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Valve's Linux push: What do game developers think? Exclusive

Valve's Linux push: What do game developers think?
September 26, 2013 | By Mike Rose

September 26, 2013 | By Mike Rose
More: Console/PC, Indie, Business/Marketing, Exclusive

Valve says it believes Linux is the future of PC games and this week, the PC game behemoth backed up that rhetoric.

This week has seen the behemoth PC gaming company reveal its own Linux-based Steam operating system, and plans for a line of living room "Steam Machines" to house it.

It's not exactly Valve's first brush with Linux either. The Linux client for Steam was launched earlier this year, while Valve founder Gabe Newell said recently that he believes Linux is the key to PC game success.

But how do developers feel about Valve's current focus on Linux as the future of PC games? One studio that was part of the big SteamOS reveal on Monday was Paradox Interactive, best known for its hardcore strategy games.

Paradox has been supporting Linux with numerous of its games for a while now, and Paradox CEO Fredrik Wester is excited to see where Valve's Linux push takes PC gaming in the living room.

"I think it offers a whole range of new opportunities and a much needed independent competitior to the big console and gaming platform makers," he tells me. "In the end I think the gamers will be the winners, because ultimately, the hardware best suited for the gamer is the one that will have most success."

Paradox has found porting games from Mac to Linux to be not a big deal at all, and notes that there are now a wide range of studios who can help with porting jobs if a development finds this to be a larger technical obstacle.

steamos.jpgSo why aren't more people using Linux then? What will it take for more gamers to see Linux as a more viable and appealing platform for playing games? Can Valve push the platform forward?

"I don't see this as an OS problem, and Valve has a lot of head start compared to the next-gen consoles," answers Wester. "First of all there are 200 games on Steam that are Linux native already, and there is also the opportunity to stream games directly from Windows to your SteamOS machine which gives you the full Steam library to buy from."

At the end of the day, it's all going to come down to what each machine has to offer in terms of content, and how easy the machine is to use compared to its competitors, reckons the Paradox exec.

"In this case I think Valve is well suited to bring a great appeal to Linux gaming as a platform and a serious competitor in the market," he adds. "If customers buy into this concept, developers will make the games. We started porting some of our games to Linux a year ago, and we will expand this effort going forward."

"It's probably best to think of it as a cross between console and PC development."

Ryan Gordon is well-known as the Linux guy. He supplies many of the Linux ports of Humble Bundle games, he's the heart of the Linux build of Epic's Unreal Engine, and he even put together the Linux port of Google Earth.

"It's probably best to think of it as a cross between console and PC development," he says of Linux development. "Some of it is special-case knowledge, the way one might know the details of the PS3 SPU, but all of it is much more open: you work on any old computer you like, you download the tools for free, and all the information -- documentation, technique, conversation and debate -- are all one Google search away."

Gordon believes that the big Linux push isn't on the way -- it's already here. Humble Bundle, Unity, Valve... all these big names are putting a big focus on Linux as a gaming platform, and it appears to be paying off.

For Zach Barth, the developer behind games like SpaceChem and Ironclad Tactics, Linux isn't so much about the sales figures right now -- the goodwill he receives from making Linux ports makes it all worthwhile for him.

"We build our games with OpenGL and C#, so porting to Linux only consists of a few days of figuring how to package the damn thing up," he notes. "For some developers it's a much larger technical challenge than it is for us, which I imagine makes it a difficult choice considering the smaller customer base than Windows or Mac."

Although he has no idea where Valve's Linux push is going to drive the PC game industry, he expects great things. "I think it's safe to say that, generally speaking, developers go where the money is," he adds. "If Valve finds a way to get game-purchasing customers on Linux, developers will be there in a heartbeat."

Kinks in the system

Not everyone is 100 percent sold on a Linux PC gaming future. id Software co-founder and Oculus Rift CTO John Carmack recently said that he doesn't think "that a good business case can be made for officially supporting Linux for mainstream games today."

Sauropod Studio is finding teething troubles with Linux, although the company is still excited to see what can be done with Linux now that Valve is very much onboard. Sauropod is best known for Castle Story, the highly successful Kickstarter campaign that pulled in $700,000 -- nearly nine times as much as its original funding goal.

Castle Story is being built in the Unity Engine, and while Linux support was not available when Sauropod started development (it was added late 2012 with the launch of Unity 4.0), Sauropod has been looking to include a Linux build of its game since that point -- with varying results.

machines_livingroom.jpg"It's true that we have a Linux version out there, but it is outdated," admits Sauropod's Thierry Begin. "We couldn't even push out the latest build because sadly the sound engine Wwise isn't compatible with Linux yet, so we have to redo all the sound work twice with Fmod."

This has affected both the game's development timeframe and the quality of the game itself, he tells me, and this has been a massive source of frustration for the team.

"Unity3D did a great job offering all the options for the developers and I only wish that other company will eventually do the same," he adds. "Steam as a distribution platform seem to understand that there is a market there and I do too."

Begin notes that video games are finally becoming more and more open for Linux players, thanks to Valve, Humble Bundle et al.

"We don't know how many Linux gamers have played our game yet, but it doesn't really matter to us," he says. "Gamers shouldn't be punished because they use a different OS from others - it simply makes no sense. That's why we try to support all platforms the best we can."

Lift off

Not every Unity developer is having such issues with Linux support. Kerbal Space Program team Squad has found that Unity for Linux has worked out great -- although the studio's Bob Holtzman notes that it pays to know which platforms you want to support from the get-go.

"[Linux support] wasn't something we needed to hire an external team to do for us," he says. "It's not a lot of work but on a small team like ours, you have to decide which platforms you’re going to support and do it. For us, both Mac and Linux were important options because we wanted to show our support for gamers on those platforms."

It's almost like a chicken-and-egg situation with both Mac and Linux, he notes -- "People say, 'well, there are no games on those platforms,' but we know gamers have Macs and use Linux, so we decided it was worth it for us to support the platforms as developers and publishers."

Kerbal Space Program's lead developer Felipe Falanghe agrees, adding, "It's a vicious circle that needs to be broken."

"There aren't many games on Linux now because there aren't many players, and the same goes for the other way around," he continues. "This might change now with Steam on Linux, as it gives a lot of developers a way in. Even if it's not a huge community right now, this is how it starts. And speaking for ourselves at least, it's already been worth it just seeing how much Linux users appreciated having KSP available there for them."

When it comes to Linux porting, Falanghe says that the situation is going to be different for every studio, especially when it comes to the tools you're using.

"For us, it was relatively simple, being based in Unity," he explains. "We just had to set up our build infrastructure to include a third platform really, and iron out a few minor details. Once it was all set up though, it works automatically as part of the build process."

"This is us though, and we completely rely on Unity doing the cross-platform work for us. For other studios using different tools, there is probably a host of other challenges to face."

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