“Too slow. Restart needed all the time. Poor graphics. Slow to select pull-downs. Lost instrument panel. Not on list of “view” pull-down. Nothing was right. Worst sim ever!” This review was rated the “most helpful” for FlightGear, which is, we’re assured, a “free and highly sophisticated flight simulator”.
That didn’t fill me with confidence on my tour of the current state of Linux gaming, especially as many of the other reviews were in a similar vein (there are some positive ones for FlightGear as well, I should say – though these are a minority).
There are thousands of games for Linux, but where to start?
I started as someone new to Linux might – I fired up the Ubuntu Software Centre and looked for some well-rated games to try on the list.
First up is FLTK Block Attack! Colored blocks move from right to left across the screen, and your job is to click on two or more blocks the same color to gain points and stop the blocks reaching the left hand side. It’s a basic, but perfectly respectable, implementation of a game that’s been around since the 1980s, and an enjoyable way to pit your reactions against the computer (or, as my daughter found, to click maniacally across the screen, which seemed to work pretty well as a strategy).
The vast majority of Linux games are in a similar vein to FLTK Block Attack. Look at any Linux distribution and you’ll find no shortage of basic card, strategy, puzzle and arcade games.
Not that the distros do themselves any great favours with the descriptions they give their games. How does Ubuntu describe the 4-star Tents game? “Place tents in some of the remaining squares under some conditions”. Or Sixteen? “Game similar to fifteen, but with a different type of move.” It’s safe to say that no-one’s marketing budget has been blown.
First person shooters – Red Eclipse
Red Eclipse is a first person shooter (FPS) based on the Cube Engine. There are a bunch of games along the same lines, using underlying engines which have either been developed by volunteers or open sourced by commercial companies when they became too elderly to make any money for them.
Once you find your way around it, Red Eclipse is good fun with lots of maps, decent gameplay and the ability to play with others online. I do slightly object to being shown a list of over thirty different keyboard controls and being told they are just the “basics”, but that’s probably just me.
In common with every other similar game I’ve seen on Linux, Red Eclipse is well behind the technology curve – these are games that would have been cutting edge in the mid nineties.
Sims – Simutrans
Sims have caught on in a big way ever since Sim City was first released in 1989, and you can hardly log onto Facebook without tripping over requests to join any number of them.
Simutrans is a good example of the artform – starting in the winter of 1930 you take control of a town’s transport infrastructure and soon find yourself hard at work building railroads, airports, roads and docks.
It clearly has a good fanbase – lots of five star reviews on Ubuntu and comments like “if you’re into transport simulation this game is awesome” and “the best game available for Linux”. The interface looks a bit clunky and my attempts to play online were foiled (after being offered a choice of five servers, clicking on each one came up with a long list of “pakset” differences between my version and the server’s – I assume a sufficiently dedicated and skilled fan would be able to sort that out).
Although still in beta thirteen years after the first release, Simutrans is a solid game which gets the basics right.
Lack of polish
Who’d want to be an open source game developer? The top commercial games have small armies working on them for months, if not years. They cost a fortune to make with artists, writers, coders and designers all pitching in, and for the successful few the profits are equally impressive.
To think that an open source game, written by a small team of part-time enthusiasts, could compete is as crazy as thinking I could spend a few evenings out and about with my camcorder and turn in the next Hollywood blockbuster. It’s unfair to judge on that basis. Given the time and resources they have available, many open source games developers do a great job.
But at the same time, it must be admitted that Linux has a problem with games. Plenty of non-technical people happily use OpenOffice as an alternative to Microsoft Office. I don’t think, when the hard core gamer is boasting of her prowess on Call of Duty: Black Ops II, anyone in their right mind is going to say “That’s fine, but Red Eclipse is nearly as good – and it’s free”.
If there was ever a meeting in Steve Jobs’ office where an Apple developer said “We’ve got this cool new game, but we’d like to leave it to users to download different parts of the game separately, manually install them in the right directories and perhaps compile the game for themselves.”, I’m guessing the meeting was a short one and the developer’s subsequent hunt for a new job rather longer; but that’s exactly what quite a few Linux games expect users to do – and some don’t even work properly at the end of it!
The problem for native Linux games is that the competition has all but squeezed them out. Want a simple game that’s either free or just a few dollars, but still looks superb and plays well? There are thousands of them available for your smartphone or tablet. Want to get your hands on the latest cutting-edge adventure game? It’ll cost you a bit, but you’ll get good value on a PS3, Xbox 360, PC or handheld.
As for simple, free online games – there are countless. When, after five minutes, my daughter got bored of playing FLTK Block Attack, she fired up Chrome and spent an hour on a very playable dressing up online game for which there is not even a near equivalent natively on Linux.
All of these – free and expensive alike – have commercial business models that allow paid developers to work on the games full time and create a good product. Sure, there’s no shortage of duff games too, but the hits are easy enough to find.
For those who just have to play their games on Linux, there are some options – though all require a degree of technical knowledge that might well scare off the newbie. Some Windows games work with Wine (though many more don’t, or partly work, or work until they crash five minutes in). There are others – like Quake 4 (at only seven years old, a relative newcomer to the Linux gaming scene) which will run natively on Linux, once you’ve set up the directory structure, copied the binary from the CD and set the file permissions correctly.
If there’s good news for Linux, it’s that the quality of the games is unlikely to be a barrier to anyone moving to the platform. Hard-core gamers will have their dedicated kit and casual gamers, in addition to their smartphones and consoles, will have no trouble playing their favorite online games.