On the Desktop
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The gamers way. Not long ago we received a simple request from a reader. A long time Windows user, he decided the switch to XP was not conducive to maintaining his personal privacy, so he wanted to migrate to Linux. His main computing requirement: games. Which distribution, he asked, would be best for playing games?
The answer is that just about any major distribution should work just fine, a fact that might be surprising to new users but not to long time Unix diehards. There have always been games for Unix systems, including the original console based Adventure, the flight simulator ACM and the venerable Netrek. Yet it is only recently that professional quality, off-the-shelf games have been mass marketed for Linux users. Loki was the first company to bring a selection of existing titles to Linux (while id actually ported Doom on their own sometime previous to that). Loki still offers the vast majority of available titles, but they aren't the only one these days, says Michael Vance of LinuxGames.com. Vance also works for Treyarch, LLC, a company that has a close working relationship with game maker Activision.
"Hyperion has two games (Shogo, Sin), Tribsoft has one (Jagged Alliance 2), Vicarious Visions has one (Terminus), and Loki has 19." Vance, who worked as a lead programmer on various Linux ports at Loki between June 1999 and January 2001, says that other companies did some of their own porting work to Linux, then handed the projects over to Loki. "Companies like id and Vicarious Visions have done work internally," he said. "id later handed that work off to Loki, then that contract expired. Companies like Epic used Linux as a testing ground for their [PlayStation 2] development, then handed maintenance to Loki," but that contract has also expired he said. Other companies porting games to Linux include Introversion, and Illwinter.
Proprietary games on Linux primarily run natively either as OpenGL or SDL based applications. Some games like Unreal Tournament use SDL to access OpenGL directly. Using OpenGL allows games to make use of 3D hardware acceleration, providing better game play through faster graphics. This hardware acceleration is a new thing for the Linux world, having become readily available only within the past year or so from both the XFree86 project and commercially through Xi Graphics.
Alternatively, players can try their hand by running games under WineX, a DirectX-enhanced implementation of the WINE environment. While WINE already supports DirectX, WineX aims to improve on that support. Unfortunately, success along this route is less than stellar. One of the editors from evil3D, who prefers to be called Avatar to maintain a separate identity from his day job, says he's had little luck working with WineX. "I can hardly get Solitaire to run under WineX. And I'm happy to leave it at that." He adds that despite his own failures, the WineX project developers seem to be having a lot of luck with DirectX support. The other major Windows-under-Linux solutions don't fare any better. VMWare reports that they provide limited support for DirectX (and thus games) while Win4Lin doesn't handle DirectX at all.
Native ports vs DirectX issues aside, the choice of a Linux distribution isn't a serious problem. Vance says only cutting edge distributions might pose obstacles, but even that isn't likely. "Ancient distributions had a hard time with games because of glibc 2.0 and a few other older libraries. Bleeding edge distributions, such as Debian's "unstable" branch, have also proven difficult at times." He suggests using a distribution that has been available in a stable release for a couple of months. A current Red Hat, SuSE or Mandrake-Linux, for example, should work with most games. That's because most games, though not all, are delivered with all the libraries on which they are dependent. Says Vance, "It depends on the game, and usually whether it is a commercial product or not. Almost all commercial games come with every library they require. To my knowledge, none (other than the old Quake 1 and 2 rebundles) come in RPM or .deb formats. Most install using Setup, a nice GUI installer that Loki developed."
Though most of the major distributions should work, you may still find a few "gotchas" for particular games. The biggest problem comes from getting a video card with the right kind of X server support. Vance notes that it depends on the card in question, and the version of XFree86 you're using. "Pre-XFree86 4.x support for the 3Dfx cards was fairly decent, and post-XFree86 4.x support for the ATI and Matrox cards has been pretty good." He says that to his knowledge most 3D gaming on Linux today happens using the NVIDIA and ATI Radeon cards. "NVIDIA has a binary-only driver that is exceptionally fast and robust," he added. Support for joysticks is good but there is little, if any, support for force-feedback devices.
Sound under Linux is sufficient for most games. Hardware environmental effects such as those found in the SB Live! adapters and in the EAX library which supports such hardware is still lacking, though the OpenAL project has been slowly moving towards that direction.
With all those commercial games running under Linux you might wonder if open source alternatives can compete. Evil3D posted an interview of TribSoft founder Mathieu Pinard, who said he doesn't think so.
If you would see the amount of code that the games done in the last few years, I don't think we could imagine the Open Source community putting out 5-10 complete quality games per year. Of course, feel free to prove me wrong, and I hope nobody will take this as an insult. It's just no longer possible to make games in your garage that will compete against the latest closed source games.
Vance agrees, but says there are some nice alternatives. "Open source games are usually cheap remakes of old arcade games. Within that arena, the best is probably FreeCiv, a very nice reimplementation of Civilization II. I'll also plug gltron for Andreas Umbach, an acquaintance of mine. But nothing out there is going to rival even five year old commercial games. A friend of mine maintains that Nethack is the only high-quality open source game available. I think Nethack is a bit of a stretch for modern gamers, though. Chromium BSU is also a nice little arcade game."
The problem with open source games is abandonment. The Linux Game Tome has started posting games that are listed as missing in action, noting game developers and/or their web sites that seem to have disappeared. Open source games don't get the dedication from their developers necessary to reach professional quality (this isn't suprising at the application level in open source, and is really not reflective of the lower level kernel world). Vance says it takes a lot of people working together to reach that point. "Only in very rare exceptions, such as with FreeCiv, can a large group of people come together and collaboratively build a game. Game programmers aren't usually the most friendly and sociable sort, and the splintering and fragmenting of numerous little game projects is of little surprise." He goes on to say that the art requirements for games are much higher than for traditional open source projects. Producing art is not the forte of open source developers, and even solid GUI design is, at times, a stretch.
"Linux lacks a continually refreshing pool of interesting games," he adds. "Companies like Loki have done a pretty good job in the past but it remains to be seen, given their present financial hardships, whether that will continue. The market is small, thus there is little incentive to make/port games. Because of this, the market is slow to grow. The problem is a hard one."
Most sales of commercial games are web based at places like TuxGames and ebGames . However, the latter is exiting the Linux business because they say there is no market there. They've been selling off their stock of Linux games, most of which are Loki titles but also a few others, for less than $10 each.
But this really shouldn't suprise anyone familiar with the general gaming market. Linux sales shouldn't be compared with Windows, says Vance. "I don't know if you've looked at PC sales figures lately, but it's very hard to be profitable in the PC games business. Companies like Activision have seen their profitability increase enormously transitioning their business to the [game] console arena. The market is much larger. Thus Linux has to not only overcome Windows gaming, but a stagnating, almost exclusively hit-driven PC game market. Not an easy task."
Loki is currently in Chapter 11, attempting to get their finances in order. Word is they've paid off what was owed to programmers, but haven't addressed all their other debts yet. For now, the company is stable enough to continue. It's hard to tell if contracts lost recently from id Software and others have dealt them a fatal blow. Only time will tell.
For now, however, games are an integral part of the Linux desktop. Despite commercial failures, the porting of games is one of the true Linux success stories.
Recent Commercial Game Releases
Other sites of note
New Breed Software has 13 or so GPL games for the Linux platform and has recently started working on games for the Agenda VR3 PDA.
StarOffice 6.0 Beta hits the streets. Sun delivered the official announcement on the StarOffice 6.0 beta this week. This is the first release of the much anticpated version without the extra desktop features built in.
We downloaded the huge binary to give it a quick test. The installation is very clean, it even noticed that we'd forgotten to grab the extra Adabas package. Installation takes about 5 minutes and requires only limited configuration information from the user. Red Hat users may find the option to install a Sun blessed Java installation refreshing. Or maybe not. To each his own.
While this new release is very welcome, it didn't take long to crash it. Interested in the one feature we've seen next to no support for under Linux - text along a curve - we opened up the FontWorks tool under the Drawing tool. Text along a curve is very simple to use, but in an attempt to find a way to rotate the bounding box of the rounded text (while incorrectly using the selection handles) we managed to bring StarOffice to a halt, hung in mid move while we searched for a command line to kill the session.
Despite this early problem, most other features seemed to be very stable, though we hardly gave it a thorough test. Performance was modestly improved and the interface feels more like users will expect from their office applications. Most interesting of all is the apparent support for XP format files, from Word to Excel to PowerPoint. LWN.net doesn't use Microsoft products so we couldn't test that support, but it's obvious that Sun sees a distinct need for file format compatibility between office applications.
Users of Ximian's GNOME desktop will find some solace in knowing that this beta installs in a user defined directory quite nicely, thereby avoiding the 5.2 installation provided through Ximian's Red Carpet. That said, you have to manually configure the GNOME desktop's menus to access the new version. StarOffice only seems to update the KDE menus during the beta installation.
Earlier in the week, The Register covered the StarOffice 6.0 release, prior to our testing. "The new version does away with the much-hated integrated desktop, saves files as XML, and has improved language support."
Linux-based GUIs: a perspective (ZDNet). A Gartner study posted to ZDNet does a detailed analysis of the Linux desktop space, comparing KDE and GNOME to the traditional Unix desktop provided by CDE. "For more widespread desktop use, Linux faces hurdles. A new, albeit intuitive, user interface may be among the least of these. Even ordinary users can assimilate the differences between a Macintosh desktop and Windows desktop, and Microsoft itself is introducing changes with Windows XP. Distribution, support, availability of peripherals and application readiness is a greater challenge." Despite referring to the ORB component in GNOME as "Bonomo", the report is one of the better analyses we've seen on the Linux desktop.
Desktop EnvironmentsXimian Setup Tools, Control Center updates Ximian has released new versions of their Ximian Setup Tools (aka XST) and Control Center.
Ximian adds new channels, but stays away from Linux distributions If you haven't been paying attention, Ximian's Red Carpet is showing signs of how that company might be making money in the future: by adding software management for third parties. In the past couple of weeks Red Carpet has added channels for StarOffice, Loki, VMWare and CodeWeavers. The StarOffice channel currently supports the 5.2 release but expect to see it bumped to 6.0 once that version becomes solid. VMWare and Loki are offering versions which need license keys (VMWare) or just come in demo form (Loki). CodeWeavers is providing their own version of WINE, the Windows under Linux environment. This is probably a first step in later providing their newly announced Crossover plugin which, it is said, will provide support to Netscape for Shockwave and QuickTime under Linux.
Despite channel support for particular distributions, Ximian has said on many occasions that it isn't interested in getting into developing and shipping their own Linux distribution. That doesn't mean, however, that clever souls won't figure out a way to do it for the company, even if the work doesn't have an official blessing from Ximian. The Unofficial Unsupported Ximianized ISO Images project aims to provide ISO images (i.e. something you can burn to a CD for installation) of various Linux distributions with Ximian's GNOME added. So far they only support Red Hat 7.1, but work is underway on Debian with Mandrake planned for the future.
GNOME 2 technology preview release. The first technology preview release of GNOME 2 is now available. Many changes are expected for GNOME 2, however this release is not intended for end users, especially since it cannot be installed parallel to existing stable GNOME environments.
Two New DCOP Tutorials (KDE Dot News). KDE Dot News reports that two new tutorials on programming with DCOP have been made available on the KDE Developer site. The first one, titled Creating a DCOP Interface, covers the API for instantiating a simple DCOP application. The second article, titled Automation of KDE2, discusses the use of scripting to access an applications DCOP interface.
Linux Magazine names Evolution best Email Client. Ximian announced this past week that their Evolution package was named the Best Graphical Email Client by Linux Magazine.
AbiWord Weekly News and a new release. The big news this week for the AbiWord project is the announcement of a new release: version 0.9.4. Some of the key updates in this release include a highly improved spell checker, better XHTML export support and various Styles updates.
Also from the AbiWord front: After publishing 2 issues last week, Jesper Skov has been busy once again, producing 3 new issues of the AbiWord Weekly News. All three new issues, Issue 60, Issue 61, and Issue 62 are pre-0.4.9 and carry information leading up to that release.
Sodipodi 0.24. A new release of the GNOME vector art tool Sodipodi has been released. This version includes improved linear gradients, many stability and internal bug fixes, and the start of an XInput caligraphic pen tool. It also support SVG better, including Illustrator exported SVG files.
pim.kde.org back online. News went out this week that the KDE PIM web site went back online. Most of the changes will revolve around developer updates, with the section on PIM-apps staying static for a while.
And in other news...
Qt3.0 Beta 6. TrollTech has released another beta of the Qt3.0 widget set. This release has had the QCom module removed after feedback showed the API to be less compact and intuitive than the rest of Qt.
Linuxlookup.com speaks with KDE Chairman. LinuxLookup.com interviews the Chairman of the KDE League, Andreas Pour. "This revolutionary approach to development permits individuals from all around the globe to coordinate and cooperate in design and development, with decisions reached purely on the quality of the code being contributed. Unlike many other projects, KDE does not have a "charismatic leader" or a company behind the project. Instead, development decisions are made on development lists, in view of the world, and development sponsorship comes from a broad coalition of individual companies."
Section Editor: Michael J. Hammel
October 4, 2001