the development of Linux games and meant that popular games such as Trine, Torchlight and Braid were brought across to Linux. More importantly, however, 2012 saw two key game engines that drive most of the modern PC games ported to Linux – Unreal Engine 3 and the Unity engine.
Then, at the end of 2012, Linux gamers received a present that they have been waiting years for – the number one PC gaming platform, Steam, finally came to Linux, and brought along with it a port of the Source engine in the form of the popular online shooter, Team Fortress 2. This was quickly followed up by Valve Software’s announcement at CES earlier last month that Steam Box, the company’s first foray in bringing Steam to the living room, will be based on the Linux OS. This effectively meant that game companies would have to ensure that their games ran on Linux if they wanted them to be made available on Steam Box.
For these reasons, the momentum in Linux gaming has never been higher and has made open source graphics driver developers, such as Eric Anholt, very excited about the future of Linux as a gaming platform.
“Steam brings with it not only the potential of modern PC games being ported to Linux, but also an easier means of keeping the games up-to-date. We have already seen Linux porters benefit from this, such as the Humble Bundle guys who don’t really want to be in the distribution process and in maintaining games and figuring out how to get updates to people. Now they can shovel that problem to Valve’s Steam platform to provide those services and the Humble Bundle guys can focus on what they do best which is porting great indie games to Linux”, Eric told PC Authority.
Eric who has been working on Linux graphics drivers at Intel’s Open Source Technology Centre for the past seven years said, at the Linux conference in Canberra last week, that he was also very excited about the implications on the Linux graphics driver’s front which has long trailed Windows.
He said that Valve is working closely with his team in optimising the Intel integrated graphics drivers to ensure solid performance on Steam games. Valve is also working with Nvidia and ATI directly in speeding up the performance of their respective graphics drivers.
“We started working with Valve in July in porting Left 4 Dead 2 to Linux. It was a really good introduction to work with a game developer directly and helped speed up the process of optimising games on Linux”, he noted.
Eric spoke about how, through this process of working with Valve, they discovered areas that still needed improvement in the Linux open source game development environment.
“Valve was really disappointed with the debugging tools available on the Linux open source side. Tools that they would normally have access to in the Windows environment either weren’t available for Linux or weren’t to the same level of sophistication that they were used to on the Windows side”, he said.
The other area that Valve found lacking was the relatively slow threading performance of the open source implementation of OpenGL, Mesa, which is the core graphical application that drives most games running on Linux systems using integrated graphics.
However, Eric noted that Valve also discovered the benefits of working with open source graphics drivers.
“Closed source drivers such as those supplied by Nvidia and ATI are massive things somewhere in the order of a million lines of code whereas open source graphics drivers such as Mesa have around 250,000 lines of code which meant much shorter development turnarounds when working with our graphics drivers,” he said.
“Other perks that we are used to as open source developers such as printing out the contents of the shaders where you can see what precisely got compiled for the GPU were really surprising to them as closed source drivers don’t normally allow you to view this information.”
Despite Eric’s optimism, he admits that there is still a lot of work to be done in getting Linux graphics drivers performing to a point where the games run on par with their Windows equivalents.
He estimated that OpenGL on Linux is still behind by 3-4 years and that the ATI and Nvidia graphics drivers for Linux are roughly within 80-90% of their Windows counterparts.
With the momentum currently behind Linux as a gaming platform, there remains little doubt that this performance gap will diminish fairly quickly particularly if Steam Box takes off. As more game developers jump on board and graphics drivers continue to mature, 2013 may just be the year that Linux gaming comes into its own.