Tom Hooper aka Atomp
Despite having quite the list of games that I want to play and review, this week has been a bit of a bust on that front. I made it perhaps halfway through the Arma3 singleplayer campaign and that’s about the sum of the gameplay that I’ve managed. I have however been toying around with some of my Linux machines a little more than usual recently which got me thinking about how different the operating system ecosystem of gaming is now when compared to even a couple of years ago. Perhaps 5 years ago Windows was unarguably the unmatched leading platform for PC gaming; with the golden age of Windows 7 in full swing, the legacy opportunities afforded by continued Windows XP support and the sour taste of Vista in the past, there is little doubt that Windows dominated in both numbers and sentiment. At this time Linux was beginning to gain more traction as a desktop OS as the likes of Canonical and the Ubuntu community brought about usability improvements and some of the more dire driver issues got smoothed out by courageous reverse-engineering and industry support. The gaming recognition of Linux at this time however was not fantastic, beyond the natively developed games there was very little and around this time I dual-booted with Windows for games and Linux for everything else. Mac is an interesting one, it’s had some level of compatibility for quite some time but there never seems to be much growth. Mac gaming at this time (and now) just seems to tick over with the occasional port that must attempt to work around whatever problems Apple has baked into OSX. The landscape nowadays is significantly different with big shifts in at least two of the three main platforms and dramatic changes in attitude. For this reason exactly I felt I’d have a go at writing about it and break down the changes and trend shifts. I will be missing out the topic of mobile gaming platforms in this particular article as there’s not much competition; Android or bust. I may still write about mobile gaming in more detail at a later date though.
I’ll begin by discussing Windows, as it still remains the dominant platform for gaming. First let’s examine exactly why it remains the dominantly platform numerically; OEMs. The statistics on the number of Windows user are warped in exactly the same way that the statistics on graphics card usage are warped towards the highly unlikely candidate that is the Intel HD4000. For a large number of casual gamers Windows is there on the machine they bought and it seems to work so why bother with anything else? Microsoft still have a sickeningly monopolistic stranglehold over pre-loaded operating systems and the odds are that if you’re buying new pre-built hardware you will end up paying the Windows Tax whether you want to or not. On the other hand there is the dominance of Windows on an attitude level and this is down to something different but related. There are those who probably have the knowledge and ability to try something different but they won’t because they either don’t see the need or are helplessly lost to Microsoft fanboi-ism. To some degree I see where they are coming from on this front, I still use Windows and I will likely continue to run it alongside Linux for the foreseeable future, but I’m not all that happy about doing so. It is worth mentioning one key point here; Windows 8. Never before have I seen a more confused operating system as I have in Windows 8, and I dabbled in some of the early Unity experiments by Canonical. Microsoft are attempting to have their cake and eat it too, Windows 8 is just a confused mess that can only be fixed by subduing half of the GUI with third-party applications. Just one example is the strange division of the system settings between the traditional control panel and TIFKAM (The Interface Formerly Known As Metro; I refuse to refer to it as the comically misnamed “Modern UI”). I’m not opposed to new GUI innovation and changes, hell I use Gnome3 as my daily driver desktop environment but I am opposed to broken half-&-half attempts to satisfy two markets with one mess. The interface is not the only problem that exists in Windows 8 as the introduction of it’s own store has caused worried responses from the likes of Valve, it is however a significant part of the problem.
The fact remains that despite the desperate cries of fanbois and apologists Microsoft don’t give a damn about PC gaming, they will continue on their current path of satisfying their business and casual consumers regardless of any inconvenience they might cause to the relatively tiny PC gaming consumer base. In fact since Microsoft ventured into the console market with the XBox they have had every reason to stamp out PC gaming in order to push gamers onto the higher profit margin and more controlled console ecosystem. Whilst for the XBox this never appeared to be much of an issue, the XBox 360 era showed a trend towards such behaviour and with the XBox One that trend seems only to be accelerating. Windows is most certainly the de facto gaming operating system at the moment but it is controlled by a parent company that is monopolistic at the best of times and down right unpleasant for the rest. Personally I still can’t abandon Windows entirely, there are compatibility issues and such that it’s just useful to have it around for, however for gaming it’s becoming less and less necessary.
This therefore leads us nicely onto Linux based operating systems and more specifically Debian and its derivatives, which for the sake of simplicity will be referred to here as Linux. The Linux desktop(s) has been perfectly functional for a long time, in fact I have used it as a study platform for a long time and it is the main driver on every device I own bar my gaming desktop which it shares with a Windows 8 install. Since the usability improvements that were to an arguable degree triggered by Canonical and Ubuntu this desktop experience has only improved, when coupled with improved manufacturer support for drivers it reached the point where anyone with even a slight technical ability can use Linux quite adequately. I’m not about to wax lyrical about how anyone can now use Linux without issue, as that is plain untrue for every operating system short of the horribly locked-down and restricted iOS, which exchanges user freedom for toddler level usability. Linux however is certainly at a point where anyone with a working ability to use and fix Windows is likely able to use Linux and fix any niggling problems that might occur. In fact for those willing to learn, Linux has far more potential to be a much stronger gaming operating system than Windows ever could. Whilst getting some basic functionality out of Windows requires adding multiple layers of third-party applications, Linux integrates almost everything and anything you could need in repositories of pre-compiled software and can be as light or heavy as the user wants.
These factors have recently begun to really hit home with a revolution that was in no small part sparked by the Humble Bundle insistence on Linux compatibility and has culminated in a very strong push by Valve to bring Linux into the gaming fold. I will discuss Valve shortly however I would first like to examine just how important the Humble Bundles actually were: They represented the first real push towards commercially viable, high visibility Linux gaming and worked to establish certain game development norms, porting procedures and a solid library of native Linux titles. The timing of this movement could not have been better as it coincided with one of the most successful and completely cross-platform indie games of all time; Minecraft along with the rise of relatively platform agnostic game engines such as Unity. I’d say that it was these elements combined and pushed by the continued success of Humble Bundles that established a norm among indie developers towards Linux native builds of games. Then Valve came into the fold and began releasing Linux native versions of Steam and Source games, then announcing the Linux based SteamOS and Steam Machine concept. With Valve on board the likes of Nvidia have strengthened their support of the platform and ever larger game developers are releasing or planning on releasing Linux native ports of their titles. Whilst Linux gaming numbers have not grown massively, it is becoming increasingly evident that Valve will not let this rest and developers are seeing this and getting on board. The history of Steam shows a similar early-adopter trend and if the success of that particular platform is anything to go by then it’s certainly worth placing bets on Linux gaming growth. Maybe it’s time to try out a Linux live-disk, Virtual Machine or even dual-boot.
I feel that it’s quite necessary to discuss Mac gaming to some extent when talking about the whole cross-platform gaming issue however I have to preface anything I say on Mac gaming with the disclaimer that I’ve never owned a Mac (or anything Apple for that matter), I never plan on owning a Mac and the very brief experience I had with OSX was an unpleasant and unintuitive experience. Mac gaming has been an oddball really, Steam added compatibility for Mac games some time before they looked into Linux support and it never really made much of an impact. There is a library of Mac compatible games but it has never shown any degree of rapid growth or a popular shift like that of Linux. In fact from what I’ve heard the process of porting to OSX is something of a pain thanks to Apple’s lack of interest in supporting gaming on the platform. Out of date OpenGL packages and the like force developers into a corner as they are unable to port over the full graphical potential, on top of other issues caused by OSX development. It would be logical to imagine that OSX ports would increase as Linux ports do due to their shared Unix foundation however whilst Linux based operating systems can easily run whatever package versions they like, OSX will always be limited by Apple, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Linux ports began to outperform their OSX counterparts. Really OSX suffers the same problem as Windows, although for slightly different reasons. In Windows case Microsoft has good cause to push gamers onto a closed system by strangling PC, however in OSX’s case it’s more down to Apple’s complete indifference to the platform being used for gaming. Whilst Windows potentially has a future as a closed gaming platform and Linux has potential as an open gaming platform, OSX shows little potential as either, unless Apple decides to change its tune and if the cluster**** that is the App Store is anything to go by perhaps it’s best if they didn’t. In short if you really want to play games, don’t bother with a Mac.
So really the future of gaming on the PC/Mac (same difference nowadays, RIP PowerPC) looks to be a far more interesting place than it has been in the last decade. Between the efforts of Microsoft and Valve the iron grip that Windows has had over PC gaming for years is beginning to slip and through the indifference of Apple OSX is likely to continue along its current trend. Linux on the other hand, a platform ideally suited to being an open gaming platform is progressing in leaps and bounds with support from Valve leading to support from developers that would have been unthinkable just a couple of years ago: Valve with HL2, Portal and Counter Strike, Paradox Development studios with their Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis flagships, Kalypso with Tropico 5, 4K with XCom: Enemy Unknown, Facepunch Studios with Garry’s Mod and Rust, SEGA with Football Manager, SCS Software with Euro Truck Sim 2… are just those that I can pull off the top of my head and many of them are among the most influential titles and developers around at the moment. There is little doubt that whilst Windows is still dominant, Linux-based gaming is a force to be reckoned with and is already making significant waves thanks to the likes of Valve, Humble and those early adopter indies that form the backbone of the Linux back catalogue. To be fair if you want to stick with Windows then you’re likely to be perfectly fine for the time being however this is no longer your only option and choice is good, especially when the alternative is an open and free platform with the support of one of the most influential companies in gaming.
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