Penguin playtime: Linux gets game

Is Linux gaming going mainstream? With the lowering of installation and development hurdles, game developers are ready to play

As a platform for the nontechnical gamer, Linux has previously seemed about as fun as being locked in an iron maiden. While there has been a slew of open-source games that are, more often than not, hacked versions of popular commercial games, you can count the total number of big-name titles on your fingers. And almost all of those are recent additions. For example, Quake III: Arena, Civilization: Call to Power, Railroad Tycoon II, Myth II: Soulblighter, and four others adorned with a penguin have hit retail shelves.

What could be worse than the lack of big-name titles? Games are hard to install on Linux. Installing a Windows game is as easy as double-clicking the setup icon; however, installing a Linux game, especially a 3-D game, frequently involves the equivalent of open-heart surgery on a PC's system software.

But that will change soon.

In early March, the graphics platform that forms the foundation of the graphics in Unix systems -- including Linux -- got an upgrade.

Called XFree86, the graphics foundation had included only the code necessary for 2-D applications. To play a 3-D game, you had to add specific software. In its latest incarnation, XFree86 4.0, fast 3-D becomes part of the package.

It doesn't stop there, either. On 8 March, Loki Interactive Entertainment, the largest publisher of Linux games, and multimedia-hardware maker Creative Technologies announced a collaboration on an open-audio specification known as OpenAL, which promises to let developers create sound drivers more easily and support 3-D audio in games.

Linux can already support 3-D graphics and sound, but these new initiatives should make such features standard on all Linux machines. Add to that an increasing interest in porting games to Linux, and the free operating system seems ready to become a major player in interactive entertainment.

Just as Microsoft's move from DirectX 5 to DirectX 6 made a world of difference to Windows developers, the move from Xfree86 Version 3 to Version 4, the addition of OpenAL and other developments in the fast-moving Linux world promise to lower the development bar for game companies, and that means more games for Linux.

Has the Linux bubble burst? And if it has, is that necessarily a bad thing, or simply a sign of maturity? Regardless of the rhetoric, Mary Jo Foley believes there is enough promise in the basic concept that software is best developed via a cooperative, rather than a competitive model. Go to AnchorDesk UK for the news comment.

What do you think? Tell the Mailroom. And read what others have said.

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