Aditya Nag
February 3, 2005

This article was first published on Cooltechzone

It’s 2005 and the Linux juggernaut shows no sign of slowing down. Everywhere you look, Linux seems to be gaining steam. Home users are finally finding that they can use a Linux distro without learning esoteric text commands. Everyday Linux is becoming more user friendly and accessible. In fact, distros have matured to the point where they can be the only OS on a home computer. Except for one thing. Gaming!

Gaming on Linux has always been a bit of a touch and go affair. From the time when the only games available were clones of old side scrollers, gaming has been a bit of an afterthought. But now that Linux is getting ready to enter homes in a big way, gaming is becoming more important. So what is the state of gaming in Linux? Let’s find out.

The Hardware:

Before we look at the games themselves, we have to see how well the hardware is supported. There are two major players in the video card market, Nvidia and ATI. Of these two Nvidia has always supported Linux very strongly, with full driver support for all their cards available. Even though their drivers are not released under the GPL, which means they can’t be bundled with distros, they are fully featured drivers, with support available for almost all the features of the GPU, including multi-monitor support. The drivers are very easy to install on a wide range of distros.

ATI on the other hand has only recently started pushing for better drivers under Linux. Earlier, if you wanted to have good 3D-Acceleration under Linux, the choice of card was a no-brainer. Nvidia ruled the roost mainly because of poor driver support from ATI. ATI has made it a priority now, however, and have a dedicated Linux driver team. Still, in terms of drivers, Nvidia has the upper hand as of now.

Sound cards on the other hand have long been well supported under Linux. As long as it’s basic sound, it’s there. When you talk about EAX and the like, things get murkier. The Live! and Audigy series of cards are fairly well supported. Sound is not so much of an issue to get working as video. Any modern distro should be able to handle sound fairly well. Still, some advanced features may not work too well, or at all on Linux.

Joysticks, Gamepads, Wheels, and HOTAS rigs are a different story altogether. Some of them work, and work well, others refuse to, no matter how you tweak. It is also generally true that getting a gaming device to work under Linux is rather more difficult than getting it to work under Windows. There are exceptions, but this is one area which needs some work yet.

The Software:

We can divide the games themselves into two categories, Mainstream ( i.e Windows) games, and games developed for the Linux platform. The Mainstream games are obviously the headline grabbing games. Half-Life 2, Doom 3, Farcry, Rome- Total War, and the like are the Hollywood blockbusters of the gaming world. Everyone has heard of them, even if they have no intention of playing them. On the other hand, you have games which are developed for Linux, which are not so well known, but are eminently playable nevertheless.

There are two ways of looking at the state of Linux gaming. One way is to see if the blockbusters run at all on Linux, and if so, how well. Another approach is to see how good the native Linux games are.

There are a small number of major developers who offer native ports of their games. Id is one of the biggest houses and they have native ports of all their games including Doom 3. Unreal Tournament 2004, Neverwinter Nights, Serious Sam, Medal of Honor and America’s Army:Operations are also available natively for Linux. But if you want to play a pure DirectX based game on Linux you can only hope it runs on Cedega. Cedega is a product from Transgaming Corp which lets you play many A-list games on Linux with a minimum of effort. They are doing a great job of letting Linux gamers in on the fun. According to their website, the latest version of Cedega allows you to play Farcry, Sid Meier’s Pirates!, Half Life 2 and GTA Vice City. These are all games that are hot right now, or at least the lag time between the latest and greatest and the games supported on Linux is not so bad.

Cedega is a commercial product. It costs US $15 for a three month subscription. This may seem too much to you or it may seem reasonable. Their software is not without it’s flaws, but it does work well with some games, and it does let you play some of the newest games on Linux. The trick is to look up their database of supported games to see if the games you want to play work properly before you put up your $15.

Why don’t more developers make native Linux games? Well, it’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation. Developers don’t want to port unless they are convinced that there is a substantial market for Linux games, and that market will not come into being unless there are more games being released for Linux.

However, there is a change in the developers attitude these days. Many developers are recognizing that there is a market out there for Linux versions of their games. Also, porting a game to Mac OSX is somewhat similar to a Linux port, and the Mac gaming market is also beginning to grow. For all you know, if the Mac Mini is a huge success, it will spur more developers to develop for Linux and the Mac. Of course, this may well be wishful thinking.

Another problem is that DirectX is of course, Windows Only. OpenGL is cross platform and that is why games based on OpenGL are much easier to port. Unfortunately, DirectX is becoming more and more popular with developers, and proting such a game is very difficult. Transgaming does allow you to play DirectX games, but with varying degrees of success. And a native port will always win out over an emulator.

In the second category of games, those developed from the ground up for Linux, the scenario is improving a lot. There are many games out there which are made for Linux .Some of the commercial games are Ballistics, Postal 2: Share the Pain, Software Tycoon, all available from LinuxGamePublishing. Others like A Tale in the Desert, Soulride, and many more are available today.

Besides the commercial games, there are many free games available. Some are very good, like the classic Frozen Bubble, and the interesting Armagetron. There are flight sims available, like Flightgear and car racing games like Racer.

Some of these, notably Flight Gear, are as good or better than their commercial counterparts. Getting them to work is also getting easier and easier. A quick look at shows the number of games available for Linux. Sure, some of them are a little ( a lot?) rough around the edges, but still, there are some gems hidden away.

As of this moment, gaming on Linux is still a little like the Wild West. It’s somewhat chaotic, random and empty, but it can be very exciting too. As time passes, and the market matures, we will see a plethora of games on Linux. Right now, many distros are concentrating on other stuff, like making their distros easy to use, and making sure they work well with all the different hardware configurations in the world. Once the Linux desktop has stabilized to a certain extent, you can expect to see developers turn their energies to better gaming support under Linux. That’s when the Linux gaming market will really take off.

As a Linux user right now, if you really want to play the best games, you might want to keep a copy of Windows tucked away on some part of your HDD. Sometimes, you just want to dive in and play, without having to jump through hoops to get the damm to start. Linux cannot be recommended to the hardcore gamer, but if you are the kind of person who likes to unwind once in a while with a nice game, then you will be surprised to find that Linux has many options for you. Keep an open mind, and try out some of the games available. You might even find yourself booting into Linux just to play some of the games. ( Anyone for a round of Kolf?)

The fact remains that the Linux gaming market is still rather small, but at the same time, it cannot be denied that it is growing. How can we, as users, help to accelerate this? The answer is simple. Buy more games for Linux. Let the big companies know that you are a Linux gamer. Email them, call them, write to them. If a company does release a native port, make sure you buy it or at least let them know that you appreciate the effort. We have to make game developers aware of the fact that there is in fact a market out here. If they build it, we will play it. And if we play it, they will build it. With a little bit of luck and some synergy between the users and the developers, Linux gaming can really take off.