[As a holiday bonus, we're featuring some offbeat articles from Gamasutra's sister sites that you might have missed - including GameSetWatch columnist Alistair Wallis chatting to the Linux Gaming Tome's Bob Zimbinski about the state of gaming for the free OS.]
With the release of Windows Vista, which has had some much-publicized issues (whether press-exaggerated or not) of late, we wondered whether it might be ushering in more of of a Linux renaissance.
That’s why we thought now might be a good time to have a chat with Bob Zimbinksi, who has run the Linux Gaming Tome for around nine years now.
“Answering your questions has made me realize just how removed from Linux gaming I am these days,” he smiles. “Don't mistake me for an authority on modern Linux gaming. I'm a guy with a Macbook Pro and an Xbox 360. Sorry!”
Err, so… maybe that says something about Linux gaming, eh? Not that Zimbinski doesn’t still have some interesting things to say about the history of the site, and where Linux gaming has been in the past, of course.
More importantly, he’s got an explanation as to why he’s moved away from Linux, and whether or not commercial gaming has a home on an operating system that thrives on a base of free software.
GSW: When did you first start using Linux, and what attracted you to it?
Bob Zimbinski: I started using Linux in the mid-90's, maybe 1994 or 1995. At the time, the notion of a Unix system on my desktop seemed pretty radical to me. I'd used Unix at work and school, and it was exciting to have free reign over an entire system, especially considering what a hands-on project administering a Linux system was in those days.
Upon getting my first Slackware system up and running, I resolved to use Linux exclusively for my computing environment.
GSW: What were your first experiences with Linux gaming?
BZ: I've always been a video game nerd, so it was important to me to see how much gaming I could do on this new system. I remember how exciting it was to get Doom running fullscreen - [graphics library] svgalib was a monster that I'm sure nobody misses today. I was also quite taken by Maelstrom, a Linux port of a slick Asteroids clone for the Mac.
GSW: What would you say your milestones for Linux gaming are? I assume Doom makes the list.
BZ: Doom, yes. That Linux could run such an - at the time - demanding piece of software was a validation of sorts. And Doom was the greatest game that humans had produced to that point, so that helped.
3Dfx released Linux drivers for their Voodoo 3D cards, allowing us to enjoy the goodness of hardware-accelerated OpenGL games like Quake, and virtually every game released after 1999. Also, the release of Loki Entertainment Software's first port, Civilization: Call To Power.
GSW: When did you first encounter the Linux Game Tome?
BZ: I don't remember my first actual encounter with the site. There was a project called the Linux Software Map which attempted to be a catalog of software for Linux. It had a games category, but I remember it was incomplete and sometimes out of date.
I suppose I found the Game Tome when I went looking for alternatives to the LSM. I liked that the Linux Game Tome was updated regularly, and that it included ratings and feedback from users.
GSW: At what point did you decide to step in and resume the updating of the
BZ: At some point, the regular Game Tome updates stopped, and I missed the resource. At the same time, I'd been looking around for an appropriate way to contribute to the Linux community, so it occurred to me that maybe I could help continue what the Game Tome had been doing.
I contacted Tessa, who ran the site, and she agreed to hand it off to me. I wrote a bunch of Perl scripts, imported her data, and launched the second version of the Linux Game Tome.
GSW: How much had Linux gaming grown by the time you took over, and how steady was its rate of growth to the time you brought other people in?
BZ: When I took over the site, I didn't have the sense that Linux gaming was growing at all. I don't think there really was such a thing as "Linux gaming" at that point. There was still very much a hobbyist feeling to the entire community at this time, pre-internet boom. The world really hadn't discovered the Internet yet, so "Linux gaming", like most everything else on the net, was still a bunch of nerds sharing their stuff.
I've just had a look at the database. Here's the number of games added each year since I took over:
GSW: Did you ever feel like the project was overwhelming?
BZ: I've felt overwhelmed when other stuff in my life has kept me from keeping up the site, and there's nobody else around to help. There was a period where I think the site went completely unmanned for a number of months in the early 2000s. Since then, a number of people have stepped up to help.
GSW: At what point did you feel like the scene was really coming into its
own? Do you feel like the site had a part in that?
BZ: I think it's important to recognize that there are really two Linux gaming "scenes": a free software one and a commercial software one. The free software scene is a part of the larger open source movement, and it's been active and self-sustaining as long as Linux has been around.
Commercial games for Linux effectively got their start when Loki Entertainment Software started porting commercial Windows games. Maybe that's when the commercial gaming scene came into its own. Since Loki, Linux Game Publishing has continued to produce native ports for Linux, as have a handful of brave companies - id, Epic, Bioware.
GSW: What is your level of involvement with the site these days?
BZ: My current involvement is pretty minimal. I step in for the occasional technical issue, but daily maintenance of the site is in the extremely capable hands of Niels Weber, Pasi Kalinen, Ingo Ruhnke and Jacek Poplawski. Pasi has also been working heroically on some much-needed updates to the site code that I hope we can roll out soon.
GSW: What kinds of games are you playing these days?
BZ: I just – finally – finished Zelda on the Wii. Before that, Lost Odyssey, Mass Effect, and Blue Dragon on the 360.
GSW: Do you think [Windows emulator] WINE is still a necessity for gamers using Linux?
BZ: I don't think there's any way around some kind of Windows emulation layer if one wants to play modern commercial games on Linux. Heroes like Linux Game Publishing continue to produce native ports of a handful of games, but the vast majority of commercial PC games on the market are out of reach to Linux users until they run something like WINE or VMWare. I hate this but, it's true. Of course, there's an awful lot of free stuff out there to have fun with too.
GSW: Do you think commercial games are less likely to succeed on Linux?
BZ: If success equals lots of copies sold, then yes - I think commercial games are less likely to succeed on Linux simply because the market is probably tiny.
How many people run Linux on their desktop? How many of those want to play commercial games and will pay 50 bucks for the privilege of doing so?
GSW: Finally, what motivated your own move away from Linux, to Mac and Xbox 360?
BZ: Just time, I guess. After using Linux as my primary computing platform for nearly ten years, I got restless. MacOS X had arrived, and with its BSD base, it brought many of the technical things I found attractive about Linux, but wrapped in a delicious candy shell. And the laptops are dead sexy! So an iBook became my primary computer, then a Powerbook, and
now a MacBook Pro. I still rely on Linux for moistmaster - my file/web/mail server - but it's not on my desktop any more.
As for the 360, I'm a game nerd. I've always owned consoles. I've got a Wii and PS3 too, but of course the Wii only comes on when friends are over, and the PS3 just sits and cries quietly to itself.