LINUX Photo: Michele Mossop
On July 16, game publisher Valve created Steam’d Penguins and formally announced their entry into development and promotion of the gaming scene for Linux.
For years there have been feverish rumours of such a move based on job postings which explicitly asked for Linux experience in the job description.
Without trying to play down the importance of the announcement and the excitement generated in the Linux community, there are still many unanswered questions about whether the games will be native ports or bundling of emulators, how open source friendly the underlying distribution platform Steam will be and which flagship titles will make the Linux leap.
As a long-time Linux user but not really much of a gamer, I applauded Valve for looking at my operating system of choice more seriously and building a Linux capability even if I am not in their intended audience.
Linux has lately had a flurry of indie games released for it which has made the community richer and widened the audience which in turn helps break some of our more insular perceptions.
My curiosity was raised again by last week’s comments by Valve co-founder Gabe Newell at an interview at Casual Connect held in Seattle. According to several reports from the event, Gabe Newell is not just getting into Linux to open up new markets (the Linux gaming market is not currently a juicy target) but as a hedging strategy.
In Newell’s reported words: "It’s a hedging strategy. I think Windows 8 is a catastrophe for everyone in the PC space. I think we’ll lose some of the top-tier PC/OEMs, who will exit the market. I think margins will be destroyed for a bunch of people. If that’s true, then it will be good to have alternatives to hedge against that eventuality."
That is some pretty strong reaction to Windows 8. Unfortunately we don’t know what he means about what top-tier PC/OEMs that Microsoft might lose or if this is just speculation.
Windows 8 is certainly targeting non-traditional form factors which may put certain desktop making incumbents, which is Windows heartland, out in the cold.
It may be concerns about Windows 8 having its own software distribution platform which will no doubt include games. Newell has been known to criticise Windows 8 publicly before. This may be some form of tit-for-tat (if Microsoft is going to get into game distribution then they’ll get into OS territory?)
What excites me about a company like Valve developing for Linux is the fresh set of eyes on the underlying technologies. Valve could use its expertise to strengthen X Windows contender Wayland, improve OpenGL performance (NVidia/ATI would have more reason in creating better native drivers) and to push standards across the various sound server subsystems.
It is not that the Linux community isn’t capable of achieving these goals, but it helps to create high-profile projects that generate interest and rally points, especially in technologies that are traditionally not the focus of Linux desktops, like games.
If the next generation of operating systems aims to monetise transactions of software and taking their clip of the publisher’s ticket then it makes complete sense that the publishers would look to platforms where they have the upper hand in the relationship. While Valve is targeting Ubuntu for its desktop user base currently, the open source nature of Linux means that once platform expertise is gained, Steam can be ported relatively easily to other Linux variants thereby keeping Valve’s options open.
In the past, threatening to adopt Linux has been a tactical strategy used by governments and institutions to squeeze better deals from big vendors such as Microsoft. I hope that Valve is genuinely looking at Linux as a sustainable platform, with a unique user base who will enjoy Steam content on their preferred OS.
My choice of operating system is not validated by Steam’s presence but if Valve succeeds and thrives on Linux then it opens the door for other entities (Adobe?) to take a fresh look at the Linux ecosystem.
Valve is a smart company at the top of its industry. I welcome them and their talent to the Linux community and wish them all success. I do hope this is a relationship based on mutual benefit and collaboration and not gamesmanship.
Will Steam help grow Linux acceptance and adoption? Who is next to join the penguin party?
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