Technology: the only way to be a wizard if Hogwarts won't have you.

Why I Think Games Aren't a Focus on Linux

Date/Time Permalink: 03/14/08 09:35:53 pm
Category: Linux Gaming

It is perhaps a sign of advancement of Linux as a platform that people are starting to seriously ask the question: "Where are the Linux gamers?" Just recently, I've seen Mad Penguin ask it, followed by this indie-game developer's blog. The question also got batted around on Slashdot.

Of course, we enter into the discussion with the assumption already established that there are fewer Linux users, and that game companies mostly take no notice of Linux except to burn it in effigy. Duh, we know. Even if you adjust for that, there's a lower percentage of Linux gamers. Onward:

First, my own experiences:

For one thing, I have the experience of having run both Linux and Windows extensively. Back in the pre-Linux days, it was a monthly family expenditure to go to the mall and buy the latest hot game title. Now, that sentence contains the seed of an epiphany: Every month, we'd get sick and tired of the games we currently had and want something new. Every game that we brought home would be played obsessively for about two weeks, then the interest would taper off.

After seven years living Windows-free, I related here that I was allowing a discarded Windows machine to live under my roof. It's running five feet away as I type. We still have a box of Windows games left over from several yard sales' worth of weeding out, so I loaded those up. I've also downloaded new freeware titles to run there.

And guess what? Nobody touches the machine for weeks at a time. Even the kids burned out on it after awhile. You know who plays on it the most? My wife. What would she gravitate back to Windows for? Warcraft, the Sims, Quake, Diablo? Nope, she plays... solitaire! Apparently, Windows solitaire will be the unbeatable epitome of desktop card games for all of time. Yes, I've loaded card games galore on her Linux machine, but they just aren't the same. That's OK, I'll happily hand Microsoft the solitaire crown. It's just too amusing that a four-person household considers solitaire to be the only thing Microsoft ever did right.

Anyway, we all have our own Linux computers. And those, too, are loaded with every kind of game we can find for it. Which is considerably more than it used to be a few years ago.

So, now, what do I think is the general explanation? Why isn't there more demand for Linux games?

For one thing, Linux users self-select a lot of the time for work-oriented activities, as opposed to playing. Hey, if you go work as a freelancer online, it's kind of like a real game where you keep score with checks in the mail! I have just as much fun building something nifty or drawing cool artwork as I do playing games. Add to that the developers and system admins who gravitate to Linux. When they play at all, they play Nethack. Not the fancy Falcon's Eye version, no, the text mode in the console.

For another thing, there is an explosion of free (as in beer) games. I'm not just talking about GPL'ed games (though some are worthy of consideration alongside commercial titles), but the legacy stuff that the industry has been cranking out for about three decades. Linux is up for consideration as the king of emulation platforms. We've got Wine, XMame, ZSNES, and DOSBox; basically every game ever released ever for any platform is playable on Linux, as long as it's mature (over about seven or so years old) - a few exceptions aside. When I recently went on a binge of indiscriminately downloading classic DOS games and reported on it here and here, I was having a blast. It didn't matter that the games were old - they were new to me. So that's another thing, is that there's a growing archive of perfectly good abandonware out there that's basically just as good to play as anything you can buy today anyway. We're talking play value here, not graphics.

One small factor in the lack of demand for Linux games might be emotional. I know if EA or Blizzard suddenly released games for the Linux platform (and that would only happen if they spiked the water cooler with LSD and forget to take their mean-capitalist pills that day), I'd be all, "You treated us like dirt for fifteen years and now you want us for a customer?" Perhaps game companies are aware that they have burned bridges with the open source community. I sure as anything hope they are.

But one bigger consideration might just be: There's more to life than games. We're all aging here. To take a wild guess, I'd say the average age of the Linux home user is higher than the norm. Certainly, people have an easier time adjusting to Linux if they knew something before the Microsoft boom. Those of us who grew up with games and are now raising kids, tend to take them in stride, and our kids absorb some of that attitude. As these digital generations age, they just tend to get burned out on *any* game, no matter how engrossing.

Did I hit it? How about the rest of you? Are you so sorely missing the gaming action on Linux that you'll actually spend money on it, or is it just not an issue?

A mock O'Reilly manual for Penguin Pete

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