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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 BitwizeGHC ( 145393 ) on Monday September 16, 2013 @04:42PM (#44866557) Homepage

    1) Switch to the Wayland graphics stack -- games don't need X11 and all its complexities

    2) Provide a Direct3D-compatible state tracker so devs don't have to mess with OpenGL

    3) Linux really, really needs a Visual Studio. The reason why Visual Debugger is so great is largely because of the rest of Visual Studio. No, Eclipse doesn't count.

    Game devs are used to the Windows ecosystem. Compared to it, what's available on Linux is stone knives and bearskins. Until that changes, not many game devs will be enthused about Linux development.

  • by UnknownSoldier ( 67820 ) on Monday September 16, 2013 @04:43PM (#44866577)

    There may be some truth to that. Microsoft having a garbage networking implementation of (GFWL) Games For Windows Live certainly isn't helping. i.e. Trying playing Resident Evil 5 co-op. You have to keep trying that it eventually connects. Either way, Microsoft, intentionally, or unintentionally, is driving customers away to other platforms.

    Sadly, I don't see Linux Gaming replacing Windows anytime soon -- its pretty much the only reason I use Win7 anymore. :-( Carmack has said Linux sales have been abysmal. (Of course the Windows, Mac, and Linux ports) haven't always come out at the same time, but still that doesn't the bottom line. i.e. Witness the sales figures of the crappy Diablo 3 for consoles.

    It will be interesting to see what happens with the PS4 running *bsd.

    Digressing, I really wish Apple would make a standard gamepad for iOS. It would kick the crap out of the PSP and PSP Vita for sales.

    Wonder what "price point" the Valve Linux Hardware will be at.

  • by cheater512 ( 783349 ) <> on Monday September 16, 2013 @04:59PM (#44866725) Homepage

    Its funny. There are so many people like you who keep Windows around for games.
    I wonder what the total number of people like that is.

    Because gaming isn't here yet on Linux in a big way, but a large force getting all those 'I dual boot for games' people gaming on Linux would swing the tide an awful lot.
    And perhaps Valve is just that large force.

  • Doesn't Matter (Score:5, Interesting)

    by tom229 ( 1640685 ) on Monday September 16, 2013 @05:11PM (#44866841)
    I took on a project of trying to convert my gaming machine to Ubuntu this summer. No wine, only native games that would run on 12.04LTS. The result: Summer is over, and I'm back on Windows.

    At first it was nice to see more games running on Linux, and even Steam available for Ubuntu. However, the vast majority of title's I owned on Steam weren't available, and the ones that were were buggy. Take for example the Valve title DOTA2. It works on Ubuntu through steam, natively, but it's slower, and has several annoying bugs when typing in chat and minimizing the fullscreen to the desktop.

    Skype works, but was buggy. My headset worked, but had more static, etc, etc.

    What's more is I had two random crashes. One due to a kernel update that rendered my machine unbootable, and the other (after a fresh reinstall) due to a nvidia proprietary driver update that continuously crashed X server on boot. I'm not sure what the underlying issue is with Linux. I'm not sure why it's so difficult to get anything that's a binary (not open source from the repositories) working properly. But this seems to be my experience every year since about 2006 when I attempt to transition everything to Ubuntu.
  • by Blakey Rat ( 99501 ) on Monday September 16, 2013 @05:20PM (#44866933)

    It's not about ease-of-use (although it is kind of about that), it's about functionality. GDB simply can not do half of what Visual Studio's debugger can.

    Developers with Visual Studio are debugging inside their HLSL shaders. To my knowledge, nobody else is doing that. Nobody else can do that.

    The fact that Visual Studio's debugger is easier to learn, and much better integrated with the IDE is just frosting.

  • by nine-times ( 778537 ) <> on Monday September 16, 2013 @09:18PM (#44868853) Homepage

    Sadly, I don't see Linux Gaming replacing Windows anytime soon -- its pretty much the only reason I use Win7 anymore. :-( Carmack has said Linux sales have been abysmal. (Of course the Windows, Mac, and Linux ports) haven't always come out at the same time, but still that doesn't the bottom line. i.e. Witness the sales figures of the crappy Diablo 3 for consoles.

    I don't think you can simply extrapolate from past data. One of the big issues is that there's a self-reinforcing cycle at work-- a sort of catch-22. Developers won't develop for Linux because people won't buy for Linux. On the other hand, people won't install Linux on their game machine because developers aren't developing for Linux. It seems inescapable, but there may be some tipping point at which the cycle reverses itself.

    For example, if WINE or something similar reached the point of enabling enough compatibility to allow many Windows games to play seamlessly, that might make a big difference. Or if there were new frameworks and engines that made it much easier to develop cross-platform, that might be enough. Though this catch-22 currently keeps people on Windows, you could reach a tipping point where there are either enough Linux gamers or enough Linux developers that things start flowing the other way.

    And I think it's worth citing myself as an example of how a migration to Linux might be closer than the data would suggest. I have ditched consoles completely, and I have been buying games almost exclusively on Windows lately, so the data would suggest that I'm firmly in the Windows camp. *However*, I've been buying games on Windows because I've been buying them on Steam. I've been buying them on Steam because it seems like the safest path to keeping my older games accessible, since Steam has been supporting older games-- as well as they can, anyway-- and making games available cross-platform-- again, as well as they can. So my plan for a few years now has been to keep buying on Steam specifically so that when Mac or Linux gaming becomes more feasible, I can switch over without losing my library of games. Contrary to what the data would suggest, I'm anticipating the migration to Linux. It won't take convincing or marketing. It'll just require that enough of my games have ports available on Linux that I can reformat my gaming rig and make the move without losing too many games.

  • by DudemanX ( 44606 ) <> on Tuesday September 17, 2013 @12:11AM (#44869877) Homepage

    For example, if WINE or something similar reached the point of enabling enough compatibility to allow many Windows games to play seamlessly, that might make a big difference.

    That IS the difference. I actually like Windows(even 8/8.1) for the most part. I also like the idea of running Linux instead but my Steam library has over 200 games. I think about 15-20 of those titles work natively under Linux. Valve has to invest in WINE and perhaps hire some of the developers directly like they did for SDL to get it to a level where most of our games can work under Linux just as they do under Windows. There's no way I'm switching from something that just works for all of my productivity and gaming needs to something else that cannot run the programs I run.

    Ideally I'd like to see them make their own distro with all of the drivers and WINE shit needed to just allow all software in my library to run just like it does under Windows. I double-click the title, it downloads and installs, and then I run the thing. Not all Windows games need to run perfectly and some might not ever run at all but that needs to be the exception and not the rule.

    I'm not going to dual-boot. I'm not going fuck with a separate Windows instance of Steam through WINE which I have to configure arcane settings for each game I have. Make WINE good enough and integrate it with Steam so almost every game I "own" can work right out of the box or there's not even a choice to made about what OS I'm going to run.

Whenever people agree with me, I always think I must be wrong. - Oscar Wilde