Confessions of a Linux user

Linux User columnist Simon Brew has a confession to make. He has a Windows 7 installation for two reasons, but only because Linux can't play the same game...


This article originally appeared in issue 96 of Linux User & Developer magazine.

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Can I talk about two things I don’t think I’m supposed to talk about here? You see, I do have a Windows 7 installation on one of my PCs. And I have a Windows 7 installation for two reasons.
One, that I like to play Blu-rays back, which are protected by the overlords at Sony and their magical game of “we’re not sharing our ball with you”. Two, I like to play games. Really big games. Crysis-esque games.

The first of these two confessions rightly makes me feel just a bit dirty. I’m perfectly aware of my double standard, that I’m basically playing along with a game of control that I absolutely despise. Yet what are my options? I love films, and I love watching some of them in high definition. I’ve no desire to get a letter through the door about illegal downloading activity, and even the act of ripping a Blu-ray disc involves me breaking the law. Thus, the only legal way I can watch a Blu‑ray on a computer is via a proprietary operating system and, right now, a copy of PowerDVD that shows just how far Cyberlink’s policy of nagging you to death has come.

Thus, reluctantly, I have to play the Windows games, to watch Blu-ray films. For some time, this was a cheaper option than a standalone player, remember.

On the games front, though, I think things are more interesting right now. PC gaming is in an odd place, having being pretty much dumped by retailers, save for a shelf at the back of the store. And instead, it’s working more and more on a digital distribution model, via services such as Steam and Direct2Drive. Steam, as you may know, has also just turned up on the Apple Mac, bringing with it a gaming platform that allows Apple users to enjoy a selection of major game releases. There’s a sense of progress there.

So then: can Linux play? I admire immensely the ingenuity of some of the games writers who have released their wares onto Linux. I also remember that the likes of Quake dallied with the idea over a decade ago. But while gaming isn’t the main reason I use Linux, I’d still dearly love to load up a game of Football Manager, or Crysis, or Black Ops. Yet I can’t.

The reasons are depressingly familiar. On the one hand, the PC market is tight enough outside of subscription-based titles such as World Of Warcraft, and big developers will get far greater returns by targeting the console market. Furthermore, just getting them to develop for the PC in any form is becoming increasingly difficult, and fragmenting that development time across Linux and Windows is a no-no.

Secondly, games developers will want to charge, and there’s a question mark over where that ultimately sits with the open source community. Some have no problems, others feel it goes right against the founding principles behind Linux. When you throw in too that there’s no chance of source code being released into the open to tinker with, it’s too many reasons for developers not to bother.

Call me a heathen if you like, though, but if I’m paying £30 for a copy of Black Ops, I’d far rather play it on Linux than Windows. Sadly, the final nail in the coffin for that idea is Microsoft’s DirectX box of tricks, which is so firmly ingrained not just in PC game development but also Xbox 360, meaning it’s a seismic shift that’s required to make even the idea of this happen.

Which leaves me with a very reluctant Windows 7 installation running regularly, which then further endorses to Microsoft HQ the strategy that it’s deployed. So what do I do? Do I abandon what I want to use a computer for doing sometimes, or do I play along, grumbling in columns such as these for the foreseeable future?

Surely there must be a third way? If there is, I assure you I’ll shut the heck up for a bit and talk about that instead…

The MMO model
Perhaps the one model that could work on Linux would be something akin to World Of Warcraft, where monthly subscription fees to the main game service may be a more agreeable pricing model. It’s also in the interests of Blizzard to make its game available as far and wide as possible, so as to maximise subscription revenues. After all, a World Of Warcraft player spends around £100 a year. That might just be worth the bother…

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