Carmack: Valve Support Is Great, But Linux Still Not A Viable Gaming Platform

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If you've got 3.5 hours to kill, John Carmack's Quakecon keynotes are always fascinating. id games may not be the greatest titles around, but Carmack's knowledge and skills continue to shape the future of gaming across multiple platforms. There's been a great deal of rumor and speculation about Valve's plans for Linux support, including the Steambox (which trusted sources have told us is an actual project). Gabe Newell's distaste for Windows 8 is well-known, and while I happen to disagree with him regarding Windows 8's likely impact on the game industry, there's no denying that Valve's actions will have an impact.

Carmack thinks Valve's move could shake things up and spark fresh interest in Linux as a gaming platform, but doesn't ultimately believe that Steam will change much. His remarks are below, slightly edited for clarity:
Linux is an issue that's taken a lot more currency with Valve announcing Steam for Linux and that does change things a bit, ...but we've made two forays into the Linux commercial market, most recently with the QuakeLive client, and that platform just hasn't carried its weight compared to the mac on there. It's great that people are enthusiastic about it, but there's just not nearly as many people that are interested in paying for a game on the platform. And that just seems to be the reality.

There's at least one explanation that fits Carmack's experience without torpedoing the idea of Linux as a gaming OS. Historically, Linux and gaming have been viewed as nearly mutually exclusive. That doesn't mean there aren't some great Linux games with really talented people working on them. It doesn't mean there aren't any ports of existing popular titles. What it does mean is that gamers interested in switching to Linux have always been told not to expect parity in terms of the number of titles, frequency of updates, or launch windows. There are plenty of Linux or Mac users who maintain a Windows box for precisely this reason.




If the population of Linux users has been self-selected from those who don't game, then it follows that id would have trouble launching a commercial Linux game. A handful of titles -- even really excellent titles -- isn't enough to create a sea change in the user base. This is where Valve could make a much bigger difference if it can convince other studios to port to OpenGL. This will be critical for any sustained movement. Valve, like id, has a relatively small stable of games, most of which are old and have already been played by self-identified gamers on other platforms.


Graiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiins

When Microsoft or Sony releases a new console, there's a push-pull effect. The 'push' comes from knowing that the previous system has reached end-of-life. New games won't look as good or play as well and eventually titles will dry up altogether. The 'pull' is obvious -- buying a new system gets you new and improved games plus whatever other goodies have been baked into the platform.

The problem with Steam on Linux as opposed to Steam on Windows is that it's going to be hard for Valve to offer much of a push. Any attempt to give the Linux client preferential treatment will have Windows and Mac users crying foul. That turns the whole affair into a careful balancing act, with Valve trying to encourage Linux development without leaving its primary users feeling like second-class citizens. I think Carmack is ultimately right to be dubious on the possibility of a major Linux gaming push -- having better titles on Linux is fabulous, but building a compelling platform without alienating other users will be extremely difficult.
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Ynot_82 replied on Sun, Aug 5 2012 2:24 PM

Valve have demonstrated with their L4D2 Linux port that you get a 20% performance boost using Linux compared to Windows.

With those sorts of increases in FPS and overall performance, I'm sure hardcore gamers will switch from windows in a heartbeat.

Valve are pioneering a gaming revolution by supporting Linux, and I think most game houses will follow suit in the next couple of years.

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I use both Linux and Windows. If I could switch to all Linux, why wouldnt I? The real reason it isnt viable is because Linux isnt being shipped on computers. Especially not on the ones people get to game.

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Joel H replied on Sun, Aug 5 2012 4:45 PM

Valve have demonstrated with their L4D2 Linux port that you get a 20% performance boost using Linux compared to Windows.

No...Valve has demonstrated that if you actually compare OpenGL on Windows to OGL on Android, you get something like a 12 FPS difference. It's D3D to OGL that produced the major speedup.

Why wouldn't you switch to Linux? You might. I probably won't. MS would have to screw up unbelievably badly for Linux to be worth going through the headache of learning.

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JDiaz replied on Sun, Aug 5 2012 7:40 PM

Linux does have some performance advantages, but for gaming they can't be relied on to provide a consistent difference and not all Linux distros are necessarily equal either.

In general though one of the things that have held Linux back is how hard it is for it to get the latest drivers and proper support for all the latest graphic standards. Support of the latest specifications/standards can lag a year or more behind Windows. Especially, if the drivers are closed and not open source.

While part of the issue is how the Linux Kernel rapidly evolves, which occasionally can cause API breaks and that can potentially cause long term support issues that are more of a concern for closed/DRM software that won't benefit from community support and not all games will be supported for years or even support running on every of the literally hundreds of different Linux distros.

Along with other factors that need to change before gaming on Linux can really take off...

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3vi1 replied on Sun, Aug 5 2012 8:36 PM

>> MS would have to screw up unbelievably badly for Linux to be worth going through the headache of learning.

Of learning what? My computer-neophyte parents have been using it for years, and they basically just sat down and started using it with no instruction. Today's distros like Ubuntu and Mint set it up to be dead simple for the beginning user.

Still, learning more complicated stuff of other platforms and seeing alternate approaches is *really* a good thing to do. There are people who know how to use Windows, and then there are people who know how to use computers.

So, consider multi-boot. Linux will re-size your Windows partition for you and install side-by side (backup first!). If you give it just 40GB of space, you'll have so much free space left over you won't believe it. You've got nothing to lose, and you'll have a great way to boot up and search the net for answers if something trashes your Windows install.

Back to the keynote...

I think Carmack's a little disappointed that there wasn't a bigger demand back when iD was releasing their games for Linux... and may be subconsciously hoping that Valve fairs no better. It's too bad Timothee resigned, or they would have had the Linux port for Rage ready for Steam by now.

You have to respect the hell out of all Carmack's done for the platform (and games in general), but I don't think that the few titles they released could have ever had the same impact as releasing an actual distribution platform like Valve's doing here.

What part of "Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn" don't you understand?

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John Carmack - doesn't he own a lot of Microsoft stock?

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3vi1 replied on Sun, Aug 5 2012 8:56 PM

RTietjens:

John Carmack - doesn't he own a lot of Microsoft stock?

No.  He's actually the guy to thank for all those great Valve games... since the Source engine began life as a highly modified version of the Quake engine.

Gabe Newell, Director of Valve, has had at least a million dollars of Microsoft stock though - since he worked there for 13 years.

The world's funny, huh?

What part of "Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn" don't you understand?

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3vi1 replied on Sun, Aug 5 2012 11:21 PM

Okay... I've watched almost the whole thing now, and I still haven't seen him say "Linux is still not a viable gaming platform".  All he said was that Linux users didn't play Quake Live - which is like a 3 year old recreation of a game that was available natively as an offline client.

Here are some comments he *did* make that would make good alternate titles for this article:

Carmack: "I have a good deal more respect for Microsoft than many in the hacker/enthusiast community... I have less comfort that changes in the UI paradigm are going to come off well"

 

Carmack:  "I'd  be perfectly happy if Windows 8 didn't exist."

Carmack:  "There's nothing I'm looking forward to in Windows 8."

 

What part of "Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn" don't you understand?

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JDiaz replied on Sun, Aug 5 2012 11:46 PM

"Of learning what? My computer-neophyte parents have been using it for years, and they basically just sat down and started using it with no instruction. Today's distros like Ubuntu and Mint set it up to be dead simple for the beginning user. "

It's not that it's necessarily harder anymore, linux has come a long way in terms of user friendliness, but it is different and for those already used to doing things a particular way will have to relearn some things and get used to the way Linux operates.

Not a big deal but people are prone to resist change... Though keep in mind there are over 600 different distros and not all of them are as easy to use for the average lay person.

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Joel H replied on Mon, Aug 6 2012 12:42 AM

3vi1,

Your first title is way over character count, your second and third options are irrelevant to the story. My quote of what Carmack said is accurate, the only edits I made were to remove a few false starts. Start at 45:26.

As for "learning what?" Let me explain it to you.

I have a workflow. I know my way around my suite of programs. When I am in writing mode (otherwise known as How I Make A Living Mode), being able to manipulate that workflow quickly is critical to my peace of mind. It lets me focus on writing, not on learning how to do whatever program it is I need to work with.

Switching to Linux -- any distro whatsoever -- would change that. Need to install TightVNC to access a remote box I'm benchmarking? That's different. Need to configure the networking settings on my own system? That's different. Need an email client? It'll be subtly different. Multiply this over and over for gaming, video playback, audio playback, file management, document editing, and photo work.

The issue is not whether Linux software is capable. It's not about whether or not I can do the same things. It's about having to switch from "Getting Stuff Done" mode to "Figure out how this works" mode a thousand times a day.

I learned OS X back in 2008. I have no doubt that I could learn to use Linux as fluidly as Windows. In fact, if someone came up to me and said: "We want to commission an article from you in which you describe your experience with learning to use Linux," I'd say "Sure, no problem" and go install it. At that point, it becomes my *job* to document and describe my experience.

Outside of such scenarios, I'm about as interested in learning a new operating system as I am in chewing on a nice big plate of rusty nails, gravel, and chalk. In truth, this is partly related to how basic my work needs truly *are.* If I wrote code, for example, and Linux offered an environment that could halve the time I spend debugging, I'd be all over that. My work needs are basic enough that swapping OS's would present me with the drudgery of learning all the little differences over again while offering no net savings in time or effort.

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I really dont understand how it would alienate Windows users as they can download Linux and try it or dual boot. It isn't hard and Linux is free....

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3vi1 replied on Mon, Aug 6 2012 7:33 AM

>> My quote of what Carmack said is accurate, the only edits I made were to remove a few false starts.

What he actually said was "Valve will probably pull a lot more people [i.e. users] there".  His comments about Linux users just not wanting to pay for games are based on very old games and obviously no longer correct, given the showing of Linux users in Humble Indie Bundle sales.

>>  When I am in writing mode (otherwise known as How I Make A Living Mode), being able to manipulate that workflow quickly is critical to my peace of mind.

Then why do you want to rely on a suite that might go from menus in one release, to ribbons in the next, to fruit-by-the-foot in the next?

>> Switching to Linux -- any distro whatsoever -- would change that. Need to install TightVNC to access a remote box I'm benchmarking? That's different. 

Yeah... In Linux you would just click the Software Center, type tightvnc, then click install.  Way easier than on Windows.

Apple and MS are making big deals about their App Stores... while they're the same as the "package managers" we've been using in Linux forever.  The only difference is that 99.9% of the items in the Software Center are free.

>> Need to configure the networking settings on my own system? That's different. 

Yeah... Click System Setting | Network.  Different, but that doesn't mean intuitive and easy.

>> Need an email client? It'll be subtly different.

Subtly...  Unless you use Thunderbird or something that's exactly the same on both platforms.  I use Thunderbird at home and Outlook at work and see no confusion.

>> gaming, video playback, audio playback, file management, document editing, and photo work.

Steam will be the same on all platforms, VLC's the same on every platform, there are about 50 free audio players in the repositories that all look like WinAmp or iTunes, file management is very much the same, I jump back and forth between LibreOffice and MS office with no pains (except when I can't figure out which tab of the ribbon they moved a seldom used function to), and I don't do much photo work but I hear Darktable (http://www.darktable.org/) is great (and the same on all platforms).  None of these are things that should cause anyone more than a few minutes to pick up.

>>  In fact, if someone came up to me and said: "We want to commission an article from you in which you describe your experience with learning to use Linux," I'd say "Sure, no problem" and go install it.

Dave:  Get him to write that article.  It might not end up all roses for Linux, but at least he'd have good feedback on where Linux should improve.  I probably couldn't write such a thing myself as I'm too deep into it and wouldn't recognize the unintuitive parts.

-Jesse 

What part of "Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn" don't you understand?

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"When I am in writing mode (otherwise known as How I Make A Living Mode)"

"If the population of Linux users [...], than it follows..."

ARRGH! Please Joel, learn the proper use of "then" and "than," since you "Make A Living" writing.

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rapid1 replied on Mon, Aug 6 2012 9:31 AM

The ease of Use thing I entirely agree with 3vi1 on new builds are about as point and click as on a windows machine. The big thing here is initial use I think. I mean if someone is new to computers or does not know anything about them then you throw them on a new Ubuntu build they will learn it and have similar ease of use. Where as someone who knows Windows or Apple OS back and forth has to deal with learning how to do it on Linux and someone as I mentioned before it is a first time oh ok I see thing. Relearning or learning to do the same thing on the same machine with a different OS can be way more frustrating to me and I have watched others do it and give up because they could just go back to Windows or LION and do what they wanted rather than relearning it.

FOr gaming on a PC on Linux I think the most succesful thing would be a open port for any game that runs on Windows IE: an open port for any game that runs in OPENGL or DX or whatever (I actually think either would be better than whatever because if it just opened anything the punch is much better if you get me)!

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JDiaz replied on Mon, Aug 6 2012 11:34 AM

"Then why do you want to rely on a suite that might go from menus in one release, to ribbons in the next, to fruit-by-the-foot in the next?"

Like choosing between Linux distros, no one has to change which app they use unless it's not supported by the OS or for business or other reason where working with others imposes requirements to work with the same software.

So it's not so much as rely as conform and it's not like a new version comes out every year.

While software changes over time for Linux too and the OS of course changes even faster.

"Yeah... In Linux you would just click the Software Center, type tightvnc, then click install. Way easier than on Windows.

Apple and MS are making big deals about their App Stores... while they're the same as the "package managers" we've been using in Linux forever. The only difference is that 99.9% of the items in the Software Center are free."

Down sides you're missing in that comparison...

Competing package formats! This is why on a typical Linux application’s website, you’ll likely see a variety of download links for different package formats and Linux distributions – assuming the application’s website provides pre-compiled versions at all. The application may tell you to download the source code and compile it yourself.

While this is usually offset by the fact that each Linux distribution does compile its own software with its desired library versions and compilation options and each Linux distribution hosts their own software repositories but it depends on how large the support is for a given distro as to how extensive that list will be and also determine how quickly or slow it gets updated. So it's not unusual to note delays before new software versions reach their systems.

Like when a new version of Mozilla Firefox is released, Windows and Mac users will acquire it directly from Mozilla, but on Linux, your Linux distribution must package the new version and push it out as an update.

"Yeah... Click System Setting | Network. Different, but that doesn't mean intuitive and easy."

It's just the re-learning aspect, people are prone to resist change regardless of whether it's better or worse than what they were doing before.

"Steam will be the same on all platforms"

Except for how each platform differs, unless everything gets ported then what games are available will differ and they may not even offer the service on every Linux distro.

Winetricks are also needed for things like the use of Tahoma fonts, etc. unless they ultimately redesign Steam.

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Joel H replied on Mon, Aug 6 2012 12:19 PM

*chuckle*

We all make mistakes -- especially when writing forum posts after writing all day.

3vi1,

You completely missed my point. It's not a question of ease of use. It's a question of intrinsic difference.

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Joel H replied on Mon, Aug 6 2012 4:46 PM

Rapid,

You nailed it. If Linux offered any sort of actual advantage to me, I'd switch. All it offers is the "opportunity" to learn how to do things all over again, just so I can do them as quickly as I do them now. That's like telling someone:

"You can have a punch in the face and an orange, or just an orange."

Gosh. I think I'll just take the orange.

It doesn't really help that I loathe Gimp and OpenOffice (and yes, I've used both, on more than one occasion.) Both were during an insane period, when I decided to see if free software was really just as good as paid. For word processing, OO was just as good, but the Excel analog drove me batty and GIMP...*shudder* No.

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Jebril replied on Sun, Sep 2 2012 4:07 AM

Linux DOES offer MANY advantages over Windows ones that actually DO effect the end user as well. Not just in performance gains, the customization and choices of different desktop environments and window managers is ridiculous. You can assign whatever you want as a keyboard shortcut including custom scripts that are pretty simple and do what you want. And actually things like Gimp and LibreOffice have gotten a lot better recently. I find for things like media (music and video players) Linux actually beats Windows and Mac in terms of the apps available for it. Windows and Mac will work for the most part but when you try to do things that you want to actually do, they will not allow you and make it very hard to find a way to do what you want, Linux does not do this. Honestly at this point of the Linux lifetime I feel that everything is essentially there, driver support and gaming are the two big things that need to be worked on. But both these issues have had huge developments recently and Linux is definitely making headway to capturing a bigger portion of the desktop market with the way that all the major distros are getting polished for the different directions they've chosen.

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