|Gaming on Linux is...
||[Sep. 10th, 2012|03:22 pm]
Gaming on Linux is something I've been doing for about a decade now. At some point in the late 90s I had a problem with Windows that required me to reinstall the OS. I don't remember what it was, but I'm sure a lot of power users from that era recognize the situation. I had been using Linux on a second computer for scripting and development and network stuff for a while, so I decided it was time to try it out on my primary desktop. That lasted for a couple of weeks. I gave up after a few times of having to recompile the kernel with different sound driver options. Gaming was not foremost on my mind at the time. However, over the next few years, I got into a cycle. Every time Windows (XP, mostly, occasionally 2000) required a reinstall, I installed Linux instead. Every time I got fed up with the hassles of Linux on the desktop, I reinstalled Windows. A pattern emerged. I was spending less time in Windows and more in Linux each time I went through the cycle. As I started to spend months instead of weeks in Linux, I started doing more than a cursory amount of gaming. This would have been around 2000-2002. Linux had plenty of small time wasting games (card games, puzzles, etc), and of course I could play telnet-based games just fine (nethack, BBS doors, etc), but there were very few "big" "popular" games with native Linux versions (like Quake). This meant that if you wanted to play most common games, you were using wine, or later WineX (which became Cedega). Compatibility was low, around 5-10% of games depending on your criteria, but it was enough to have plenty of fun. Having games to play definitely contributed to me getting fed up less quickly. Eventually I realized that I had been using Linux for two years straight, and I have rarely looked back since.
Gaming on Linux is becoming better, easier, and a more attractive proposition at an ever-accelerating pace. In 2000, we had a handful of popular native games, a few hundred small single player games, and a few hundred games that ran well in wine, and that was about all. In 2005 there were a lot more native games, and a lot of web-based games (flash, etc) that let us play with/against our Windows brethren, and wine/Cedega/Crossover had gotten their compatibility rate up to 50-75%. In 2010 we had hundreds of native games, thousands of games that work in wine, as well as platforms like Java and Mono and AIR that at least provided some semblance of write-once-run-anywhere offerings. Here we are in 2012. Desura has a few hundred Linux games available for download or purchase. Steam is arriving for Linux right about now. The Humble Bundle guys are getting native games into the hands of tens of thousands of gamers every few months, and inspiring new games to be ported (to OSX and Android, too!). Kickstarter is letting us fund production of great new cross-platform titles. Multiple major name "AAA" titles are released for Linux each year, including MMOs, MOBAs, FPSs, etc. Flash and Java are actually delivering on cross platform possibilities. wine/Crossover have exceptionally high compatibility rates (90% wouldn't be an unreasonable estimate). In short, it's a good time to be a gamer who runs Linux.
Gaming on Linux is similar to owning a niche console. When I tell people that I game on Linux, they usually give me funny looks, or make a joke, or brush it off. After all, why would anyone do that when Windows has so many more games and more users? An analogy presents itself. Why would anyone choose (only) the least popular console in a particular generation? Sure, PS3 and XBox360 owners make fun of each other, and they both make fun of the Wii, but does anyone outside of those groups think that any of them made an objectively bad decision in their choice? Mostly not, and it's the same way with gaming on Linux. I have my own priorities and choose a certain set of benefits at the cost of having access to fewer games, a smaller community to share my gaming with, etc. When a new game comes out that is Windows-only, I feel no worse than a PS3 owner does when Microsoft announces a new platform exclusive.
Gaming on Linux is often a lot less problematic than playing the same games on Windows. A major reason that I enjoyed switching to Linux is because wine (specifically the use of WINEPREFIXes, or Cedega or Crossover's GUIs) allows me to sandbox my Windows game installations, and most Linux native games are effectively sandboxed already. So I can install a game... then make a backup of the installed version so I don't have to sit through the installer next time. Or before I patch a game, or let it patch itself, I can snapshot the current state and undo the patch if it fails. I do not miss the prospect of spending hours installing a game like Baldur's Gate or Neverwinter Nights or Morrowind, and then installing a patch, and then an expansion pack, and then another expansion pack, and then another patch which fails to successfully install and requires me to start the entire process from scratch. I just zip up the game directory between each step and can roll back to any point in the process. When I'm done, I save the very last zip to my game archive drive and then, a few years from now when I want to replay the game, I can just unzip it and not worry about finding the installation discs and spending hours applying the patches again. Trying to do the same thing in Windows without complicated expensive sandboxing software would result in corrupt and conflicting registry entries, at minimum.
Gaming on Linux is often faster than on Windows. I played World of Warcaft in wine for a couple of years. It ran 20-50% faster than in Windows on the same computer. This isn't particularly common with games under wine, but it's not uncommon either. With native games it's another matter entirely, with Linux in the lead almost every time. That goes for games by id (Quake, Doom, etc), the Source engine (L4D2 is being ported now), and other titles such as HoN, Second Life, Savage 2, etc. Adding to this phenomenon is that, if you choose, Linux can have a much smaller memory footprint than Windows, leaving a lot more RAM free for your games. If you're the sort to push your hardware to the limits, this is also relevant.
Gaming on Linux is not going away. Five years ago gaming on OSX was a joke and on Linux even more so. Today, anyone releasing for OSX and not for Linux is throwing away a lot of money. If Windows 8 does as badly as some of us expect, that will do nothing but further accelerate Linux' ascension towards being a commonly recognized gaming platform. Ditto if Valve produces a Linux-based Steam console in the next year or two.