The defacto platform of choice for any gamer used to be the Microsoft Windows based PC however the last decade has seen that change to be some form of console. Today, whilst we’re seeing something of a resurgence in the PC market thanks in part to some good releases this year and ageing console hardware, PCs are somewhere on the order take about 5% of the video game market. If we then extrapolate from there using the fact that only about 1~2% of the PC market is Linux (although this number could be higher if restricted to gamers) then you can see why many companies have ignored it for so long, it just doesn’t make financial sense to get into it. However there’s been a few recent announcements that shows there’s an increasing amount of attention being paid to this ultra-niche and that makes for some interesting speculation.
Gaming on Linux has always been an exercise in frustration, usually due to the Windows-centric nature of the gaming industry. Back in the day Linux suffered from a lack of good driver support for modern graphics cards and this made it nearly impossible to get games running on there at an acceptable level. Once that was sorted out (whether you count binary blobs as “sorted” is up to you) there was still the issue that most games were simply not coded for Linux leaving their users with very few options. Many chose to run their games through WINE or Cedega which actually works quite well, especially for popular titles, but many where still left wanting for titles that would run natively. The Humble Indie Bundle has gone a long way to getting developers working on Linux but it’s still something of a poor cousin to the Windows Platform.
Late last year saw Valve open up beta access to Steam on Linux bringing with it some 50 odd titles to the platform. It came as little surprise that they did this considering that they did the same thing with OSX just over 2 years ago which was undoubtedly a success for them. I haven’t really heard much on it since then, mostly because none of my gamer friends run Linux, but there’s evidence to suggest that it’s going pretty well as Valve is making further bets on Linux. As it turns out their upcoming Steam Box will be running some form of Linux under the hood:
Valve’s engineer talked about their labs and that they want to change the “frustrating lack of innovation in the area of computer hardware”. He also mentioned a console launch in 2013 and that it will specifically use Linux and not Windows. Furthermore he said that Valve’s labs will reveal yet another new hardware in 2013, most likely rumored controllers and VR equipment but we can expect some new exciting stuff.
I’ll be honest and say that I really didn’t expect this even with all the bellyaching people have been doing about Windows 8. You see whilst being able to brag about 55 titles being on the platform already that’s only 2% of their current catalogue. You could argue that emulation is good enough now that all the titles could be made available through the use of WINE which is a possibility but Valve doesn’t offer that option with OSX currently so it’s unlikely to happen. Realistically unless the current developers have intentions to do a Linux release now the release of the Steam Box/Steam on Linux isn’t going to be enough to tempt them to do it, especially if they’ve already recovered their costs from PC sales.
That being said all it might take is one industry heavyweight to put their weight behind Linux to start a cascade of others doing the same. As it turns out Blizzard is doing just that with one of their titles slated for a Linux release some time this year. Blizzard has a long history with cross platform releases as they were one of the few companies to do releases for Mac OS decades ago and they’ve stated many times that they have a Linux World of Warcraft client that they’ve shied away from releasing due to support concerns. Releasing an official client for one of their games on Linux will be their way of verifying whether its worth it for them to continue doing so and should it prove successful it could be the shot in the arm that Linux needs to become a viable platform for games developers to target.
Does this mean that I’ll be switching over? Probably not as I’m a Microsoft guy at heart and I know my current platform too well to just drop it for something else (even though I do have a lot of experience with Linux). I’m very interested to see how the Steam Box is going to be positioned as it being Linux changes the idea I had in my head for it and makes Valve’s previous comments about them all the more intriguing. Whilst 2013 might not be a blockbuster year for Linux gaming it is shaping up to be the turning point where it starts to become viable.