The raw truth about Linux game ports

Tim Schafer explains what porting Psychonauts to

Linux was like

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What is the big problem with Linux? That’s a question I put forth several years ago to a range of Windows users. Why don’t they use Linux? What’s wrong with it? What does Linux need to do differently to entice them?

For some, the answer was “nothing” – they’d never consider Linux ever because Windows suited them perfectly. Ironically, this was in the pre-Windows 7 days and these same people were pining for its advent to free them from Windows Vista.

Nevertheless, some very interesting results came out and it was abundantly clear “gaming” was a major roadblock.

Linux has justly received a solid reputation as a serious server operating system platform but has never made the same inroads into the desktop market. The oft-prophesied “year of the Linux desktop” has not materialised. I could tell you “next year will be the year of the Linux desktop” and you could return and read this article any day of any year and it would still make sense.

It’s not for the lack of a PhotoShop or a Microsoft Word, but instead, I proposed, the lack of big gaming titles.

What I would like to see, I said, is a greater push for Linux ports of modern, desirable games.

In the years since I made this almost-paradoxical request for Linux retail software – a platform best known for being free open source – a wonderful development has occurred.

The Humble Indie Bundle project began, bringing a collection of DRM-free computer games all available equally on Windows, MacOS and Linux. The Humble Bundle stands out for several important reasons.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q8dpmHqqOIg?rel=0&w=480&h=360]

As stated, each game is available for Linux just as it is available for Windows and MacOS. This is vitally important. Other game bundles have emerged but without this same core tenet.

Secondly, each game is from an independent publisher. The likes of Electronic Arts or Blizzard are not included, but iconic independent titles like World of Goo and Osmos and Machinarium have found their way to the Humble Bundles.

Thirdly, and remarkably, the price of the collection is set by the buyer. The Humble Bundle invites its purchasers to name their own price. While people can legitimately and legally purchase each collection for a single cent it is also possible to pay a higher amount, maybe $15, maybe $50, maybe $100 or more.

The Humble Bundle teaches many very interesting lessons.

For one, the model has worked with sales reaching millions of dollars. For another, some people will clearly pirate software no matter what because if a name-your-own-price DRM-free collection can’t eradicate the bulk of claims used to legitimise piracy possibly nothing does. For another lesson, the bundle shows the average price paid by users of each platform and it is consistently the Linux users who are more generous than their Windows and Mac counterparts.

However, these are lessons to be analysed another time. What I want to focus in on here is that the brains behind the Humble Bundle work with developers to bring their games to Linux where an existing port does not already exist.

In the most current Humble Indie Bundle, number five, the popular game Psychonauts has been included, developed by software house Double Fine who have also recently received fame for their well-funded KickStarter project.

Yesterday the Humble Bundle crew participated in an “ask me anything” (AMA) thread on social web and news aggregator site Reddit. In this topic Tim Schafer, co-founder of Double Fine, was asked by a smart Redditor named “phort99” asked the insightful question, “How did the Humble Indie Bundles influence your decisions to port your games to Linux? What was the porting process like?”

Schafer replied “Linux was like a party that sounded fun we were afraid to go to because we didn’t think we’d know anybody there, and the HiB guys were like your socially fearless friend who says, “Don’t worry, we’ll go together.” And when he gets to your house he says, “Is that what you’re wearing?” and you say “uh…” and he says, “Don’t worry. I know a guy.” And he lends you a cool leather jacket and you go to the party and when you walk in there’s a needle scratch and everybody turns to look at you and your friend gives a cool nod and then everybody goes back to the party. So kind of like a John Hughes film. Hope that helps explain things. That’s about as technical as I can go.”

While humourously phrased, Schafer’s comments essentially say Double Fine had thought of bringing their games to Linux in the past but lacked the knowledge of the platform to build for it. The Humble Indie Bundle crew lead them through the process (and presumably assisted with the funding to do so.)

Schafer additionally notes, “Oh and also, if you want to be cool at the party, stay away from wine.” This is a clever pun on the WINE layer that provides a degree of API-compatibility with Windows, permitting certain Windows apps to run under Linux with a degree of success. Of course, a native port is always far more preferable (not to mention robust) than an emulated version.

Writing for Windows is not the same as writing for Linux; while assets like music and graphics are portable, the game engines, methods of packaging and deployment and other matters are critically different.

It is no small wonder then that small enterprises don’t include Linux in their plans, but yet with the Humble Bundle experiences behind them – both in terms of the technology and the sales figures – I’d be hopeful Double Fine will see more of Linux in their future. Similarly, I’d be hoping that the big games houses –who either have the talent already or can afford it – will be intently watching the Humble Bundle project and decide that there is indeed money to be made from Linux.

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