Valve co-founder and managing director Gabe Newell says in no uncertain terms what the brain trust at Valve thinks: when it comes to actual users, “Linux is currently insignificant by any metric” (by any metric that matters to game companies, at least, such as number of players, minutes played, and all-important revenue).
On all those fronts, Linux players are “typically under 1 percent” of what game companies see, he told the audience during a keynote address at LinuxCon North America, which kicked off this week in New Orleans. But that’s not a sign of certain doom; indeed, according to Newell, “the future of gaming is on Linux.”
Newell went on to describe the ways that Valve is working to improve the landscape for games on Linux, and hinted at new hardware developments from the company in the near future.
Since Valve’s 1996 founding, the company has come out with a handful of well-known games for both PCs and the console market, including Half-Life, Counterstrike, and Portal. But over the past several years, Valve (like the rest of the technology industry) has endured structural changes driven by the falling costs of both computers and bandwidth. These, says Newell, have increased not only the relative value of design and game quality in general, but also the number of marketing and distribution paths. That’s had ramifications throughout the games industry, including the emergence and growth of online delivery for games and updates. (Valve’s own online system, Steam, is up to 50 million users by itself.)
The changes in relative costs have also spurred free-to-play models and large-scale tournaments. (Large scale is no joke: According to Newell, “at the last tournament we held, we had over a million people watching it simultaneously.”)
Newell described a trend toward end-users being involved not just as spectators, but also content creators: “Games will becomes nodes in a linked economy, where the majority of digital goods and services are user-generated.” Does that sound a bit grandiose? Sure, but it’s also an assertion grounded in numbers: “The Team Fortress community creates 10 times the amount of content [that developers do].”
While Newell insists that Valve has always been happy to compete with other game studios (“we’re a little bit cocky”), “the one entity we wouldn’t ever want to compete with is our own users; they’ve already outstripped us dramatically… It’s not by a little bit; it’s an order of magnitude already.” Think of this drive toward broad-based distributed content as analogous to what open-source has been doing to the world of software over the past few decades.
Creating games or games content, though, isn’t for the faint of heart: centralized online app stores (Apple’s in particular) “put an enormous number of roadblocks in front of doing that,” including developer approval as well as vetting individual apps and updates. Newell thinks few users have the stubbornness to work through such processes. A more streamlined system for taking advantage of player/developers is needed: “Several years ago, we thought ‘OK, if our model is correct, we need to help making Linux a good gaming platform for users and developers.”
To that end, Valve makes for a case study for how Linux has been creeping in: the company shipped the first dedicated games server running Linux in 1999. Now, most games servers run Linux (“probably a million,” Newell thinks).
Those game servers are dishing up prodigious loads of data: “Near as we can tell, we’re generating something like 2 to 3 percent of worldwide mobile and land-based IP traffic, and that tends to startle people who don’t realize what a large sea change is going on,” Newell said. “Even ignoring game servers, we’ve delivered over an exabyte of data year to date.” (Internally, there’s approximately 20TB of content in a Linux-based version control system—something true for companies such as Bungie, as well.)
Impressive as those data-shoveling numbers are, they don’t exactly shout desktop (or living room) success. But steps that Valve (along with other companies) has taken make it easier to swallow the claim. “Several years ago, we thought ‘OK, if our model is correct, we need to help make Linux a good gaming platform for users and developers.” The first major move, Newell added, was to have a graphics-intensive game running on Linux. That development process, however, revealed a “sweater thread” of issues, including flaws throughout all parts of the stack: faulty drivers, gaps between Linux distributions’ included software, pitfalls in the user experience, and errors in the company’s Steam tools.
“The good thing is that if we get a game like Left for Dead running, we’ve probably worked through issues for lots of developers,” Newell said. “We’ve definitely solved problems for the Call of Duty team, or Tour of Duty or whatever. The games aren’t that different; the key thing is to get changes all the way through for users.” In February, Valve shipped its Linux Steam client; today, the company has 198 games running on Linux.
The bug-fixing and code-developing isn’t just a sporadic effort; the company has “several guys on SDL,” started by current Valve employee Sam Lantinga, and is co-developing a new Linux debugger (in addition to the work they’ve done on the LLVM debugger).
While making Linux a better platform for games is necessary, it may not be sufficient in itself: platforms tend to cluster not just by operating system, but by context—and platform, mobile, and console games don’t always play nicely: “As a user, I shouldn’t have to buy new games, or have new friends, or whatever, just because I’m sitting on a couch,” Newell said. With Linux certainly a visible software platform for games—but with user and revenue numbers still low enough to discourage most developers from spending time on Linux end users—Newell says the next step is necessary work on the hardware side of the equation, to smooth the open-source path between the developer and back-end data handling side of the games business to actual end-users.
“One of the things we had to do, is we’re staging out the different pieces we think are necessary for staging to make Linux the future of gaming,” he said. “Our next step, having done these other pieces, is on the hardware side. There are thermal issues and sound issues, but also a lot of input issues.” He closed his address with this tease: “Our next step on this is to release some stuff we’ve done on the hardware side. Next week we’re going to be rolling out more information about how we get there, and what are the hardware opportunities we see for getting Linux into the living room.”