Will video games make desktop Linux into a killer consumer platform?

I had an interesting email exchange over the weekend with a reader of this blog who was wondering if video game producers targeted desktop Linux as platform then would this significantly increase adoption of Linux over Windows? Alternatively, those same producers could help ensure that their games worked under Windows emulators such as Wine.

For the sake of this discussion, let’s exclude running Windows under a virtual machine on Linux, or even on the Mac. After all, that’s really just running the game on Windows.

People who are serious about computer-based (vs. console-based) video games often build and upgrade their own machines, making custom choices for the case, the power supply, the motherboard, the processor, the video card(s), the memory, water cooling systems, not to mention hard drives, DVD reader/writer, Blu-ray readers, sound cards, speakers, and miscellaneous cables. These days you’re probably strongly considering an Intel i7 quad core machine and have deep and troubling thoughts over whether a one terrabyte hard disk will be enough.

You can get by with less, of course, but this if what serious computer gamers think about. Gaming pcs can run from $1500 up through $4000 or more. Again, you can get by with less, but serious motherboards, processors, and video can cost you more that $700 together, just to start.

Almost all commercial computer games run on Windows and a handful run on Macs. Almost all of the online MMORPGs like World of Warcraft run on Windows and a couple run on the Mac. There are healthy communities of people who are working on games for Linux. See, for example LinuxGames or this collection of Linux game listings.

A problem with thinking about Linux replacing Windows as the operating system for games is that many Windows gamers bemoan the fact that many if not most of the really cool new games are coming out on consoles and then only later, maybe, become available on the PC. If we take this to be the case, you have to ask not just “can Linux replace Windows for PC games?” but “can Linux replace Windows for PC games and stop the flight of games to consoles like the PS 3, Wii, and Xbox 360?”

That’s a much taller order and also forces the question “why are you chasing a market that is declining?”

Possible answers are:

  • You really think you can reverse the trend.
  • There is so much money to be made in this possibly declining market that it is still worth it.
  • You really believe this is the right thing to do.

I am by no means advocating against doing really cool games on Linux and using open source to advance the state of the art in games and all they entail, such as artificial intelligence, extendability, multiple players, and so on. Do it!

But do it because you want to, because it motivates you, and you think the people who play your games will have a great time. I doubt there is a huge fortune to be made, and that is certainly ok too, but do be realistic.

What do you think, will Linux take over the world of PC-based video games?

Also see: Open source game engines for Linux.

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  1. Bob,

    I think this post could do with a little more data to back it up. I worked for Intrinsic Graphics, a 3D development platform, in the early 00’s, and it was pretty obvious that game developers just went where the users are. For computers, that meant Windows. For consoles, at the time, it was PS2. I’m a major Linux enthusiast, worked for Turbolinux back in the day, use Linux at home and even in my car, but I don’t see any market logic to building Linux-based games. Some companies have done a lot of work in this area — Loki Software comes to mind — but their failures stand out more than any successes. Your post doesn’t provide, in my opinion, any new motivating factors or data that suggests this will change soon.


    Jesse Casman
    San Francisco, CA

  2. Jesse: sorry if I wasn’t clear. I am skeptical and am not asserting that Linux will become the market dominating computer games platform.

  3. Not Linux by itself, but to broad one’s market reach would be good for publishers/programmers. And Linux is an avid video game market. Anything you release to Linux, people will buy, because there are not many games in Linux. There are not even few games in Linux. Mac/OSX is a platform that can benefit Linux, since they share the same *nix roots. If you port a game to Mac/OSX it’s easier to port it to Linux. And indie game developers discovered this mine of gold Linux is. Penumbra, Lugaroo, Mystic Mines, just to mention a few titles indie games developers are releasing in SDL/Linux/X11. And they’re very happy with the incomes from the Linux market. You see, the market exists, who sells to this market surely will profit.
    Best regards.

  4. There are some very good but now dated games like Postal series and Rune. WoW btw can be played on Linux too with a separate installer. This would be my wish and would really be all that’s required- just provide a Linux installer for more games, and the game data independently, like ID software managed to do it for several of their titles (Doom 3, RTCW, Quake, SoF?), or even bundle the Linux installers onto the PC CDROM, thereby making it more cross-platform. C-mon, it can’t be that hard, ID have done it for a long time. Kudos and thanks to them for supporting linux gaming with some of their best titles from early on.

  5. Blame Microsoft for pushing DirectX so hard. It’s virtually the identical code to write for Windows and Xbox.

    The games that don’t use DirectX, but openGL instead are often ported to Linux (almost all the ID Software and Unreal Engine based games).

    If OpenGL sees more game support I’m sure Linux will too.

  6. This is the only thing keeping me from going to Linux. If Linux supported DirectX, I would uninstall Windows so fast you can’t even imagine. However, this will never happen. Instead, like it has been said previously, developers should use OpenGL instead.

  7. Hi Bob,

    I really like how you analyse a problem, and break it up for possible solutions or answers in this case.

    Although I think those that buy a computer hardware-by-hardware, they have no interest in switching away from Windows. Their computer were bought for games. As you though me in the LinuxConf 2009 talk “don’t try and convert users who don’t to be converted”. That was a very insightful observation I think.

    It is a very interesting take, that the PC game marked is declining, as for the reason not to go into it.

    Putting force or trying to convince game studios to make Linux ports or installers, would be a waist of time and money for all parts.

    But even if the marked is declining, I don’t think it will stabilize at zero, so putting money and work into middle ware like http://www.Cedega.com, would be the right thing in my point of view.

    I have bought Cedega 7.1 (7.3 being the newest at this time), it just works!

    I have never had Windows installed on my computer, and never used Windows, and I can say that installing Windows games on Linux with Cedega is so easy so it is scary.

    Now the serious problem would still be 3D drivers. AMD and nVidia optimize their Windows drivers for each new game, so when the driver detects the game, it uses special written code just for that game to improve performance. And that can be QUITE a lot of frames per second we are talking about here.

    So performance is fighting against Linux.

    But I think for those that play games on Windows once in a while they would be willing to pay the performance price, and license for Cedega, if people knew Cedega existed.

    Btw. the reason I bought Cedega was to play Hurrican[0], which is the free game, which is kind of funny =)

    Wine can run many Windows games, but it will never be able to play those games with copy protection. Cedega pays a fee to those companies to be allowed to “crack” the copy protection, and allow the users to play the game without any DRM.

    I think the only problem is how to make it widely known, that you right now can play your favourite games on Linux, for a small one time cost.

    [0] http://www.poke53280.de/gallery/index.php?showcat=1

  8. Btw. What is a funny side effect of using a middle ware for games on Linux, is that each game is installed in a container.

    Each game thinks it is a completely fresh Windows, and it is the only thing installed.

    So you can imagine how easy it is to uninstall a game =)

    I think that would actually appeal to a lot of Windows users, as a reinstalling Windows, when you have games, is not something you do in one day, from what I hear.

  9. It is actually surprising that anyone would pay big $$ for PC-gaming hardware… especially when you consider that you can get a top end console for $150 that does a better job at it.

  10. You hit the news =)

    IBM’s Bob Sutor Questions Linux Gaming

  11. Please write a blog post when you have made a talk with your predictions =)

    It will be very interesting to see, if this is actually working to Linux’ advantage.

  12. In my opinion gaming on Linux depends much more on a new production model for art – one that is much cheaper than the current one. This new art production model would be to art studios what the open source development did to proprietary software business. This would allow many people to create open source Linux games and will create a gaming market that will be irresistible to proprietary game developers. I would call this “the snowball effect” – i.e. change will happen overnight.

    So when producing art will cost as much as producing open source software, then Linux gaming will take off.
    So far I wouldn’t make predictions on which will be the ratio between proprietary and open source Linux games.

  13. Hmmm. Maybe the future for Linux is rather on the laptop and netbook, which is a growing marked? The users there have very different needs than those on the desktop.

    Maybe that is what Intel is doing with Moblin and Google with Chrome OS?

  14. @ LH: Sincerely I’m not such enthusiast as you are with cedega. I use linux for several years and i contribute into the FOSS community which Transgaming don’t, they simply took wine source code and modified it without sharing with wine community. Which, in my opinion against the open source philosophy. In that case i would and I do it support Crossover who shares code with wine community.

    But as i don’t support DirectX based games i tend to see for ported games done by lokis, or icculus or even Linux Game Publishing. The linux gaming market is buying any linux native games, even if it’s not the player kind of games. Unigine Corp has made a big hit within the linux community with its game engine as known as “Unigine”. One example of a game which has made lots of fans is “primal carnage” developed by LukeWarm Media (http://www.primalcarnage.com/). Don’t forget the FOSS games such OpenArena, Tremulous, Go Franky and etc.

    Sincerely i think that there is a conspiracy about linux gaming market, made by MS by pushing its products to big publisher such AE games and Activision.

    Mobile gaming isn’t a real market and up to now it won’t be if no body invest seriously into. by Mobile i mean all kind of embedded systems as you appoint in your last post.

  15. I know many people using both Linux and Windows and they use Linux for most of the time and Windows just for the games. I use only Linux and I’ve droped most of the gaming (I sometimes play some FLOSS games) to get rid of use Windows. And now, with Linux, I don’t even feel that I should upgrade PCs that I use for few years. For Linux gaming progress Linux needs good video drivers and it could be achieved by Gallium3D platform to bring OpenGL 3.x support but it needs more time… Then the open source drivers can be better than closed source drivers not because of their performance but because of lack of bugs related to specific vendor binary (closed source) drivers… Then, the game producers will not need to spend more time to write workarounds for driver specific bugs it could bring more commercial games to Linux.

  16. @Setlec: Yes, I remember the whole Wine license change, but they didn’t violate the license, so I think it is unfair to blame them.

    Sometimes political reasons are why someone use one product and not the other. E.g. in my case, I will never buy any Intel hardware, as I can’t, by no means, support anyone that is that corrupt as Intel:

    Will Intel be forced to remove the “cripple AMD” function from their compiler?

  17. well im those who buy high ends PC part by part specificaly choosen for gaming and dev in my house and office, i agree consoles market is growing faster but OpenGL is too :) aka only windows/xbox uses directx. sony and nintendo are OpenGL like api’s.

    i think linux gaming slow grow isnt about market as you think but because of linux, aka linux is awesome as it is and i love it but the point is im a geek and i can handle all the issues that crush the user friendly concept, especially the linux kernel and the sick way the new code is handled.

    on the other hand is the lack of full OpenGL implementations, so even if i want to make a beatiful game mesa will become a show stopper. taking mesa out of the ecuation leave me with FGLRX wich is by far useless and bugged (in my opinion the worst code ever created for linux so far) or nvidia wich require distro support or user package system and console knowledge at best.

    on the api side, there is no glue between multimedia code, aka OpenGL/OpenCL/OpenAL/Kolada/OpenVG/OpenMP/Posix/QTor GTK/etc. So any dev looking to create a multiplataform game have to be one hell of a coder and master many many APIs at once to have any chance of meet a deadline, even if sdl provide some help is not enough to provide an easier api for development of multimedia apps which by far is the only thing make directx better than OpenGL(i know the code for directx is horrible but you have to learn 1 horrible thing not 20 different API, so you need less specialized devs) especially in linux.

    so even if linux have many many advantages over windows, linux is just not mature enough to handle those types of application at commertial level yet.
    now with Gallium/Mesa 8.0/Ati OSS drivers, situation should improve a lot and if we add a better kernel version system would be even better XD

    sorry my english XD

  18. about the question that linux could a great game plataform my answer is hell yeah XD, you may ask why?

    well if have a game dev bussiness the first reason would be cost, linux in some time when all those tech i mentioned get stable in linux and some OSS apps for design will save me one hell of lot of money in licenses.

    the second reason would be performance and stability, linux is by far more resource friendly than windows will ever be, and lets face it windows fails a lot, get slow, need huge hardware, server like amounts of memory, SSD to offer the same performance as a good linux could offer rendering the same scene or graphic (try to equal svg files in adobe Ilustrator and inkscape and you will understand or blender/yafray 3D studio/mental ray) without that linux render farms are incredibles plus several techs for security/file access/stability/automation/virtualization that in windows if they exist are otherwordly expensive.

    the third reason would be console market, how? well is true that xbox is all microsoft but the other are Opengl like API, so it would be easier to port an OpenGL compliant code to a OpenGL like plataform than do it from directx plus linux runs in almost any shit with a CPU on it, so when linux reach a state of usability in the techs needed for games is very reasonable to think that sony or nintendo or both could choose a linux like derivated comertial OS for their consoles to save some money in development deparment, like cell phones company are beggining to do today.

    to achieve this linux need a huge change in linux kernel cycle and structure, Mesa 8.x, mature Gallium implementation and a stabilazed API for multimedia apps like QT or GTK are for gui apps today. the other tools for design like blernder and yafray will grow too with time.

    the future of linux gaming promise a lot once those tech reaches an stable point

  19. I’ve watched the linux gaming community since about 2000 and it shows no signs of exploding the same way the server and embedded communities have.

    That said, there’s no shortage of small Linux games, ports, or great developers.

    Perhaps the only thing that could wrest the gaming crown from Windows and Xbox360 is a great implementation of DirectX which doesn’t require a complete Wine stack. Unfortunately, unlike Samba, DirectX is an API and not a protocol. That may mean the EU Directive, which forces Microsoft to deal fairly with competitors as they strive for interoperability via protocols, is ineffective. Furthermore, Microsoft has shown great dexterity in its ability to flood the market with new [versions of] APIs. That’s a catch-up game that nobody else can win. Even non-compatible 3D APIs have trouble due to the popularity of DirectX — OpenGL being the best example.

  20. @Rafael: if i’m not wrong, SDL was supposed to be a glue to OpenGL/AL/colada(not sure though) and etc… it’s shame that the distribs do not help sdl much… If i was to make a game (which i’m planing to do) i’ll make that SDL will be enhanced…

    @LH: did Transgaming sort the sharing code thingy? if yes i didn’t know about that. I don’t really blame them, it’s just that in a ideological thinking if you use FOSS as base of your product support the FOSS as much as you can while you make you money with your product. Supporting could be $$ donations, or code lines and whatever…

    ok about MS thinks that they are “standard” by having more “costumers” which is wrong to think like that, it’s because you are predominant that you are the standard!

  21. @ Setlec Dear god please no SDL. It kills alt+tab in fullscreen (which is why 90%+ of linux games fail to have the basic alt+tab functionality) and doesn’t usually work great with dualmonitors. Unless you want to cripple your game with something you probably cannot fix, it’s not a great idea to use it.

  22. @Setlec: I am not 100% sure on which license WINE used when Transgaming forked, but I think it was FreeBSD.

    Wine then changed to GPLv2, and I remember that many in the Wine community felt that was a good move. It was covered in one of the Wine Weekly news letters.

  23. @Vadim: hold on mate!most of the games have a bad sdl coding. You should try to play “Heroes of Newerth” it has a very good SDL and you can ALT+TAB without any problem! for the dualmonitor situation i don’t care because i only use on screen to play! If games now support multi-screen then i’ll care about this!

  24. Well I see one big chance for Linux games: Consoles. Maybe some day one major player in that area simply decides to make the Wii² or PlayStation4 based on Linux. It’s not really that far fetched: Today all Consoles basically bring their own OS, which is created specifically for the device. Imagine how easy it would be for them, if they base their OSses on Linux instead of creating one completely from scratch, implement all the drivers specifically for that platform, Create a Web-Browser component etc.

  25. If you’re talking about Linux taking the crown from Windows in the blockbuster game department, that’s just not going to happen- Windows will always be in the lead, because it’s forging the path forward.
    For smaller games, and the indie market, I’d like to hope that the Linux market can continue to demonstrate a solid base of support for almost any title available, with the goal of being neck & neck with OS X as the #2 computer gaming OS.

  26. Games are Linux on a commercial mass scale is a WAY far off dream.

    Software adopting works in layers

    1) Business use, using Office Suites, networking, email etc…the more businesses using Linux as a Desktop is where Desktop Linux will break into the market. Ubuntu and SuSE are already beginning to.

    2) After enterprise penetration, than Home users will see this new OS they use at work, and ask, why can’t I use it at home too? Dual booting and a greater install base is built.

    3) OEM’s need to support the Linux adoption. Right now Dell has had mixed success with this… Netbooks as well. But, right now there simply is no major support from OEM’s

  27. I might sound funny, but one of the biggest reason why I use Linux is because all the games it has. haha I love Linux mini Games. and can’t stop myself from playing time. In windows that is a complete difference story, because a lot of time, if you want to play like any games, you have to dig out your CD and put it into your CD/DVD rom, which is really annoying. not to mention you can’t play them while you are burning Disk and try to back up your stuff. and there so many non-game related problem you need to solve. every time you run a games such as protection. and all the other stuff. and sometime games install a lot of don’t wanted software into your system.

    I just love how games just work under Linux. I mean, really even windows games work better under Linux than in Windows, with wine. Once it works of course.

  28. Android and iPhone OS are good examples of a Linux/Unix system that consumers and developers love. I think Google and Apple are both poised to conquer the console market at any time if they want it. Google’s Chrome OS is a stab at PC level hardware and pulling user’s from Windows. If they packaged the right development tools and drivers to pull major game companies (already developing for their Android platform) I think they could shake things up a lot. What developer wants to deal with Windows support issues? The forced simplicity of these platforms is a huge plus.

    I develop for Android and iPhone. When they make development easy and offer a good app store I’m there. Other Linux distros could interest me also but they’d need to eschew the known Linux desktop.

    Companies such as Loki are bad examples because they failed due to poor management and not for any technical reason or lack of sales.

  29. Consoles do not and will never do a better job than a PC at playing the majority of games. This isn’t a ‘PC vs. Console’ comment – it is just plain fact. Games are moving towards consoles solely because of their increasing popularity. The increasing popularity of consoles is due, mainly, because of their inexpensive cost and easy accessibility. Once you buy a console you are stuck in the realm of dated architecture and hardware that will never compete with even the middle end PC system.

    Ever compare playing a first person shooter on a PC vs. a console? There is no comparison. While many will start out and get used to playing on a console (they both have learning curves), the PC will always perform better.


    “Somebody Says:
    January 21, 2010 at 8:17 am
    It is actually surprising that anyone would pay big $$ for PC-gaming hardware… especially when you consider that you can get a top end console for $150 that does a better job at it.”

  30. i will always game on my laptop

  31. One of your premises is very flawed — the coolest games come out on console first. Ever heard of Half-Life and its progeny? What about Civilization and its spin-offs? I could go on and on.

    This statement of yours was way too general, not to mention incorrect, to assist in forming your conclusion. There may be genres of games that come out on console first, notably sports games. By no means does this happen across the gaming spectrum.

    Most computer gamers despise console game ports. In computer game review magazines, like PC Gamer, one of the biggest knocks a game can have is that it is only a ported out version of a console game.

  32. The post above makes Cedega seem like a magic bullet, but in fact the people at Transgaming don’t give back anything to Wine.. In the past five years they have maybe given back 30 patches and all of them being trivial changes. So if you want to support Wine don’t support Cedega or Transgaming! It’s that simple :)

    You could however support CodeWevers as they have /CXGames and they give 95+ % of their work back to free Wine.


  33. Tom: You just forgot to say that we can support Wine directly. I think
    this is really the best way for supporting Wine. Cheers!

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