Why Games Matter

Nowadays most kids are introduced to computers at quite a young age and understand that their future careers and lives are going to involve using them substantially. For many of them, computer games are an important part of their learning computer skills and can lead to an interest in finding out more about computers, operating systems, software and so on.

If we look at overclocking sites, reviews of advanced cooling systems, information on tweaking etc, it is noticeable that the major reason why the usually young people who engage in such practices do so is because it enables them to run their games better and/or faster.

What does this mean for Microsoft, Apple and GNU/Linux operating systems?

You don’t need to be Albert Einstein to work out that an operating system that supports games is going to be much more attractive and familiar to youngsters who have used it to run their games than one which does not support games as well and hence is less well known to them. Having young computer users being used to your OS means you have an important advantage in a competitive marketplace over other OS’s. This advantage is going to persist for a number of years and affect what those kids believe is the “normal” or “proper” way that a computer and OS should function or operate.

This affect is magnified by the fact that what gets many kids interested in being hardcore geeks is gaming, and it is precisely these kids who as adults have a dis-proportionate (in some senses anyway) influence on what happens in the whole IT industry.

An example is the amount of attention that Nvidia and ATI pay to how fast and attractively (antialiasing, anisotropic filtering etc) their graphics card perform in games in general and especially in the blockbuster titles such as Doom 3, Half Life 2 etc. The opinions of gamers matters greatly to such companies, not only because of the gamers own buying decisions but because they review a whole range of computer and software products in magazines, web sites, newspapers and so on.

The opinions and attitudes of gamers can have a substantial influence on the rest of the computing public and they are often the people that family and friends turn to for advice in regards to what PC they should buy, from what company, what software they should install and so on.

Many of them take up careers in IT support areas in firms and are involved in the purchasing decisions that companies make when it is time to upgrade or need to implement an IT proposal.

It is little wonder that MS has paid so much attention to ensuring that Direct X is at the cutting edge of gaming graphics technology so that game developers use it in the creation of their latest masterpiece. This has had the very neat effect of making those games run well on Windows and ensuring they don’t run at all on their competitor’s OS’s. It is much harder for a game developer to shift a game created using Direct X over to the Apple or GNU/Linux OS’s than it is if the game is OpenGL based.

This is one reason why id Software have always produced Linux versions of their games alongside the Windows version as they use OpenGL. Unfortunately, they are very much the exception and are likely to remain so unless those associated with competing OS’s take action to redress the situation.

Until they do so, Microsoft will continue to have a major competitive advantage over Apple and GNU/Linux.

What can be done about this, in the interests of free market competition, if for no other reason?

One solution is the Wine / Wine X (sorry, Cedega) approach which is aimed at trying to get Direct X games to run using the Apple and GNU/Linux OS’s. (Transgaming port Direct X games to Apple machines as well as Linux) Whilst this is a useful approach which will suit some people, there are other possibilities which bear mentioning.

The first, looking at the issue from a GNU/Linux perspective, is to develop a distro specifically designed for playing games.

It would need to have 3D acceleration activated by default for all the modern graphics cards in the way that Libranet, for example, offers the user the option of turning on 3D acceleration if it detects an Nvidia card during the install process. This would also need to apply to ATI cards, even though that companies support for Linux drivers is not as developed as that of Nvidia. Support for temperature sensing devices and fan speed readings would need to be built in and comprehensive so that overclockers can keep track of what is happening to their hardware. Better multiplayer online gaming support and detailed and clear instructions on how to set up and change firewall settings would help gamers to lower their ping rates and minimize lag, connect to other gamers and so on.

There are a whole host of things that can be done to make the GNU/Linux OS more acceptable and usable for gamers. Instead of gamers dual booting between GNU/Linux (used for their general computing activities) and Windows (used for their gaming habit) they could dual boot between their normal Linux distro and the gaming distro. Of course, the changes made in the gaming distro could be used in any other distro to improve it’s suitability for gaming, if that was thought necessary.

And indeed a recent Gentoo based distro named Jollix has made a start at creating a games/multimedia based distro which looks promising.

Another suggestion is to try and persuade a major game developer(s) to make the Linux version of their OpenGL game open source.This would mean that the open source programmers who are interested could use the code to create new and hopefully better games, to create mods for the original game and learn how to build GNU/Linux applications and software that would make GNU/Linux distros more familiar and usable for youngsters and older gamers.

This would grow the market for all open source software and make it more likely that game developers who currently only produce Direct X games also produce a version for the open source world. There is also the advantage that it would encourage young gamers who are interested in modding and programming to get involved in the open source scene, either as employees or creators of open source companies, and to contribute to open source software.

A related third option is for a number of GNU/Linux programmers to work together a la the Debian project and create a high level, up to date open source game engine which modders and game developers could use to create games with. An open source company could hire experienced game developers to help build such an engine and then sell the engine and games in the same way that Redhat, Suse etc market their products.

In summary, improving GNU/Linux as a gaming platform could have many positive benefits for all who work in and contribute to the community. Many of the same reasons apply to Apple of course.

About the author:
Ian McKenzie is an old gamer whose brain and reflexes are more attuned to Freecell than most of the modern games which excite so much attention.

If you would like to see your thoughts or experiences with technology published, please consider writing an article for OSNews.


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