Opening up Linux: Is the OS becoming ripe for game development?

Opening up Linux: Is the OS becoming ripe for game development?
Craig Chapple

By Craig Chapple

March 20th 2014 at 2:00PM

Develop investigates how recent changes and support from gaming's biggest companies is making Linux a viable option for developers

The Linux operating system was first released in 1991 as an open-sourced, community project. But for decades the platform has struggled to gain traction amongst the game industry and consumers.

That’s all changing though, with web giant Google building its Android OS around the Linux kernel, and Valve releasing a Steam Linux client, as well as basing its own SteamOS on the platform for its new Steam Machines hardware.

Picking up Steam

Having previously taken a backseat to Windows, Mac and the console space, Linux has now been thrust into the limelight as more developers and platform holders take advantage of it.

“It’s reached a certain level of maturity, which helps a great deal, but it’s also a reflection on other platforms’ missteps,” says developer Ryan Gordon, who has ported games in the Unreal Tournament and Serious Sam series to Linux.

“Specifically for games developers, the interest came in two waves. Humble Bundle demonstrated that Linux users exist and pay money – more on average than Windows and Mac users – and that started generating interest in Linux ports, mostly from indie developers. Then Valve shipped a Linux Steam Client, and SteamOS, and I started hearing from triple-A studios a lot more.”

Today, the progress of Linux represents more than $10bn in research and development, and Linux Foundation executive director Jim Zemlin tells Develop that thousands of developers from more than 200 companies are contributing to the advancement of the platform, making changes up to nine times an hour.


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“No single company can compete with that; instead, companies like Google with Android and Valve with SteamOS leverage that combined investment in Linux to build their businesses,” says Zemlin, who also criticises Microsoft and Sony for creating what he calls closed next-gen systems, despite being heralded by many as a new, more open era for the console space.

“One of the main reasons the gaming industry is embracing an open approach is to get away from increasingly closed and locked-down approaches that are characterised by the Xbox One and PS4.

“An open OS like Linux engenders widespread collaborative development and contributions, which will pave the way for gaming hits of the future. We all know that one huge hit in the games industry can be transformational, but finding the hits is incredibly difficult. Today’s gaming pioneers such as Valve understand that the hits will come from the bottom up, largely created by users.”

This openness hasn’t always been to Linux’s advantage however, with many of its tools not always up to scratch compared to the proprietary tech developed for Windows, for example.

A lack of decent debugging tools has been cited as a serious issue amongst some developers, with Braid creator Jonathan Blow last year claiming the lack of a reasonable debugging environment cost productivity, highlighting GDB as a particular point of contention, and the IDEs associated with it.

One of the main reasons the gaming industry is embracing an open approach is to get away from increasingly closed and locked-down approaches that are characterised by the Xbox One and PS4.

Jim Zemlin, Linux Foundation

Tools bugging me

Gordon says this criticism is overblown, to a degree at least, and that a lot of good development and debugging tools in fact started on Linux.

“Certainly, though, if you find yourself at a GDB command prompt without any instructions, it’s neither productive nor fun,” he states.

“There are tools that close that gap, but I imagine there’s been some migration of Windows developers that landed here, exclaimed ‘what the fuck?!' and then launched a mass exodus directly back
to Windows. I wouldn’t blame them.”

Josh Klint, CEO of middleware provider Leadwerks, which last year raised over $42,000 on Kickstarter to fund Linux development compatibility with its toolset of the same name, agrees that debugging tools could be improved, but is hopeful for the future.


A sneak peek at Leadwerks for Linux


“Regarding debuggers, I’m presently using Code::Blocks for development, and its integration with the GDB debugger could certainly be better,” he says. “After seeing Valve’s demonstration of QTCreator at Steam Dev Days I’ll probably switch over to that before the final release, but right now I want to move forward, not laterally by switching tools.

“I’ve always been an OpenGL developer. OpenGL’s cross-platform compatibility and long-term stability always made it an obvious choice, for me. I don’t know DirectX as well, so I can’t make a comparison, but Valve is doing some really interesting things with debugging and performance optimisation tools for OpenGL. VOGL is an OpenGL tracer and debugger that runs on Linux. I haven’t tried it yet, but I watched a demonstration of it at Steam Dev Days, and it looks really nice.”

But even if things are now steadily improving beyond past technical challenges, breaking past the preconceptions that already exist with developers in regards to Linux-based development could be a difficult hurdle to overcome.

Breaking preconceptions

“Non-Linux users are now starting to see that Linux does have competitive graphics capabilities, especially thanks to improving support from GPU vendors, and that the scary problem of supporting multiple Linux distributions is not so terrifying after all,” says Unity lead software developer Na’Tosha Bard.

The tool space is clearly improving, particularly on the back of support from Steam giant Valve, with its move to develop that new powerful OpenGL debugger explicitly for Linux. But it’s not just Valve; Rad Game Tools is also working on improving Linux debuggers, and Leadwerks is being designed for 3D game development on Linux itself and is now available on Steam.

Klint says that the middleware already supports the Steam controller, and will be ready for the SteamOS on day on, while he is also looking toward providing a low cost solution for developing virtual reality games on the OS. The Linux version of Leadwerks is expected to be released on March 15th, along with version 3.1of the standard edition.


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Unity meanwhile offers options for developers to build their games for 32 or 64-bit Linux, as well as a headless build for those who want to run a multiplayer server for their title. The company is currently investigating options for a web content solution that will work with the platform.

As Zemlin says, while quality tools have certainly been lacking in the past, there has been a lot of progress on the scene.

“With Valve’s investment in Linux, a whole new community of developers are working on it,” he says. “And new tools, apps, debugging software and more will result from that work.

“More importantly, optimisations for a great gaming experience on Linux don’t just come from the gaming sector. GPU powered supercomputer systems may benefit from optimisations produced by Valve or someone else tweaking Linux and vice versa. It is this wonderful cross-pollination in Linux that I believe will allow gaming to flourish once it has established itself.”

I expect that SteamOS is going to destroy the traditional consoles.

Josh Klint, Leadwerks

Valve’s Mike Sartain goes further, and says many of the historical challenges Linux is now known for amongst the development scene have either been resolved or are being chased by extremely viable and interested parties.

“These, of course, include driver optimisations and developer toolsets. With the help of leading GPU/CPU manufacturers and tool makers, that situation looks a lot different today than it did a year ago. And we certainly don’t believe that work is yet finished,” he states confidently.

An open future

With many of the hurdles crossed in terms of a quality games development environment on Linux, but by no means all of them, is the OS destined to become a popular platform for developers and consumers alike?

“Every consumer is different, but usually if they notice the OS at all, it’s probably not a good sign,” continues Sartain. “Consumers care much more about price, attractive content, reliable service, etcetera. As with all of our consumer-facing offerings, we’re aiming to build Steam OS with those attributes in minds, and whatever else our customers tell us they’d really enjoy.”

Valve’s strong support for Linux, not least with its SteamOS and Steam Machines, will be a boon for champions of the OS, and with Unity also on board helping power its rapidly growing library of games, Leadwerks’ own Linux tools and the likes of Humble Bundle promoting it, Linux could go from
strength-to-strength.

The collaborative nature of Linux’s development ensures that as time goes on, Microsoft and Apple will have a lot to compete with in future, particularly as bigger companies like Valve and Unity jump on the bandwagon to bring efficient new tools to the platform.

And Leadwerks’ Klint pulls no punches in saying where he thinks Valve’s new OS and Linux will end up.

“I expect that SteamOS is going to destroy the traditional consoles,” he states. “The first couple of years will be rough, but the platform’s advantages are compelling. First, SteamOS is compatible with the PC gaming ecosystem, going back a decade. Second, the Steam Machines will have a much faster hardware refresh cycle, with new models coming out every year, while the PS4 and Xbox One were obsolete at release.

“Finally, because SteamOS is an open system anyone can develop software and hardware for, all the benefits of free market economics will come into play, leading to a greater diversity of products and more innovation. I’m amazed the console industry has been locked down by three companies this long.

“As for Linux desktop, I think that’s driven by commercial software. I think the purpose of Linux is to provide a stable open-source foundation on which commercial closed-source software can thrive. It’s important that the OS be owned by no one, because otherwise whoever controls it will periodically swoop in and steal all the value the software developers are creating. Windows 8 has software developers big and small terrified of a locked-down future, and they’re actively looking for an open alternative.”