I remember a time when Linux gaming was an oxymoron. Sure, there were clunky open source versions of popular Windows games like Solitaire and Minesweeper but if you wanted to game on a Linux-based operating system you were pretty much out of luck.
This slowly began to change with the growth and development of Wine, a Windows emulator that ran on Linux machines. The open source community, through a lot of hard work and trial and error, managed to hammer Wine into a usable form, enabling a number of popular Windows games to run nearly perfectly in an emulated environment in Linux.
The first time I played World of Warcraft on a Ubuntu machine (a popular Linux desktop), I felt like I’d reach the pinnacle of geekery. There were a few graphical and gameplay bugs but generally the game ran really well, largely thanks to the dedicated and passionate open source community working together on the simple goal to play Warcraft on Linux.
Over time Wine was updated to support more and more games and developers started to realise there was a large untapped market of Linux gamers waiting for publishers to shut up and take their money.
The next step forward for Linux gaming started with the Humble Indie Bundle, collections of games sold at a reduced price with options for proceeds to go to charity or to the developers. The Humble Bundle games were originally offered DRM-free, often with source code included. Many developers started to include Linux versions in the Bundles and a significant portion of sales came from Linux users.
Wine and the Humble Bundles laid the groundwork for the first serious publisher foray into Linux gaming: in 2012 influential publisher Valve, creator of Half-Life and the ubiqitous Steam distribution platform, announced their intent to release a native Steam client for Linux. Valve putting their weight behind Linux gaming instantly validated the hard work of a dedicated open source community and opened developers’ eyes to view Linux as a legitimate gaming platform.
These days cross platform development is easier than ever before, with the popular Unity platform enabling portability and scalability. In fact, indie developers have increasingly begun to release their games with a Linux version, whether through Steam or independent distributors like GOG or Desura.
There’s an interesting conflict developing as Linux gaming grows in popularity and gains an increased profile. At its core, Linux is built on an open ethos, following a free and open source ideology where nothing is proprietary or hidden and everyone is encouraged to modify and improve the source code as they see fit. Proprietary software is looked on as antithetical to the open source ideal.
At first look this ethos is in stark contrast to the traditional games industry, where the source and assets are closely guarded and modifying the code for your own use is treated as cheating or hacking. How can proprietary games and code exist on an open source platform?
I remember the controversy in the gaming community when the first non-indie Humble Bundle was released, with no DRM-free games on offer. Die hard open source enthusiasts decried the monetisation and commercialisation of Linux and argued against the shift in the core tenet of free and open source.
This argument against proprietary and closed source software on Linux encompasses more than just gaming, however, as more and more Linux distributions are including proprietary code (such as Adobe Flash or nVidia drivers) in their releases.
From my perspective, the growth of Linux gaming is only a good thing. I’d love to see the day when I can get rid of my Windows partition and play all my games in Linux. That’s pretty unlikely, however, due to a number of factors including availability of Linux hardware drivers and developer and publisher willingness to embrace open standards and non-proprietary software engines.
In the meantime I’ll continue to split my time between Windows and Linux and keep an interested eye on the development of Valve’s Linux-based SteamOS. I see the future of Linux gaming thriving with a strong partnership between Valve and indie developers.
(This article was originally published as a video on youtube.com/HeyBeardo.)Colin Le Sueur