Linux Gaming: An Upward Trend

witcher

Several months back, I was contemplating the state of Linux Gaming and the platform and judging from several indicators, I thought there were many good signs to make 2014 another promising year. We are now at the end June, and it’s time to take a fresh look at the situation again.

First, there’s definitely more AAA titles coming in the tubes. As I mentioned in my previous article, Witcher 2 has been released for Linux, and while it was a notoriously bad port (just a wrapper around the Windows version of the game, running like crap on most decent gaming configs), CD Projekt Red has announced that The Witcher 3 will be available for SteamOS (and therefore Linux). From what I could recollect it seems that that version will be a native port for Linux, so hopefully we can forget about the crap of the second episode’s release. Witcher 3 is shaping to be a fantastic game in all regards, and if you are not convinced you probably should have a look at the E3 trailer.

GOG, which is also run by CD Projekt, announced before the E3 the upcoming availability of GOG Galaxy, a standalone client a la Steam, to download, install and update games directly for your platform. The good news here is that it will be multiplatform as well and support Windows, Mac and obviously Linux. The interesting bit is that this client will not be mandatory, unlike Steam, and you will still be able to download your game installers right from GOG’s website. All DRM free, as usual. It will be interesting to see how this impacts Steam and the Linux market in general, since there’s a number of games that will be available on both clients – making GOG Galaxy a potential good alternative to Steam even for Linux users. Fun times.

On top of that, we have seen the recent release of two great AAA titles, both of them extremely popular. First, Civilization 5, ported by Aspyr, is looking gorgeous on Linux and almost identical to the Windows version. Aspyr started their work based on the OSX version previously released and managed to release essentially a bug free version right at launch. A very, very good job and they have revealed there were currently working to port other titles for Linux, while they could not comment on which. As Civilization 5 was released, Civilization 4 appeared in the Linux games list on Steam, while no executable is attached to its entry. It could well be that the 4th is on its way to the Platform as well. And this is not the end, Civilization: Beyond Earth, the next entry in the series, will be released for Linux as well in next year.

Civilization-V-Arrives-on-Steam-for-Linux-and-SteamOS-446214-3

The other AAA title released for Linux is XCOM: Enemy Unknown. The port was handled by Feral, and while it is running very decently, there were a couple of issues at launch, such as many people experiencing a crash at the end of the intro mission. Feral’s support was a little bit annoying at first, saying “your distro is not supported” if you were not running Steam on Ubuntu (come on, guys…) or “your graphic card does not meet the minimum specs” (yeah, you mean my card that runs the game at Full details in Full HD is not supported? Give me a break). It appeared that for most people, the bug was caused by an incompatibiliy with OpenVPN when the game calls back Steam servers to unlock a trophy at the end of the mission, causing the crash. For now, you just need to turn off your VPN to play the game, while they are working on a fix after realizing the issue. I was involved in such discussions and I particularly like one comment when Feral’s answers were a little unhelpful:

We are not Windows crowd here. Good chance you are talking to guys of your level here, a few probably are programmers. I am tech support guy myself. What I really want to say – we can and are willing to cooperate. At least I do. We, linux folks, seek problems and when find – we don’t whine, we solve them. We only whine when we are denied possibility of solving issues. At the moment – we are. So give us stuff to do. We will be much happier that way.

Anyway, Feral’s port is very decent and runs very well. While they probably did not test their game as much as they should have, they did a pretty good job and I hope they continue supporting Linux for other ports in the future (it seems that are in the process of doing more, as mentioned in an interview they gave to GamingonLinux).

Limbo has been finally released on Steam as a native version, while it has been available before as part of the Humble Bundle in a wrapped form (using Codeweavers’ bottle based on Wine). I can confirm the new release is WAYYYY better than the previous version, and ir really runs the way it should. It was prepared by Icculus:

We started on this way before 2014. This has actually been on the backburner for quite some time; Limbo is one of my favorite games ever, and I really wanted to get a non-Wine version of the game running.

Limbo Screenshot 1

There are more games on the way, such a Goat Simulator (not that I consider that to be a great game, but hell, some people seem to like it). Tropico 5 has already been released for Windows, yet the Linux version is still in the works, and is now announced for the Steam Machines release. There’s also Broforce apparently in the works (I can’t wait for that one, the trailer is hilarious).

At the E3, Oddworld: New’n Tasty was presented and the devs have said there is a Linux port in the works on top of the other platforms. It’s a full remake of the original Abe’s Oddyssey (which was a brilliant game at the time).

Let’s not forget Star Citizen (built with CryEngine 3) for which a Linux version is clearly planned (based on the Kickstarter objectives). CryEngine supports Linux natively (and apparently CryTek is looking to hire more Linux developers). The game still looks fantastic (one of the first targeting 4k) and seems like an ideal companion of the Oculus Rift.

Star-Citizen-106974

On top of CryEngine support, the guys behind the Unreal Engine have announced early June that the 4.2 version now supports Linux natively for certain development tools. The day where all Unreal Engine tools are available natively under Linux is getting closer, and that’s an excellent sign.

In the meantime, Valve is not just supporting Linux publishing, they are still actively supporting numerous initiatives to make Linux a better platform, and they recently decided to fund further development of the Mesa open source graphics project:

LunarG received funding from Valve to explore the possibility of game performance improvements using the LunarGLASS technology in the Mesa driver, specifically the potential for FPS improvements through shader runtime improvements. LunarGLASS includes the glslang frontend and the LLVM compiler component as well additional modifications to make LLVM suitable for shader compilation.

You can find more about the project on their page. Note that shader compilation was somethig missing for Linux so far, and this may bring additional performance improvement on top of the graphics drivers improvements from nVidia, AMD and Intel.

While we are touching on AMD, let’s not forget to mention that AMD’s Mantle API, able to deliver low-level performance for AMD cards, for now only available on Windows, could be coming for Linux. At least AMD has been getting several requests in that direction, since Richard Huddy from AMD declared:

It could provide some advantages on Steam boxes. We are getting requests to deliver this high-performance layer.

Intel seems to be interested in Mantle as well, at least to experiment with it at this stage. We are far from a point where Mantle will be an open API standard, but we never know…

Although Steam Machines’ release date have been pushed back to 2015 (and the controller is still in the works, too), Alienware is going ahead for now with a Windows 8 gaming box to run Steam games instead of the original SteamOS box.

The current version unveiled at the E3 2014.

The current version unveiled at the E3 2014.

But there are certainly not giving up on the idea of a Linux version, since they seemed very enthousiastic about Valve’s platform at the recent E3:

There’s more games that are Linux powered today than have ever been available in the market, and that continues to grow. It’s projected that whenever SteamOS comes out, there’s going to be 700 plus titles on SteamOS that are OpenGL games. Imagine how many people are gaming today on linux, and how many people will be gaming once Steam Machine launches. It’s going to be 20, 30 fold. Overnight.

It’s good to see so much passion for the upcoming Steam Boxes, but honestly, while I believe they will certainly expand the market, I don’t see it exploding from one day to another. As I mentioned previously, Valve is playing the long game, and certainly not rushing to compete with anyone else at this stage. I expect the Steam boxes to become a solid alternative to the rest (consoles and Windows PC gaming) but it will certainly takes years to reach that stage.

Not everything is all so rosy – there were also some bad news recently, such as the departure from Rich Geldreich from Valve. He was one of the key OpenGL developers at Valve (and was deeply invested in Valve’s VOGL’s OpenGL debugger) and before his departure he had posted a number of articles on his blog about why OpenGL is a broken standard. A lot of resentment there, while he did certainly have a number of very valid points to make about the state of OpenGL. AMD drivers are still sub-par compared to nVidia ones, and that’s not good for Linux gaming at large to have a large part of the hardware market not well supported.

On top of that, while the game offering on Linux has been steadily growing over the past few months, it does not seem that the market has been following the same trend. The latest software/hardware survey from May 2014 shows Linux still at 1.1%, with OS X exactly 3 times larger at 3.3%, and Windows at 95.5%.

hwsurveymay2014

In a sense, I think this vindicates Valve’s strategy. Bringing Steam to Linux is not just enough. What’s clearly missing is officially supported Linux hardware from the get-go. Currently the large majority of Linux users are installing the system on their own. The day Valve or Valve’s hardware partners provide more Linux-based machines where you have nothing to set up by yourself, the hardware base will definitely grow at a different pace. One will be able to pick up a Steam Machine and have a console-like experience with it, without having to care about what’s running under the hood.

There’s still some time left in 2014 before we near the release of Steam Machines. My predictions for the coming months is that more developers will jump on the Linux boat, that a couple of older hits will be released for Linux (just like Civilization 5), and we may see one or two additional AAA games that we have not yet heard about. That’s certainly not enough to make a dent in Windows’ starship, but that’s far enough to keep many Linux gamers entertained and make them looking out for more.

14 thoughts on “Linux Gaming: An Upward Trend

  1. Skyul

    The linux got more into gaming because steam released the steambox which runs under linux and demanded better drivers from nvidia/amd. So linux gaming is an uprising trend, plus we may see some better things in the future.

    Reply
    1. Nathan

      Nvidia already had great driver support on Linux. It is AMD that have really bad driver support on Linux…

      Reply
  2. kwahoo

    Grammar nazi here. Please fix:
    Occulus -> Oculus
    MacOS -> OS X (Apple dropped the “Mac” part two years ago)

    Reply
    1. DaVince

      Your corrections are related to spelling, not grammar, and Nazi should be capitalized. But hey, at least you were being helpful. :P

      Reply
  3. DaVince

    This is a rather nice recap of recent developments in the Linux scene. I already knew about most of this from the Linux Gaming Reddit, but hey, seeing it all summarized in a post here does really show how development is speeding up.

    And yeah, I also don’t expect the Linux usage ratio to go up until hardware that comes with it is released.

    Reply
    1. ekianjo Post author

      I expect Linux Gamers will spend more time (more hours) gaming now that Civ5 is out, but I’m not sure it will result in an increase on the baseline of gamers on Linux. It’s not necessarily correlated.

      Reply
  4. Shmerl

    I answered about CD Projekt Red in the HN thread. In short, GOG support were asked by e-mail, and they answered like this:

    > Hello
    > As for now there were announced only PC, Xbox One and PS4 versions of the game.
    > Regards

    I.e. no Linux version of the Witcher 3 was ever announced, so don’t make preorders based on some potentially false leak (or prank).

    One can vote for such port here though: https://secure.gog.com/wishlist/games/to_cd_projekt_red_bring_witcher_3_and_your_other_games_to_linux_please
    (spread the word!).

    Reply
    1. ekianjo Post author

      Thanks for pointing this out. However, as mentioned by other people on the HN thread or on the reddit Linux Gaming thread, GOG saying that it’s not announced for Linux at this stage is not really a refutation. It could be in the works while not announced yet. Witcher 2 was “ported” (yeah, i know, it was really bad) without a prior announcement either, so that does not mean “no announcement” == “no port”. And I’m guessing that Steam probably had a good lead when they published “coming on SteamOS” – they don’t usually make false communications about others’ games.

      Reply
    1. ekianjo Post author

      Yeah, I was aware of that. It’s often the case when Linux support is announced, it’s actually only effective when the game is considered “finished”.

      Reply

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