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Linux Games

Gabe Newell Talks Linux As the Future of Games at LinuxCon NA 369

Slashdot's Timothy Lord is attending LinuxCon in New Orleans this week and writes in with the following. "Valve co-founder and managing director Gabe Newell says in no uncertain terms what the brain trust at Valve thinks: When it comes to actual users, 'Linux is currently insignificant by any metric' (by any metric that matters to game companies, at least, like number of players, minutes played, and — all important — revenue). On these fronts, Linux players are 'typically under 1 percent' of what game companies see. But that's not the upshot. The takeaway is just about the opposite, says Newell: 'The future of gaming is on Linux.' Newell expounded on the present and future of games on Linux in a keynote address at LinuxCon North America, which kicked off today in New Orleans. He described ways Valve is working to improve the landscape for games on Linux, and hinted at new hardware developments from the company in the near future." Keep reading for the rest of Tim's report.
Since Valve's 1996 founding, the company has come out with a rash of well-known games including Half-life, Counterstrike, and Portal, for personal computers as well as the console market. In that time, though, Valve, like the rest of the computer world, has gone through structural changes driven by the falling costs of both computers and bandwidth. These, says Newell, have increased the relative value of design and game quality in general, but also marketing and — crucially — distribution paths. That has ramifications throughout the games industry, including the emergence and growth of online delivery for games and updates. (Valve’s own system, Steam, is up to 50 million users by itself; the console infrastructure is even bigger: Sony claimed that many users three years ago). The changes in relative costs have also spurred free to play models and large-scale e-sports. (Large scale is no joke: According to Newell, "At the last tournament we held, we had over a million people watching it simultaneously.")

Newell describes a trend toward end-users being involved, though, not just as spectators, but as content creators. He describes this in fairly sweeping terms: “Games will becomes nodes in a linked economy, where the majority of digital goods and services are user generated.” That sounds a bit grandiose, perhaps, but it’s grounded in numbers. “The Team Fortress community creates 10 times the amount of content [that developers do],” says Newell. While he says Valve has always been happy to compete with other game studios (“we’re a little bit cocky”), “the one entity we wouldn’t ever want to compete with is our own users; they’ve already outstripped us dramatically. It’s not by a little bit; it’s an order of magnitude already.” Broad-based distributed development like that is what open source has been whipping up in the world of software for decades.

Creating games or games content, though, isn’t for the faint of heart: centralized online app stores (Apple’s in particular) “put an enormous number of roadblocks in front of doing that,” including developer approval as well as vetting individual apps and updates to them. In that context, he says, few users have the stubbornness or wherewithal to get through that. A more streamlined system for taking advantage of eater player/developers is needed.

“Several years ago, we thought ‘OK, if our model is correct, we need to help making Linux a good gaming plaform for users and developers.” To that end, Valve makes for a case study in how Linux has been creeping in: the company shipped the first dedicated games server running Linux in 1999. Now, most games servers run Linux (now several hundred thousand — and “probably a million”).

Those game servers are dishing up prodigious loads of data: “Near as we can tell, we’re generating something like 2 to 3 percent of worldwide mobile and land-based IP traffic, and that tends to startle people who don’t realize what a large sea change is going on. Even ignoring game servers, we’ve delivered over an exabyte of data year to date.” (Internally, he says, there’s approximately 20TB of content in a Linux-based version control system. This, says Newell, is true for companies like Bungie, too.)

Impressive as those data-shoveling numbers are, they don’t exactly shout desktop (or living room) success. But steps that Valve (along with other companies) has taken make it easier to swallow the claim. “Several years ago, we thought ‘OK, if our model is correct, we need to help make Linux a good gaming plaform for users and developers.” The first major move, says Newell, was to get a game — a real, graphics-intensive game — going on Linux. The process, though, revealed a “sweater thread” of issues, revealing flaws in in all parts of the stack: faulty drivers, gaps between Linux distributions’ included software, pitfalls in the user experience, and flaws in the company’s Steam tools.

In the course of resolving problems in each of those layers, “The good thing is that if we get a game like Left for Dead running, we’ve probably worked through issues for lots of developers. We’ve definitely solved problems for the Call of Duty team, or Tour of Duty, or whatever. The games aren’t that different; the key thing is to get changes all the way through for users. In February, we shipped [the Linux] Steam client; today -- at least when I got on the plane -- Valve has 198 games running on Linux.“

The bug-fixing and code-developing isn’t just a sporadic effort; the company has “several guys on SDL,” started by current Valve employee Sam Lantinga, and is co-developing a new Linux debugger, in addition to the work they’ve done on the LLVM debugger.

Making Linux a better platform for games is necessary, but may not be sufficient in itself, though. Platforms tend to cluster not just by operating system, but by context: platform, mobile, and console games don’t always play nicely: “As a user, I shoudn’t have to buy new games, or have new friends, or whatever, just because I’m sitting on a couch.” With Linux certainly a more-than-viable software platform for games, but still in the chicken-and-egg world of low user and revenue numbers that discourage spending developer time on Linux end users, Newell says the next step is necessary work on the hardware side of the equation, to smooth the open-source path between the developer and back-end data handling side of the games business to actual end-users.

“One of the things we had to do, is we're staging out the different pieces we think are necessary for staging to make Linux the future of gaming,” said Newell. “Our next step, having done these other pieces, is on the hardware side. There are thermal issues and sound issues, but also a lot of input issues.” He closed with this tease: “Our next step on this is to release some stuff we’ve done on the hardware side. Next week we’re going to be rolling out more information about how we get there, and what are the hardware opportunities we see for getting Linux into the living room."
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Gabe Newell Talks Linux As the Future of Games at LinuxCon NA

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  • by i kan reed ( 749298 ) on Monday September 16, 2013 @04:34PM (#44866475) Homepage Journal

    One thing(among others) that drove people to stay with Windows for their home PCs has been that games have used windows as a target platform. Microsoft decided their games division should push their consoles as hard as possible, even directing partners to target the consoles above windows.

    Valve recognized early that Microsoft was a competitor and couldn't be the only provider for environment. A push to linux on steam is going to drive abandonment of windows. Microsoft has damaged their headline product to push a broken model of black-box entertainment.

  • by h4rr4r ( 612664 ) on Monday September 16, 2013 @04:50PM (#44866635)

    1. That's happening
    2. That seems like a patent nightmare
    3. Man up, use VIM or Emacs :) I imagine linux will get visual studio when MS ports it and not a second before. Lots of non-game devs seem to do fine without visual studio.

  • by neminem ( 561346 ) <neminem@gmai l . com> on Monday September 16, 2013 @05:33PM (#44867089) Homepage

    "They're fans of Intelli-sense, not Visual Studio. If their text editor can't immediately guess which function they should be using, have to go check the documentation, thus wasting a couple minutes that they could have been programming in, and breaking their flow when they get back."

    Fixed that for you. Why badmouth something for making your job easier? "Your car has cruise control? You must really blow at driving if you use it." Why do people think like that?

  • by TsuruchiBrian ( 2731979 ) on Monday September 16, 2013 @05:41PM (#44867153)

    Sadly, I don't see Linux Gaming replacing Windows anytime soon

    I don't see any system being dominant int the near future, not even windows. I expect period of many competing game systems for a while.

    With no dominant system, I think there will be a higher tolerance for change, and a big push for interoperability, which Linux is really good at.

  • by Blakey Rat ( 99501 ) on Monday September 16, 2013 @05:53PM (#44867281)

    Well, synthesized, processed, monkey-driven... who cares? The point is, it's there and it works. And Microsoft put in the effort.

  • by neminem ( 561346 ) <neminem@gmai l . com> on Monday September 16, 2013 @06:34PM (#44867587) Homepage

    The sort of programmer working with a new API, or an API where several functions have similar names, or you know the name of the functions but not the order of their parameters, or you just yourself created a new class and you don't remember exactly what you named all the properties (id? ID? DocID? DocumentID? In which case, granted, you wouldn't be looking at documentation, you'd be looking at your source code, but same idea, really), or any of a number of other reasons why intellisense is convenient to have around.

  • by Sycraft-fu ( 314770 ) on Monday September 16, 2013 @06:43PM (#44867659)

    "You should be playing games on your computer!"

    What you are really saying is "The OS I'm a rabid fanboy about can't do that, so I hate it and don't want others to do it because it makes my OS look bad!"

    That is very silly. Playing games on the computer is a perfectly valid use for it. One of the great things about a computer is it can do, well, almost anything. You can have a computer that does a whole host of different things, all in one OS. And games are a great form of entertainment. They are much more stimulating and interactive than TV, and they are good value for the money in terms of hours of entertainment per dollar spent. If you don't enjoy them that is fine but acting as if they are invalid is stupid.

    It is even sillier to imply that you should only want to do "real things" which really sounds like work. Guess what? When you grow up and get a real job you'll find that after working for 8+ hours a day, and then doing housework and all that, you don't feel particularly inclined to do more work that you don't need to. You may wish to unwind. How you do that may vary, TV, books, yoga, videogames, music (listening or playing), sports, etc, etc. However whatever you do, that is not a waste of time, it is quite necessary to maintain a healthy mental state. Focusing all of your time and energy on work is a surefire way to burn out.

    Also, if you don't believe that you can do "real things" with Windows, that only belies your own zealotry and inexperience with computers in an enterprise setting. Real shit gets done on Windows every day, all over the planet.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday September 16, 2013 @07:22PM (#44867995)

    Selling a game at $1 per time to 2 million windows users is still preferable to selling it at $200 per time to a thousand linux users. The marginal cost of increasing the user base is utterly dwarfed by the development costs.

      The question to ask is whether the total linux income justifies linux development, and even with far larger income per user, the low user base means this usually just isn't profitable.

  • by jedidiah ( 1196 ) on Monday September 16, 2013 @07:54PM (#44868223) Homepage

    It all depends on who you are talking about.

    Expecting end users to "man up" is stupid and counterproductive.

    Expecting the same of developers or sysadmins is not.

    A developer on crutches is a liability. Same goes for sysadmins. Sooner or later you have to think for yourself and do for yourself.

    The whole point of an IT professional is to deal with difficult stuff.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday September 16, 2013 @08:32PM (#44868525)

    I've learned from reading Slashdot that "the hard part" of any activity is simply the part that the writer happens to do themselves and of course lesser people do not.

  • by techprophet ( 1281752 ) <emallson.archlinux@us> on Monday September 16, 2013 @09:03PM (#44868769) Journal
    Part of Linux gaming's problem, which is mentioned in the story, is fragmentation. With a common platform (Steam) and industry connections (Valve nVidia/AMD) to help resolve both fragmentation and graphics card driver issues, those could swing in a very big way towards "It Just Works".

It is not for me to attempt to fathom the inscrutable workings of Providence. -- The Earl of Birkenhead