It’s no secret that Valve aren’t exactly thrilled with Windows 8. Gabe Newell has been very vocal in his dislike of the new direction that Microsoft are taking with their perennial operating system. The tablet-inspired touches coming to Windows 8 include a built in app store with the kind of strict, walled-garden approach to content that has been so profitable for Apple.
While you can argue all day about whether Mr Newell’s recent comments come from genuine concerns for the PC gaming industry or if he just doesn’t want anything competing with the dominant Steam platform, Valve’s response of investigating Linux as a potential alternative is certainly an interesting one.
Linux has always been a bit of a joke when it comes to serious gaming. While some well known indie titles (Braid, Limbo, World of Goo, etc) have made their way over to it and there is no shortage of free card and puzzle games, very few high profile triple-A games have been released on it. Id Software used to release Linux versions of their franchises, but this has stopped in recent years and I can’t think of any other major developers or publishers that have released anything for it.
The reason for this is pretty obvious – not many ‘normal’ people use it. Traditionally, Linux was the operating system of elite few. Outside of its extensive use in businesses and server rooms, it was championed only by extremely knowledgeable and tech-savvy users who didn’t mind the user unfriendliness and extreme complexity. Even knowing which one of the hundreds of different variants (called distributions, or distros) on the Linux kernel to choose was very difficult, as they all had their own specific purpose and way of functioning.
Luckily, things have started to improve a lot. There has been a big focus on making a distro of Linux that can be used without without the need for programming skills or knowledge of the command line. Foremost amongst these distros is Ubuntu. Ubuntu has been around for quite a while, but in the last few years it has come on leaps and bounds in terms of usability and simplicity. The latest version, Ubuntu 12.4 is arguably now a lot more attractive and intuitive that Windows itself, although it does still have its share of issues with stability and hardware compatibility.
It is on this distro that Valve have started to develop and test. By working with hardware vendors like ATI and Nvidia they have managed to achieve impressive OpenGL results that actually outperform Windows 7. Left4Dead 2 is their first port to Ubuntu, and if successful they should hopefully start moving their other beloved franchises over. They also plan on expanding support beyond Ubuntu and onto other flavours of Linux.
While things are certainly looking up for Linux as a viable gaming platform, there are still a lot of challenges ahead. Many Linux users are strong believers in the open-source philosophy and are not accustomed to paying for their software. Whether they will be willing to splash their cash on high-end games is still unknown. Hardware manufacturers like ATI and Nvidia will also need to commit more time and resources to keeping their graphics cards performing well under Linux, and many more developers and publishers will need to come on board in order to make Valve’s own work more just than an intriguing proof-of-concept.
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