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You can tell a lot about an OS from its games

July 1, 1999
Web posted at: 12:54 p.m. EDT (1654 GMT)

by Joe Barr


(IDG) -- I am sometimes (close friends say often) a bear of very little brain. It takes me forever to grok the significance of things. Games are a good example of this. The message has been beamed at me for a while. But I've been as deaf to it as a starship in deep space, blissfully unaware as it awaits the arrival of a signal from the home planet.

A few months ago, a friend in the hackysack (footbag, for you purists) circle at work observed, "You can tell a lot about a person from the way they play hackysack." I teased her about the remark as it went sailing right over my head.

It was only a couple of weeks later that I saw the following quote by Plato as a tagline on a mailing list: "You can learn more about a man in an hour of play than in a year of conversation." There was a single whirring of the gears of comprehension in my mind as I put the quote together with the words of my friend. But I wasn't there yet.

Then, last week, just after I was killed by a floating Icarus not far from the entrance to the Thaelite mines, it came to me: dweebs do not live by kernel hacking alone. As I shut down Quake II and returned to my KDE desktop, I began to ponder this revelation. Games are important -- important for life, important for computing, and important for Linux. And there are a lot of reasons for this.

At work, hackysack is both a mild, nonstressful exercise and a mind balm. A couple of short sessions a day keeps the mind alert and the prevents the body from atrophying as a result of sitting in front of a computer hour after hour. If nothing else, it prevents me from getting a repetitive stress injury as my forehead goes thump, thump, thump against the monitor. After a few minutes of hackysack, those pesky memory leaks are a little less elusive, and a lot less frustrating. Debugging is easier, new code stacks up more solidly -- all because of a few minutes of play.

Susan (the friend quoted above) and the guy with the shadow lantern in the cave (that would be Plato) noted the relationship between people and play; I contend that we can also learn a lot about an operating system by the games being played on it.

There are not many applications that will test and stress a system as well as a high-octane, first-person shooter. Remember the days of the 486, when Intel was catching flak in the press because of yet another slip in the delivery date of its new Pentium chip? Remember how it arranged a prerelease demo for some of the doubting scribes in the press, just to prove that the Pentium was more than vapor?

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It's OK if you don't remember, because I do. Intel chose to demo its work-in-progress by running the first of the then radically new shareware games in the first-person shooter genre, a resource-chomping monster for the Intel platform called Wolfenstein 3D. The press was suitably awed by the performance.

It's still true today -- there's nothing like a game to stress a system to its limits with ultradetailed graphics, stereo sound effects, and the requirement for continuous, realtime response to player control. Throw multiplayer gaming over the Internet into the mix and it adds up to a lot of work for the CPU and its peripherals. That, of course, translates into a lot of work for the operating system as well.

Microsoft has had a heck of a time getting the developers of power-hungry games to quit writing for DOS and start writing for Windows. Gamers wanted better performance than was originally possible under Windows, and the game writers stuck with DOS. Some still do. But for the most part, the multibillion dollar gaming industry -- like almost everything else in the computer industry these days -- has become Windows-centric.

I suppose that's why it is that, in feedback to my articles about the migration of the desktop from Windows to Linux, the most popular reason for hesitation given has been a reluctance to give up games. Games are an important barometer of the popularity of Linux, or any other operating system.

I have good news and bad news about that. First, the bad: games aren't here -- yet. And to make matters worse, the drivers for most of the latest 3DFX videocards aren't here, yet, either. Most games written for Windows are never ported to Linux, and the few that are usually come to market later than their Microsoft Windows counterparts.

Now the good news: the situation appears to be changing. Games for the Linux platform are showing up in increasing numbers. The incredible rise in the popularity of Linux over the past year has caught the eye of game developers and publishers. I believe that Linux users will soon start to see the same type of competition in the gaming market that we are already seeing in the market for developer tools.

Take Civilization: Call To Power (CTP), for example. The Activison Web page for this hot new game cites PC Data, stating it was "the number one selling game in the U.S. and Canada for the month of April." Further, "Since its worldwide launch, Civ: CTP has also held number one sales positions in Australia, Germany, Sweden, and France." And it's now available for Linux, thanks to a port by Loki Entertainment Software.

Quake is another example. Quake II (from id Software) plays just fine on Linux (except for the fact that Icarus keeps killing me in the Thaelite mines). Quake is a gaming phenomenon all by itself. And the word is that Quake III will be released for Linux at the same time that it's released for Windows. As a matter of fact, there is alpha code of Quake III: Arena available for download now. Check it out at the Linux Games site.

Speaking of Linux Games, Dustin Reyes was kind enough to take a little time away from his work on that busy site to share some of his insights on the state of Linux gaming. As one of the cofounders of Linux Games, Dustin has been in the midst of it all as Linux and gaming have gained common ground over the past year.

Not long after getting involved with Linux in college, he got interested in Linux gaming. Dustin said, "This was around the time id Software released Quake II, and it wasn't long after the Windows retail release that the Linux port appeared. Getting Quake II to work under Linux was satisfying (although the Mesa drivers available at the time had a few palette problems), and this inspired me to hunt around for other games to run under this renegade OS." He added, "Being able to run games was very important to me personally, as I had been gaming on the PC since the old CGA DOS days."

I asked Dustin (who sometimes goes by the name Crusader) how the Linux Games site got started. "Linux Games began as a venture of Marvin Malkowski, head of the Telefragged gaming network," he replied. "Marv had been a longtime Linux supporter, and thus thought it was only natural to add a site dedicated to providing quality news about gaming under the Linux operating system to the network. I had known Marv for a few months via IRC, and expressed an interest in being on staff. Marv also recruited Al Koskelin, and in May of 1998 the three of us took Linux Games public. Looking back, it's almost hard to fathom how far gaming under Linux has come in just over a year -- it's almost an exact microcosm of the acceptance of Linux itself by mainstream computer users."

Among his favorite games on Linux, Dustin lists Doom, Quake, Quake World, Quake II, Civilization: Call to Power, and FreeCiv, a GPLd clone of Civilization.

Does Dustin think the relative scarcity of games on Linux is holding people back from making the jump from Windows? Well, no, not exactly. He says, "I think that what inspires people to make the switch to Linux, as both a server and a workstation OS, are its development philosophies, performance, and stability relative to other rival operating systems. However, once people do commit to Linux, one of the major complaints against the platform as a desktop OS is the lack of commercial-quality gaming software compared to the vast Windows library that expands every year."

I asked Dustin if he sees any change in the number and quality of games being ported to Linux over the past year. He answered, "I'll have to respond with an emphatic yes to this one. We've seen a company with the express purpose of porting commercial titles to the Linux platform be founded, secure over a half dozen high-quality contracts, and ship its first port -- all within 12 months. We've seen id [Software] recognize the emergence of the Linux gaming market by working on the Linux version of Quake III simultaneously with the Windows code base. We've seen developers of multiplayer titles (Dynamix's Starsiege: Tribes 2, Monolith's LithTech engine, Valve's Half-Life, and Xatrix's Kingpin, to name a few) realize that a Linux-dedicated server port is essential for gaining widespread acceptance among the Internet gaming community. We've seen independent developers enamored with Linux target their projects for our platform (Fire and Darkness, Hopkins FBI, and Parsec). The progress that has been made with the industry is astounding, and the momentum that is building hasn't reached its zenith yet. I could see the Linux gaming market overtaking Macintosh gaming within a few years ... a far cry from when we were worried if the developers and publishers had even heard of Linux!"

A far cry indeed. If you harbor any doubts about the active and growing gaming community for the Linux platform, visit the Linux Games Web site and track the frequency of gaming-related announcements and news items.

Scott Draeker, president of Loki Entertainment Software, has picked up on some of the same issues that I was hearing about in feedback from LinuxWorld readers. Scott asks, "Why do Linux users keep Windows around at all? More often than not, it's to play games."

Perhaps that insight is what led to the creation of Loki. Scott added, "What happens when there are plenty of great games for Linux? We're going to find out!" Loki proudly proclaims on its Web site that it is "dedicated to bringing best-selling computer games to Linux." Its first offering, Civilization: Call To Power, is now on the shelves at many retailers.

Does Scott agree that games are important to Linux? Obviously, he does. In his own words, "As a recovering Mac user, I spent years trying to explain to people what I liked about the Mac. The conversation always ended the same way: 'Yeah, but there aren't any good games.' Apple actually discouraged game development on the Mac for many years. Microsoft knew better, and even Apple has come around recently. With regard to Linux, I have yet to hear anyone argue that games aren't important."

Just as with all other types of applications, there has to be a surge of interest by game developers -- and by the developers of the tools that game developers use -- before we'll start seeing the gaming software market really boom on Linux. Visiting at least one site on the Web has convinced me that we are seeing the beginnings of those surges today.

The Linux Game Development Center (LGDC) is focused on these very topics, and it seems to be quite active. Want to participate in open source game development? Visit the LGDC site and learn about the Flight Gear flight simulator project. Need yet another choice of IDE for that game development? LGDC can point you to IDEntify version 0.4.9 as well. This GNU IDE supports development in C, C++, Java, Fortran, and Eiffel. It can also lead you, as it did me, to a fascinating interview by James Hills. Hills interviewed Dave Taylor, the man who did the port of Doom to Linux and got Linux into big-time gaming in the process.

I didn't speak to Dave Taylor, who now works at supersecret Transmeta along with at least one other widely known Linux luminary. But I did get a chance to exchange a few e-mails with the reporter who put that wonderful interview together, James Hills.

James led a panel on the subject of gaming on Linux a few weeks ago at a recent Linux expo. Among other things, he came away feeling that, although a lot of smart folks were interested in the topic (more than 50 people participated), they lacked a central focus on how best to further the cause. "Oftentimes, the discussion [devolved] into talking about the 'cool stuff' you could do, rather than the realistic stuff that would work," he said.

Is there a need for a games ombudsman in the Linux community? James has me thinking that there just might be. There are a lot of issues that need to be addressed, and they have importance to current and future Linux users alike -- whether they're into gaming or not.

James definitely believes that gaming is important to Linux. He says "I see gaming as the number one thing that is going to bring people to Linux and have them consider [using] it instead of Windows. As the community makes the modifications to the OS that are needed for gamers, you see increased benefit to the entire system -- improved graphic support, improved interface, more users demanding ease of use ... As more non-geeks switch to Linux, better office suites are being developed."

I'm way over my word budget, and I haven't even begun to discuss the hardware side of the gaming equation yet. Perhaps that will be the topic for a future column. But this much seems clear: games are important to Linux, and gaming on Linux isn't yet where it needs to be, although there has been tremendous improvement in the past year. James makes a really valid point about the benefits that accrue to all users as the direct result of improvements motivated by the need to improve the gaming experience. Intel's use of Wolfenstein 3D for its Pentium demo was no mistake.

I would like to hear from more readers on this topic. Are games an important part of your computing life? Will more games make Linux a better platform, or a more attractive platform for new users? What are your favorite games on Linux? What are your favorite games that aren't yet available on Linux? Drop me a line at

Competition keeps Linux lean
June 25, 1999
Torvalds talks: Where Linux is headed
June 21, 1999
Linux progress on the desktop eyed by OS founder
June 17, 1999
Upcoming Linux versions aim for Windows' ease of use
April 23, 1999
Game developers rally behind the AMD-K6
February 17, 1999

A whole new Civilization built on Linux
Making the play for Linux in the home
Loki reportedly to embrace Linux graphics system
Linux grows up
(The Industry Standard)
Open source development grows with Linux
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