Valve co-founder and current managing director Gabe Newell recently made it pretty clear how much he really hates Windows 8. Two weeks ago, Valve officially announced that they would be porting their Steam distribution service to Ubuntu and would be working to natively support Valve games on Linux, starting with Left 4 Dead 2. Their drive behind the project: Newell’s belief that Windows 8 will be a “catastrophe” for PC users.
Granted, Gabe’s got a bit of a habit of dropping bombs on people – five years ago he called the PS3 a “total disaster on so many levels.” Unsurprisingly, he wound up going on to apologize to the makers of the Playstation 3 in 2010 for his remarks. But when Phoronix’s Michael Larabel went to visit Valve’s Linux offices this past April, he was shocked to see Newell speaking like a died-in-the-wool open source supporter – so much, in fact, that Larabel wondered how the man could have ever worked at Microsoft for over 13 years.
Why all the harsh rhetoric for Windows 8? Why the sudden push for open source? Despite Half Life: Episode III now being five years in the making, Newell seems to be pretty excited about Valve’s new project. At a reception at the Casual Connect game conference in Seattle, Newell stated that their “perception is that one of the big problems holding Linux back is the absence of games. I think that a lot of people — in their thinking about platforms — don’t realize how critical games are as a consumer driver of purchases and usage.”
I think any gamer will agree. In fact, it’s one of the reasons I never installed a Linux distribution on my personal laptop. Plus, if anything is going to make a real impact on the way game developers look at Linux, it’s going to be Steam, which is now the largest third-party distributor of digital entertainment. So naturally, open source advocates are pretty excited about what this new development could mean for Ubuntu and the Linux platform as a whole.
But Newell’s recent praise about the virtues of open source seems fishy at best. Besides the obvious compatibility issues with Linux (which I bring up below), there’s the simple fact that even a Windows 8 catastrophe will probably not spell the doom of Microsoft. And let’s not mince words – despite Gabe’s push for open source, Steam will pretty much be anything but. So what effect will Steam have on Linux users in the long run? Quite frankly, probably none at all.
A Windows 8 flop will not spell the rise of Linux
For the most part, Newell’s concerns about Windows 8 seem to stem from it becoming a closed platform system, much in the way OS X and iOS have become for Apple. In the same interview that Newell bad-mouthed Windows 8, he also discussed the benefits and the temptation of platforms, such as Windows, to become closed-platform:
“In order for this innovation to happen, a bunch of things that haven’t been happening on closed platforms have to occur and continue to occur. Valve wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the PC. Id Software, Epic, Zynga, Facebook, and Google wouldn’t have existed without the openness of the platform. I think there’s a strong temptation to close the platform. If people look at what they can accomplish when they can limit competitors’ access to their platform, they say, ‘Wow, that’s really exciting.’”
Who can blame him, though? Microsoft can’t have been ignoring Apple’s ridiculously lucrative business practices, so it’s not unreasonable to think that they’ll follow through with the same on Windows 8. Windows Xbox LIVE integration and the built-in app store on Windows 8 could make the operating system itself more attractive than Steam.
Speculation that Windows 8 will become too closed-platform is a shaky ground to stand on, though. Right now there are a million and one reasons to believe that Windows 8 will not go on to become a catastrophe. Other than the quirky UI, Windows 8 is a solid performer in all performance areas, either on par or besting its predecessor.
But really, you only need to understand one thing about Windows operating systems to understand why a Windows 8 flop won’t herald the rise of open source platforms. First, let’s suppose that Windows 8 does, in fact, turn out to be a big steaming turd as Newell speculates. Don’t forget that Microsoft also turned out Windows ME and then Windows Vista, and survived those just fine. What will happen if Windows 8 flops? The same thing that happened when Vista tanked – users fell back on XP and continued using it for years after. So, I’m not so sure betting against a single operating system is really the right way to go at this point, especially when Windows users can just as easily fall back on Windows 7 should the new operating system fail that miserably.
Steam has mostly already been ported thanks to Mac
DirectX and OpenGL are both APIs which allow applications and physics simulations to produce 2D and 3D computer graphics. Most game engines are designed for rendering in DirectX because games are often made for Windows. This places games in two distinct categorizes: Games made for Windows, and games made for everything else. For example, Xbox is built on DirectX 9, while the PS3 and Nintendo Wii both use modified versions of OpenGL and their own propriety APIs. Since most games are made for Windows and use DirectX, games being ported to Linux need to be re-coded for OpenGL.
For many years Linux gamers have used the open source software Wine to run computer programs written for Windows. Not only does this work on a wide range of applications, it also brings many Windows games to the lightweight world of Linux. Unfortunately, there’s usually quite a significant performance hit for many non-mainstream applications. Nevertheless, popular games such as Starcraft 2 are able to be played and enjoyed by Linux users with this software.
Valve’s 3D engine came with DirectX-only support for a long time. However, in 2010 Valve released all of their major games for Mac utilizing OpenGL and promised to release games simultaneously on both Windows and Mac. Since Linux and Mac both utilize OpenGL (albeit with Apple’s usual twist on its software) it would be easy for them to rehash their code on Linux with minimal problems.
Therefore, the push towards Steam on Linux seems more to me like an opportunity to expand into a new market rather than a direct reaction to the potential failure of the new Windows OS. Regardless of what happens to Windows, the expansion into the Linux market is guaranteed to open new revenue Streams for Valve. This is all a perfectly legitimate move for Valve, but let’s not dress it up as a noble attempt to promote the Linux platform.
Gamers do not have the necessary video drivers on Linux to make Steam games run
I feel like it’s necessary to bring up another important issue: the display drivers. As any Linux user who uses more than a command-line on a daily basis will tell you, getting a graphics card to work satisfactorily in Linux is rarely a simple task.
Intel integrated graphics solutions have a long-standing history of solid Linux support, but they aren’t meant for running graphics-intensive applications or games. Users who need more power from their graphics chip usually turn to AMD (formally known as ATI) or NVIDIA cards. Both AMD and NVIDIA cards are supported by open source drivers, but they fail to perform well enough in many cases, let alone for gaming. The more promising solution for Linux gamers would be to turn to the OEM’s proprietary drivers. Unfortunately, AMD’s fglrx closed-source drivers leave much to be desired for anyone trying to use an OS other than Windows.
Fortunately, NVIDIA supports many of their cards on Linux, and with NVIDIA having recently joined the Linux Foundation, one would hope that the support is only going to get better (though AMD is also a member). So who knows – maybe Steam really will get video card manufacturers to pay attention to Linux. Until then, though, Linux users will likely face the same bumps in the road to get their cards running.
Despite Gabe’s enthusiasm, Steam will still not be open source
Another one of the reasons game developers have avoided providing native Linux support for their games in the past is because it is not a unified operating system. There are no Linux “systems,” only Linux distributions. And for every flavor of computer enthusiast out there, you’ll find a unique flavor of Linux to match his tastes.
So how does Valve anticipate tackling such an obstacle? As they’ve already stated in their official announcement, “working with a single distribution is critical when you are experimenting.” This is something any reasonable programmer or engineer could agree with. Valve has specifically chosen to use Ubuntu as their launch pad because they see it as a popular distribution and that it has recognition in the gaming and development communities. Though they have singled out Ubuntu as the release platform, there is nothing stopping Steam from running on other distributions as well.
Valve says that this won’t exclude Steam from being ported to other platforms, but this ignores the fact that almost the entire open source project is driven by community contributors. It was essentially designed to be non-proprietary. So this begs the question: Is the community going to be able to contribute to the Steam code? Highly unlikely. This then begs the further question: Why call yourself a supporter of the open source movement when you plan on releasing proprietary software anyway?
No one spelled this out better than RMS himself. Richard M. Stallman, the founder of GNU and the Free Software Foundation, recently issued a statement concerning the positive and negative effects this will have on the platform. He conceded that while Steam on Linux is a step in the right direction, it is still far from ideal. “I suppose that availability of popular nonfree programs on GNU/Linux can boost adoption of the system,” he says. “However, our goal goes beyond making this system a “success”; its purpose is to bring freedom to the users. Thus, the question is how this development affects users’ freedom.”
So although Gabe seems to be putting a lot of support behind the open source movement, Steam will really be anything but open.
So for now, Windows is still the safest bet for game publishers
Finally, I have to ask: Is spite a sound business plan? In his article, Larabel also commented that Gabe’s “negativity for Windows 8 and the future of Microsoft was stunning.” As much as open source supporters love Linux and hate… well, everything else, you simply cannot get around the business advantage of publishing on a Windows platform.
Will Steam on Linux be pretty cool? Absolutely. Linux needs gaming support if it is to gain a more widespread following. Want to know what would be cooler? Half Life: Episode III. Come on, Gabe, just give us Half Life already. It’s all we’ve wanted this entire time.
Written with contributions from Tim Pirog (email@example.com) and Ricky Prego (firstname.lastname@example.org).