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Linux picking up its game

3-D gaming components of Linux to be done by summer, say graphics chip makers and game developers

A lack of good games can hurt any PC platform, and Linux is feeling the pain.

On Thursday, game developer Loki Entertainment Software and members of the open-source community outlined plans to make Linux a better gaming platform.

"Even our developers have trouble getting (games) going," said Scott Draeker, president of Loki, during a conference session at the LinuxWorld show here, emphasising the difficulty of setting up Linux platforms for gaming. "(The Linux situation) is reminiscent of the bad ol' days of DOS."

How bad, exactly? Ray Schwamberger, a Linux technician for Atipa Linux Solutions, spent two hours tweaking and configuring a dozen computers at his company's LinuxWorld booth so they could adequately run Quake 3 and demo Atipa's Linux PC.

The trouble is that while most graphics cards are supported by Linux in 2-D mode -- allowing the display of the graphical user interface -- users currently wanting to set up Linux systems for gaming have to piece together the proper drivers for a 3-D infrastructure, known as OpenGL.

For many 3-D graphics cards in the consumer market, OpenGL support is spotty. And in many cases, even with proper support, the current graphics platform for Linux is inefficient when it comes to 3-D, causing OpenGL to run slow at best.

That's set to change later this year, said Draeker, at least on the graphics side.

By early summer the open-source community plans to have finished both Version 2.4 of the Linux kernel and Version 4.0 of the Linux graphics system, known as Xfree86, adding better support for 3-D graphics hardware as well as two new technologies -- direct-rendering infrastructure (DRI) and hardware-accelerated OpenGL.

DRI will let games and other applications directly use the graphics hardware. Currently applications using OpenGL send 3-D commands through the X-Windows interface -- the Linux equivalent of Microsoft Corp.'s Windows programming interface -- significantly slowing performance. DRI will remove those bottlenecks in the system.

"DRI allows games and other applications direct access to the graphics cards in a secure way," said Daryll Strauss, evangelist for Precision Insight, the company behind much of the work to create OpenGL drivers for current mainstream graphics cards.

Also, by adding hardware-accelerated OpenGL as a basic feature of X-Windows, Xfree86 4.0 will ensure future Linux distributions from major vendors -- such as Red Hat, Corel, and Suse -- will automatically create game-ready Linux PCs.

Currently support for OpenGL is usually under an open-source solution know as Mesa 3D, created by Brian Paul in 1995. Unfortunately, Mesa doesn't support hardware acceleration, meaning that all the power of graphics cards, for the most part, go unused. Depending on the PC's graphics card, Loki's ports of games also use Mesa 3D or the Utah GLX interface, which implements a version of OpenGL that can use hardware acceleration.

However, not everyone intends to march lockstep with the open-source community.

While Michael Hara, vice president of corporate communications for Nvidia, believes the company will eventually support the DRI-OpenGL model, the company announced a different solution at LinuxWorld.

Rather than a partial "hacked" OpenGL driver, Nvidia was showing off a fully compliant driver in conjunction with Linux computer maker VA Linux and high-end graphics maker SGI, Hara said. Because SGI owns the intellectual property associated with OpenGL, open-source drivers are essentially clones and not fully complete, he said.

"It is far easier for us to develop and support OpenGL drivers internally than to let others (such as the open-source community) work on them," said Hara, who added that Nvidia is currently struggling with how much information it should make known to the public. "For some companies, open source just does not make sense," he added, quoting from Linux-creator Linus Torvalds' Wednesday keynote.

Hara stressed that the Nvidia product will be able to do everything the open-source solution can do and, on Nvidia graphics chips at least, work better.

Loki, Nvidia and the open-source community all have the same goal, however: make Linux gaming a viable industry.

For hardware makers, the benefits are obvious, said Loki's Draeker. "Games drive hardware upgrades," he said. "Games break new ground."

Draeker said he expects his company to release 16 games this year, up from eight in 1999. Each game is a port to Linux from Windows. Next year, Draker hopes to release at least 40 titles.

If the various groups can bring everything together, Linux as a gaming platform can be as good or better than Windows, said David Johnson, associate engineer for graphics chip and board maker ATI Technologies.

Benchmarks based on Quake 3 time demos showed an ATI-Linux platform within a few percentage points of a Windows system running an ATI's graphics card. As the drivers evolve, that should only get better. "Windows is actually declining as a gaming platform," said Draeker. "It's losing ground to console games. People want to be able to put in a disk and play the game. That can't be done on Windows."

And that's what developers here at LinuxWorld want Linux to be.

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