Originally Published: Friday, 9 March 2001 Author: Jeff Mrochuk
Published to: interact_articles_live/Live! Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Linux.com Live! Commercial Linux Games: Where are they?

Linux.com correspondent Jeff Mrochuk was on hand for our recent Linux.com Live! event with game developers from BioWare, Creature Labs and Loki. He sent us this report.

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On Monday February 26th Linux.com Live! held an IRC event titled "Commercial Linux Games: Where are they?" At this event we got to see and talk with two companies who have soon to be released games coming to our favorite platform. Representatives of BioWare and Creature Labs, showed up to discuss their Linux ports of NeverWinter Nights and Creatures 3 respectively. You can read the actual transcript at http://linux.com/newsitem.phtml?sid=114&aid=11797.

After the introductions, a bit of chaos, and finally some moderation it became clear who we had with us: Trent Oster, Don Yakielashek, Scott Greig and Brad Grier from BioWare, and Lisa de Araujo from Creature Labs. I was disappointed that Creature Labs did not send any developers, but Lisa, their marketing manager, covered things fairly well. We also had a few unexpected guests, including some current and past, Loki Entertainment software developers, the leading game porting company.

The first point that came up was the progress of the Win32 platform versus Linux, and how the companies synchronizes the two. BioWare develops nearly simultaneously, the Linux side often trailing slightly behind. They mentioned how since the beginning of the project they've kept most of their code as platform independent as possible, a smart move. I couldn't help but smile when I saw that BioWare chose OpenGL over Direct3D as their 3D platform of choice for the purpose of cross-platform development, a rare find these days. Direct 3D is Microsoft's answer to 3D acceleration that being the case it will only run on Win32 platforms. OpenGL is time tested and multi-platform. Although OpenGL is quite popular, Direct3D is gaining steam, as it is a part of Microsoft's DirectX feature set. Likely the NeverWinter Nights engine will be used to make other games, and OpenGL 3D base will make it easier for porting those future games.

Lisa did not comment, other than the fact that Linux porting is a labor of love of two of their programmers, who do the development in their spare time. No comment on how development was done, one of the reasons I wish Creature Labs had sent a developer. Lisa did mention however, that they were using the Simple Direct media Layer (SDL) for their non-Win32 development. Hats off to Sam Latinga of Loki for bringing those tools, and possibly more developers to Linux. SDL is a toolkit that lets developers integrate all of the game input and output, like sound, graphics, networking, keyboard input among other things, using one library. This is a similar approach that Microsoft used with their DirectX kit. Of course unlike DirectX, SDL runs on several different platforms.

So then, what about shipping? When we asked about whether the games were going to ship in separate boxes, or multiple binaries in one box, we didn't get much of an answer out of either company. Neither has shipped a Linux title before, and could not comment on how their publishers might handle it. Basically the publishers are the company that will package and distribute the final product, as well as offer technical support. Support seems to be the thorn in the side of the publishers, they fear with more binaries, there's room for more problems. Members of Loki's Quality Assurance team commented that although there are fewer clueless users who call them about Linux games, the experienced users are often more demanding when it comes to support.

The conversation switched to sales. That's the big issue for everyone when it comes to porting. Lisa presents herself as a skeptic, she admits she wants a Linux port, but expresses concerns with the sales potential. The BioWare guys seem to have no fear, regardless of sales figures. Mark, from Creature Labs, appears suddenly and comments that Linux game sales figures rarely include online sales, which are probably very large portion of Linux game sales, seeing they are often difficult to find in stores. Linux.com's Ross Sanders, the host of the event, comments that online purchases are awkward for a lot of gamers, who are often under 18, or do not have access to credit cards. This is a serious obstacle Linux gaming needs to overcome. Of course, the Quake III Arena debate comes up. For those who are not familiar Quake III Arena is a game that sold Win32 boxes and Linux boxes, and had downloadable binaries. John Carmack, the lead programmer of id, creators of Quake III Arena, spoke out that he was very disappointed with the Linux sales. The sales of Quake 3 are a poor benchmark however, because many people bought the game for Win32 because it was available first, and downloaded the binaries to play on Linux. Call me jaded, but that is one topic that the gaming community needs to lay to rest, it has been over a year since the release, and the figures were not very relevant to begin with.

I brought up Wine, a set of libraries that allows some Win32 software to run under Linux, and mentioned that some of the games based on BioWare's recent engine ran on WINE. Trent responded that they'd much rather have a native port than have their game run under such software. I was very pleased with that response; we do not want developers thinking that Wine will solve their multi-platform woes. WINE is still quite unstable, and definitely does not replace a native port, it can be satisfactory if there is no other option, but the instability is a big issue.

I was not surprised a bit with the company's final remarks. For Linux to be viable as a gaming platform there needs to be more sales, and publishers need to see them. Trent summed it up well, "voting with your wallet is the best way to push Linux games." We have been hearing that over and over again lately, and there is only one thing we can do about it.

All in all, the companies presented themselves well. BioWare sent a fleet to take care of their answers, as I wish Creature Labs had. Lisa chimed up when she had input, but was noticeably absent from the developer talk; marketing was her time to shine. In the end, I thought Creature Labs seemed still a little shaky on the whole issue of Linux gaming, while BioWare is pushing it full force. It is up to the publishers now; we can hope more developer demand will influence them, though, as well as a larger consumer force.

Overall, the event was great, but I'd have liked to have squeezed out a bit more technical information. Essentially we heard the same arguments, problems and ideas we have heard before, just from two new companies. I guess that means that everyone is looking at it from the same angle, which probably means the Linux gaming community is growing as a group, but raw sales will always be the number one issue with software companies. Either way, two new companies, bringing two new games to Linux, cannot be a bad thing. Thanks to everybody at BioWare and Creature Labs for a great Linux.com Live! Event, and lets hope we can do it again sometime.

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