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 seems 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.

'We are really in this to build the market. We want to see Linux be the gaming platform of choice.'|Scott Draeker, Loki Interactive Entertainment It doesn't stop there, either. On March 8, 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.

Games have always existed for Linux.

For as long as Linux has been around, one programmer or another has tested his mettle by programming a game for X Windows.

Asteroids (based on the arcade game of the same name), Smiletris (a Tetris clone) and the addictive Mahjongg (a version of Shanghai) are usually installed by the latest Linux distributions.

One of the most ambitious Linux games, FreeCiv, is the result of a team effort aimed at cloning the hit game Civilization. Started in 1995, FreeCiv has evolved into a multiplatform game with more than 100 developers contributing to all aspects of the game. In addition, Linux's focus on connectivity has made multiplayer network play a high priority for developers. In fact, FreeCiv had a multiplayer Internet mode months before Hasbro Interactive included multiplayer capabilities in its own product.

By 1996, a few other major games made their mark as well. Doom, originally published in late 1993, ran through the use of extensions created by students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that allowed direct drawing to the screen, bypassing the X-Windows slow lane. The slow lane is the OS software layer that draws data to the screen; bypassing this mode speeds things up considerably. Other games bypassed the bottleneck by drawing directly to the SVGA screen.

The game that did the most to convince developers and users to take Linux seriously as a game platform was another Id Software title, Quake, released in 1996.

By 1997, Id Software's John Carmack pushed to open-source Quake, and programmer Dave Kirsh at Id Software brought the game to Linux.

Today, companies use Quake III to show off the power of their latest hardware and Linux distribution. Carmack, the programmer behind the Quake games, has been a staunch supporter of Linux gaming. (By extension, the company he co-founded, Id Software, has been a supporter as well.) Carmack has been active since his initial move to release the Quake source code under the GNU General Public License, and now, with his port of Quake III: Arena to Linux.

Massive development efforts are not always needed to play the latest Windows games, either. Thanks to WINE, a Windows emulator, games such as Fallout, Heroes of Might and Magic III, and Myth are all playable under Linux. The list of Windows games that run under WINE continues to grow. Unfortunately, many of those games will only run on a handful of video cards.

If anything proved that Linux could produce snappy graphics, it was Titanic.

No, not Titanic ship -- "Titanic" the movie.

When "Titanic" opened on Dec. 19, 1997, Linux developers rejoiced. Not because the movie proved how bad an actor Leonardo Di Caprio was but because the Titanic owed its existence to the Linux operating system -- specifically, the 105 Linux servers that crunched numbers in the backroom of the offices of special-effects company Digital Domain.

Daryll Strauss, who managed the project and whose previous projects include "Apollo 13," "The Fifth Element," "Dante's Peak" and "What Dreams May Come," says, "We had one of the top 500 supercomputers in the world."

At the time, the barrel-chested, long-haired Strauss chose Linux for much the same reason that other companies have been moving their many Internet servers over to the operating system: It's free. Since most server OSes cost many hundreds -- if not thousands -- of dollars, the decision to use Linux can save a company millions.

Strauss knew that Linux could handle heavy graphics as well, even when installed on regular PC hardware. While others in the elite ranks of the graphics-intensive movie industry turned up their noses at the thought that a PC could ever amount to much, Strauss, a Unix programmer at the time, watched with interest as 3dfx Interactive released its Voodoo graphics card in 1995.

'Movies are cool and a lot of fun, but it's incredibly high-stress. I looked at what was going on in Linux, and I could see that the market was going to develop.'| Daryll Strauss In Strauss' mind, something clicked.

"I looked at the capabilities of the Voodoo chip in 1996 and thought, this has the possibility to be a real machine," laughed the programmer. That year he convinced 3dfx to let him port Glide to Linux. It took him more than a year to do it in his spare time, but by the time "Titanic" was sinking in the cinemas Glide and the Mesa implementation of the OpenGL API had delivered 3-D to PCs. (Strauss's other contribution to graphics involved work on Barbie Fashion Designer -- something he wishes he could forget.)

When he finished "Titanic," Strauss felt ready for a change. In 1998, after six years in the special-effects business, he retired. "Movies are cool and a lot of fun," he said, "but it's incredibly high-stress. I looked at what was going on in Linux, and I could see that the market was going to develop."

With hardly a look back, the programmer jumped into full-time graphics development on Linux, joining the company that had spearheaded development on the XFree86 graphics system for Linux, Precision Insight.

Strauss wasn't the only one who looked at the evolving Linux market in 1997 and saw the potential. Scott Draeker, a Linux aficionado and game enthusiast, saw an infant gaming industry that needed guidance.

Three years ago Draeker noticed waves of requests aimed at game companies asking them to port their latest Windows titles to Linux. Routinely, thousands of e-mails would fill gaming bulletin boards, begging, "Please port this game!"

Yet, Draeker knew the industry. "Some of my clients were game companies, and I knew they would never go for it," he said. "But I also knew what would sell." In a leap of faith, he decided to quit his job and start pitching to well-established publishers the idea of licensing the right to port major titles to Linux. In 1998 he landed firmly in the Linux market by inking a deal with Activision for Civilization: Call to Power.

What makes Draeker's leap of faith even more impressive is that he is not a game developer infatuated with Linux. The sandy-blond thirtysomething president of Loki Interactive Entertainment -- perhaps the best-known Linux games company -- is a lawyer. Such good faith may cause Linux gamers to look speculatively at the next Loki title, but keep one thing in mind: Draeker loves games, he loves Linux, and he has promised to bring the two together.

This was no easy task. At first all Draeker could do was sell gaming companies on the free operating system. But Draeker had seen two things that kept his faith alive: "First, I ran into the KDE project and saw how intuitive it had become," he said. "Second, I saw a copy of Red Hat on the shelf in a store."

With the meteoric rise of Linux hype in the last 12 months, Linux gaming has gone from gauche to golden. Now Draeker finds that companies are interested in delivering their titles to the Linux market, and they are calling him.

The situation for gamers unfamiliar with Linux is still somewhat grim, yet developers' lives have gotten a bit easier thanks to the porting work of Loki programmer Sam Lantinga.

In 1997 the programmer wanted to make his foray into game development by creating a title from the ground up, and he decided on a swashbuckling role-playing game called Pirates Ho!. Lantinga looked at the available tools for creating games for Linux, and he was dismayed -- few tools existed for making games easily portable.

Since most mainstream game developers only consider porting to Linux -- if they consider the operating system at all -- Lantinga found that an easily portable graphics language was needed. He and others created the Simple DirectMedia Layer library. Any game written using the library can be quickly ported (in weeks or months) to another platform by knowledgeable programmers.

That has paved the way for a great number of Loki titles. In 1999 the company published eight games for the Linux platform, most of which it ported itself. The games represent most of the major genres: Civilization: Call to Power; Myth II: Soulblighter; Railroad Tycoon II; Eric's Ultimate Solitaire; Heretic II; Heroes of Might and Magic 3; Quake III: Arena; and Heavy Gear 2.

According to Loki's Draeker, each game took 12 to 18 months to port to Linux. With its work on easing porting problems, Loki expects to have few difficulties meeting its goal of releasing 16 more games this year.

Still, getting those games out the door may be a breeze compared with easing gamers' installation woes.

Fortunately, Loki has created an installer (and released it to the open-source community) to allow easier game installation. However, 3-D setup continues to be a labor of love, and sound support can be muted by something as simple as a plug-and-play sound card.

Even the pros have problems.

In February, a double bank of Linux stations at the LinuxWorld Expo New York ran Quake III: Arena without a hitch, but the setup tortured Ray Schwamberger, a technician for distributor Atipa Linux Solutions. Schwamberger spent hours configuring and optimizing an Athlon system for 3-D, then turned around and performed the same operation on 15 identical machines.

Even gifted programming guru John Carmack has been stymied by Linux's difficulties. In an exchange with Bernd Kreimeier of Loki on the Utah GLX mailing list, Carmack wrote, "To get AGP running, I had to get the latest kernel source, get the newagp module, patch the kernel, reconfigure the kernel, rebuild the kernel, rebuild the modules, reconfigure lilo, reboot, and insmod the device... I couldn't imagine a pure consumer user making it through all that."

In addition to the lack of games, Scott Draeker sees such difficulties as the biggest problem challenging efforts to turn Linux into a great gaming OS. "Even our developers have trouble getting [games] going," he admitted during a session on Linux gaming at the conference. "[The Linux situation] is reminiscent of the bad ol' days of DOS."

Linux game enthusiasts intent on playing one of the current crop of 3-D games have to set up support for their graphics cards under OpenGL. Such a process is hardly a trivial matter, and it involves recompiling the XFree86 software using a 3-D driver, the Mesa 3-D library, Utah GLX and possibily Glide, depending on the card.

The menagerie of digital drivers didn't stop Quake III from appearing at every third booth at LinuxWorld.

Graphics-chip maker Nvidia (nvda) had the game running to show off its beta OpenGL drivers. Despite the company's historically spotty support for the Linux platform, due to its decision to keep the architecture closed to protect its trade secrets, Nvidia has been working with OpenGL creator SGI to write a set of tight, high-performance drivers that work across all its platforms.

"By working with the people who created OpenGL, our drivers will be better than the other cards out in the market," said Jim Black, a product manager at Nvidia. Making such a hot commodity is no easy task; Nvidia has delayed releasing its newest beta drivers for more than a month.

Graphics installation is not the only thorn in Linux gamers' sides. Sound-card support is frequently problematic as well. For users with SoundBlaster cards of one sort or another, support is relatively hitch-free and easy. However, problems can, and do, crop up. Notably, the SoundBlaster Live!'s advanced features are dead weight; none of the acceleration features is really used by any game.

And if you use an alternative sound card -- for instance, Aureal's Vortex chips -- forget it. Although Aureal provided a beta sound driver for 2-D audio (which installs easily and works well enough to play MP3s), the driver does not work with Advance Linux Sound Architecture or the Open Sound System used by most games. Even worse, the company has filed for bankruptcy, and the driver seems to have disappeared from its site. At this point the company's Linux plans are uncertain at best.

As though the playing field weren't cluttered and confusing enough, a new applicant for the job of multimedia programming language has emerged. With support from multimedia powerhouses such as 3dfx (tdfx), 3Dlabs, ATI (atytf), Compaq (cpq), Discreet, Evans & Sutherland, IBM (ibm), Intel (intc), S3 (siii), and SGI (sgi), the OpenML specification offers a single application programming interface (API) for a wide variety of audio, video and graphics devices.

While details are scarce, the new programming interface -- announced in early April -- promises to give multimedia authors a more creative hand in developing multimedia content. How much this goal conflicts with the emerging standards of the Linux gaming market remains to be seen.

Yet, for all the confusion, the potential is there. Most audio and controller drivers are included in the major distributions of Linux, which makes the majority of installations a snap. Moreover, knowing how to set up 3-D may become unnecessary this summer when Precision Insight's Strauss believes the major distributions will begin to include a stable version of Xfree86 4.

'The Linux market is not yet huge, but it is too large to have the games done in an amateur way.'|Mathieu Pinard, Tribsoft Once Linux is up and running, however, the gaming experience is as good, if not better, than Windows, say supporters. (Getting Linux up and running with OpenGL and 3-D audio is beyond the scope of this article. See The Gamer's Guide to Installing Linux for more information.)

According to graphics-chip maker Nvidia, the latest beta driver for Linux can outperform its Windows counterpart, averaging 5 frames per second more in Quake III time demos under OpenGL. Rival 3dfx claims to outperform Windows with its Linux-based Glide drivers, while OpenGL is a tad slower.

If the arrival of XFree86 4 doesn't mean instant 3-D, at least getting the features on a PC will become a lot simpler. "It's a lot cleaner installation," said Joseph Kain, a 22-year-old software programmer at 3dfx. "OpenGL is now built into the XFree system. Everything will come preinstalled."

In effect, in terms of a simple installation and an easy update, Linux will be, well, like Windows. "This brings Linux close to the Windows standard of driver delivery," said Kain unabashedly.

Kain is one of five engineers working -- to one degree or another -- on Linux drivers for 3dfx. The company will continue to rely on Precision Insights to develop its Linux drivers -- as will ATI, Matrox and Intel -- but it has not announced what its plans are following the release of Linux drivers for the Voodoo5 chip set. The company could possibly start developing its own drivers in-house and deliver them simultaneously with the Windows drivers.

In terms of sound, Linux distributions have become much easier to use, so much so that they rival Windows. All major distributions have sound drivers and joystick controllers for the most-often-used hardware. Game developers have a choice of two major sound APIs: the Advanced Linux Sound Architecture and Open Sound System. Each is competing with the other to become the most accepted sound API for Linux.

Meanwhile, 3-D audio will get easier with OpenAL. Corel and SUSE have both joined the chorus of amens for OpenAL. Both companies have agreed to include the advanced sound programming interface in future distributions. OpenAL's co-creator, Loki, has already begun reaping the benefits of the new audio specification. The company has incorporated OpenAL's basic foundations to deliver 3-D audio for its Linux port of Heavy Gear 2.

With 3-D graphics and high-quality sound under its belt, the Linux community could be ready to take on Windows, claims 3dfx programmer Kain. He says, "It started with people who use Linux and didn't want to boot into a new system to play games. Now you can do everything you can do in Windows."

Anyone who doubts Linux's ability to live up to the hype will likely find proof in Loki's upcoming business plans. Games that the company has slated for 2000 include SimCity 3000, Sid Meier's Alpha Centuri, Soldier of Fortune, Descent 3 and up to 12 others. And next year Draeker plans to bring 30 to 40 games to the market.

However, Loki is no longer alone. Montreal-based Tribsoft has signed a deal to port Jagged Alliance 2 to Linux. While the company doesn't plan to publish the game itself, it does hope to announce at least seven more games this year, according to Mathieu Pinard, president of the five-person company.

"The Linux market is not yet huge," Pinard said. "But it is too large to have the games done in an amateur way." Luckily, after Red Hat's stock price hit the stratosphere last year, publishers began to open their doors to programmers intent on porting titles to Linux.

Another games startup, Zendragon Software, plans to release its role-playing game Alita: PsyWar in 2001. And Vicarious Visions is ramping up for a late-spring release of its sci-fi action/role-playing game, Terminus, which will simultaneously be available on Windows, Mac and the Linux/Unix platform.

However, some major hurdles prevent Linux gaming from becoming as prevalent as Windows gaming. As Microsoft makes its DirectX API more powerful, fewer developers are sticking with OpenGL, said TribSoft's Pinard. "That means more work for us."

Pinard sees another threat as well: The PC market, in general, is losing ground to console game systems, such as the Dreamcast and the PlayStation. "Even game companies are starting to think the Windows market is too small," he said. "If the Windows market is too small, then Linux is really too small."

Perhaps Pinard is just a pessimist. After all, he's a reformed OS/2 user and still bitter about IBM's betrayal. Yet Loki's Draeker believes the market needs to be kickstarted to avoid going the way of the Mac or, worse, OS/2. Until the market takes off, he knows that profits will continue to be elusive.

"Right now, we are really in this to build the market," Draeker said. "We want to see Linux be the gaming platform of choice."

Still, Apple Computer CEO Steve Jobs had once promised full support for developers' efforts to port the top PC games to the Mac. Now, Apple (aapl) has backpedaled on its plans and has asked developers to make up the slack for the forthcoming release of Mac OS X. The parallels to Linux are obvious.

But the Linux games industry doesn't depend on the whims of a single company. Draeker, Strauss and others are delivering to Linux gamers what Jobs promised to the Mac gamers. For Linux users who boot up Windows 98 to play the latest game, that's good news. By the end of the year, easy-to-install distributions of Linux with full 3-D graphics and sound support should be available -- these should be sufficient to let tech-savvy gamers get started. Less technically inclined gamers may instead want to wait until 2001; that's when improvements in the user interface and desktop will have been made to make Linux gaming much more user-friendly.