Linux Gaming News

The rise of Linux as a gaming platform

From the staff at the Edge Online, an interesting perspective from the outside looking in, on linux gaming


Linux has never been considered a player in gaming, but it’s never had a supporter like Valve before. Having publicly declared the recently released Windows 8 “a giant sadness [that] just hurts everybody in the PC business”, Gabe Newell is throwing his company’s weight behind not only legitimising the platform for games, but creating a new Linux-based console that will bring it to the living room: the Steam Box.

Valve has several reasons to make this happen. Traditionally, PC gaming has been bound up with Microsoft and its technologies, such as Windows, DirectX and DOS. Love or hate Windows 8 and its shift to a more tablet-focused design, it’s been a cold reminder to everyone of exactly who owns the platform, and the attempted migration to a more locked-down world of Microsoft apps and services hasn’t been popular.

Free software activist Richard Stallman has complained that unlike the OS, games released under Valve’s plans won’t be open source

It also obviously threatens Valve, whose Steam gaming and digital distribution service is today’s de facto face of PC gaming. Linux, however, is an open platform. Anyone can create a version of it, known as a ‘distro’, and while creator Linus Torvalds and his team maintain the core code – the kernel – everything can be ‘forked’ in different directions and built on by anyone with the desire and technical skill. Ubuntu, for example, is an attempt at a Windows-style interface that anyone can use, while Debian is aimed at more experienced users. For Valve, Linux means a platform with nobody else calling the shots – and especially not a direct business rival with a new console of its own on the way.

The official Valve-created Steam Box isn’t due until 2014, though that’s only part of the attack plan. Other firms will be able to build their own versions, with Newell hinting that a ‘Good’, ‘Better’, ‘Best’ ethos will be used in lieu of complex system specifications. Under this regime, a Good box would likely be built around streaming, similar to tools such as OnLive, with a Better box having a dedicated GPU/CPU and the tightest restrictions, and a Best box being a device of a certain performance plus anything else the manufacturer wants to throw in – a Blu-ray drive, for example. The official Steam Box won’t be locked down if anyone wants to install Windows on it, though it will ship running Linux. Valve’s challenge over the next year is to get enough support from other developers to ensure a good lineup for gamers willing to take that plunge.

The Xi3 Piston was inaccurately described as the Steam Box at this year’s CES – but it does have Valve’s support, and is the kind of small form factor PC we can expect

There’s no need to wait to try it, though. Steam for Linux entered open beta at the end of 2012, and is freely downloadable. At the time of writing, 61 games were available, including AmnesiaWorld Of Goo, and FTL. Notably missing from that list are any genuine big guns, or even recent Valve games, such as Dota 2 andPortal 2, though that’s not surprising. It takes money and effort to port a game to Linux, especially if the PC version relies on such Microsoft technologies as DirectX, and the market is too small for most non-indies to justify even thinking about. So far.

Valve is no stranger to playing the long game, though. When Steam launched, it was near-universally despised as an unwanted intrusion that was forced on everyone who wanted to play Half-Life 2. Now, it’s so popular and so prevalent that many indie game devs consider getting into its catalogue as the difference between life and death, and many proudly admit to buying games they already own just to have them in their accessible-anywhere Steam libraries.

Big Picture mode was officially launched at the end of 2012, and will almost certainly be Steam’s default view in future devices. It’s intended for use on TVs, providing access to games, the storefront, friend lists, and controller-based web browsing

But despite the advantages of Linux, success is far from guaranteed. For starters, while the number of distros available has advantages in terms of freedom, it also represents a compatibility nightmare for developers and less experienced users. Linux itself, while rock solid in many ways, is also an immature platform for games – arguably on more than one level. In mid-2012, Torvalds openly described Nvidia as being “the single worst company we’ve ever dealt with”, before literally giving it the finger on camera and adding, “Nvidia, fuck you!” for good measure. Yet without dedicated hardware as well as software support, triple-A games might be dead in the water.

Finally, of course, there’s Valve itself. Valve may be David when compared with Microsoft, but it’s Goliath next to the likes of EA’s Origin and Ubisoft’s Uplay. For these key publishers, a Linux-based gaming platform controlled by Valve isn’t inherently any safer or more profitable than a Windows one controlled by Microsoft. Even if it’s successful, and Valve plays nicely, it means yet another platform to support – at a time when even Windows gamers are often left out of big launches or served with less-than-stellar ports. It’ll take more than Valve simply wanting it to happen to get past all this, but this isn’t its first dance, and it would be unwise to bet against it.

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