Linux Gaming in 2016: The Good, The Bad and The Meh

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2016 is now gone and long behind us, yet it is still helpful to look back and see how much was accomplished (and what did NOT occur as well) in that past year as we jump into 2017. As the title suggests, this is not going to be a rosy view of the world: we will highlight both progress and potential regressions/issues in the Linux Gaming Market.

The Good

Actually quite a lot! Here’s what can bring a smile on everyone’s face.

Raw Number of games

There is still a growing amount of games coming on the Linux platform. On the 19th of January 2017 there were around 2120 Linux “products” on Steam according to SteamDB, the very large majority being games. We don’t have to care about the exact number that much, but the trend remains similar to what we observed a year ago. A healthy, upward moving curve.

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Compared to one year ago, there’s been about 600 games, give or take, that made it to the platform. Of course, as the saying goes, “90% of everything is horse shit”, so we should not assume all of it is good games. But hey, even if 90% of all the games we got were crap, that leaves still about 60 games per year that should be considered very good or worth playing. I certainly don’t play ALL games on Linux but I do watch what’s being released, and that assumption sounds about right. And well, 60 games per year is probably good enough for the regular Joe who wants to play good games on a regular basis. What matters is: “can you stay on the Linux desktop and have good games regularly worth playing without getting bored?“. I think the answer is clearly yes, while it may not be the case for every genre under the sun.

Growing Linux Gamers base

We lack precise numbers here, but it has been confirmed by Feral that the install base of Linux gamers seems to be growing year after year based on their sales figures, while the share of the total Steam pie is still about 1% overall – this is no surprise but this is however a nice way to confirm what we were all thinking: there are more and more of us. This makes it probably more and more profitable to release ports on Linux for game developers, which is a good thing. Note that this does not make more profitable than other platforms (since all platforms are growing at the same time, so devs should make more and more money on all platforms too), but in net revenues and net profits this should start to make a difference vs the amount of effort required to make a port.

Growing Number of AAA titles

What was new in 2016 in terms of trend is that we have got a lot more AAA titles than in the previous year. This is mostly due to Feral‘s efforts to bring many of them, such as Tomb Raider 2013, Life is Strange, Total War Warhammer, XCOM2, Deus Ex Mankind Divided, Mad Max, F1 2015… Yet it’s not just Feral – they got clearly most of the spotlight, but Virtual Programming has been releasing some more AAA games too, with Overlord I and II, Saints Row the Third and still working to complete the ARMA3 port. Valve has helped to bring Rocket League (albeit VERY late) to the horde of Linux gamers who were waiting for it.

Not only has the number of AAA titles almost doubled in 2016, we see a trend towards having ports of more recent games too (XCOM2 released on the same day, Deus Ex Mankind Divided just a few months behind the Windows release, Total War Warhammer about 3 months behind as well) – this is apparently driven by the fact that more recent games seem to get more sales than older ones (based on what Edwin from Feral said in our recent podcast) which seems to bode well for the future.

At the same time, we should not expect the numbers of AAA titles to triple or so in 2017. After all, the market is still relatively limited, and too many titles released at the same time would result in most of them selling poorly – which would be counterproductive – so if anything the growth should be progressive.

A Few Big Name Publishers Stepped In

Beyond the number of AAA titles, there are other positive signs, such as Square Enix (Tomb Raider, Life is Strange) being OK with Linux ports of some of their games. While we should not be overly enthusiastic either, this means we could imagine other franchises like Hitman, or who knows, Japanese games, making their way to Linux at some point. The fact that Bohemia Interactive has not dropped the ball to have the ARMA3 Linux port continuously worked on is very positive as well. NIS America bringing Disgaea 2 to Linux is surprising as well (just released yesterday actually).

Quality of Ports

While it’s easy to show that Windows still has the upper hand when it comes to frame rates in most games, the situation has somewhat improved. Feral ports tend to get post-release updates with sometimes spectacular framerate improvements (Company of Heroes 2 is one example). Beyond the numbers, controller support, multi monitor support is now baked in in more and more ports, and I have yet to come across any recent port that crashes on Linux. Oh yeah, there’s Rocket League, but it’s technically still in beta (I DO hope they fix it though…) and it’s an exception in that regard. There are more examples of ports nowadays with framerates very close to Windows (Total War Warhammer does not disappoint) than there were one year ago. The maturity of OpenGL drivers and the better understanding of fast pathways for each vendor is probably yielding good results by now.

Growth of The Linux Desktop

The Linux desktop seems to be growing quite nicely according to several metrics (such as NetMarket showing we may be above 2% now), and there is no lack of articles of disappointed developers moving away from Macs to Linux following the lack of proper Mac hardware upgrades by late 2016. As a result, Mac desktop/laptop share seems to be at a 5-years low. At this stage it is unclear if this trend is sustainable or if things will settle down again. Also, there is the impact of ChromeOS laptops selling well around the world – whichever it is, there seems to be more folks, share-wise and numbers-wise, using some kind of desktop Linux flavor. Whether they end up as Linux Gamers is a totally different question, but the potential seems to be there, and it’s necessary condition for the Linux Gaming Market to grow further.

Major AMD Improvements

AMD has been lagging behind for a long while on Linux because of its drivers situation and the overall poor performance of its GPU on Linux. 2016 marked the release of the AMD RX480 card, at a good price point (around 200 USD) and good relative performance thanks to improved Linux open source drivers. It is still not on par with what nVidia offers, but it’s getting closer and closer. Now you could buy an AMD card and expect to play games with very decent performance. Note that Vulkan may be performing even better (at least on Dota 2) this particular AMD card than on similarly priced nVidia cards.

Mesa, Mesa, MESA!

Mesa has grown through leaps and bounds in 2016 – apparently with more than 2 million lines of code added to the source. It went beyond supporting OpenGL 4.3 with achieving 4.5 OpenGL support back in November for Intel, AMD and nVidia GPUs, while AMD’s not marked at fully compliant yet (Khronos validation pending). They have also added RADV Vulkan driver for AMD GPUs in the mainline Mesa, while AMD is not clear about whether or not they will contribute their Vulkan driver to the Open-Source effort at this stage. Intel gets its own Vulkan driver with ANV as well, for Broadwell and above.

Vulkan happened

The answer to DX12 has finally come in 2016, to provide an open low-level graphics API for Linux, Android and Windows platforms. It is still unclear how good of a traction it will get versus DX12 in the gaming world, but a couple of games like The Talos Principle and Dota 2 have implemented a Vulkan renderer, showing more stable framerates (i.e. less frame rates variations) versus OpenGL. It is probably going to take another year or two before we start seeing many games using Vulkan across platforms, but we already know that Feral is planning to release one game using Vulkan in the first half of 2017. Drivers are also evolving in parallel to ensure more and more hardware can use Vulkan, while older GPUs are likely to be left behind.

WINE supporting DX11

While WINE’s support of DX11 is very much work in progress there are huge strides made in 2016 to get some DX11 games working. In a recent post by the WINE Staging team (and the recent release of WINE 2.0), games such as Doom (2016) in OpenGL and Vulkan modes and Hitman Absolution using DirectX11, run almost flawlessly at high framerates through WINE. This is an amazing achievement, further expanding what can be made to run in the Linux environment. While proper ports are ideal, pragmatic gamers will now have more options (and can potentially avoid dual booting in the short to mid term).

The Bad

Honestly, there were not so many extremely bad outcomes in 2016. I can think of a couple, though.

Steam Machines are kind of dead

While SteamOS and the Steam Linux client are very much alive, the same can’t be said about Steam Machines. Hardly publicized at launch by Valve, completely forgotten in the Steam pages (along with absolutely NOT up to date information about specs and availability), one has to wonder why it’s still even listed at all there. While the Alienware Steam Machine is still being sold, it was admittedly not very successful in terms of sales as per Alienware’s founder himself. We have also learned from Richard Geldreich, one of the most prominent Linux guys at Valve (who worked on L4D2 port before quitting the company), that Valve had reduced the Linux efforts (back in 2013) right after the infamous “Faster Zombies” blogpost, as Microsoft got closer to Valve again. This may explain why Valve did not decide to put much of their weight behind the Steam Machines and kept it as just another pawn in their play.

Delays and Lack of Transparency

A bunch of high-profile games caused numerous rumors in 2016. Will Rocket League ever be released? (yes, it was, ultimately). What happened to Street Fighter V, despite the official announcement from Valve ? What has become of Witcher 3 ? Shadow Warrior 2 ? Will Civ 6 make it on our platform ? (in the end, yes, but it was certainly up in the air for a while). The list can go on. Some of these titles may come to Linux, but they are good representatives of the platform’s volatility. Even when stuff is announced, you can never be sure it will be released, let alone on time. And this is aggravated by the total lack of communication of such developers or publishers. A tentative release date is missed. No word from anyone. Half a year goes by and still, no word from anyone. We get it, Linux is still a small market, but that does not prevent you from being frank and tell folks where you are at in the porting process. Indifference and apathy is worse than anything else.

The Meh

While not as bad as the above, the following are still somewhat disappointing.

GOG’s Low Key Kind of Support

While Steam has been growing both in content and getting client updates for Linux on a regular basis, the same cannot be said for GOG. There is still no GOG Galaxy client support on our platform, and two issues are still plaguing their services: several titles available on Steam and GOG have no Linux binaries on GOG while there are on Steam, and older DOSBox titles are far from being supported broadly. Furthermore the flow of new Linux titles on GOG remains pretty slow. It is extremely disappointing since GOG is at its core a good match with a lot of Linux gamers in terms of DRM Stance, but they just don’t care enough to try to gain ground there.

Big Publishers Have Not Tested the Linux Market Yet

We talked about Square Enix making some strides in the Linux market earlier, but we should not be oblivious to the fact that most other major publishers are ignoring the platform altogether. Blizzard does not care (and officially answered that they would not support Linux in the foreseeable future back in 2015). Bethesda certainly has no interest to give us any game (even though Doom 2016 uses OpenGL/Vulkan and works almost flawlessly in WINE). Ubi Soft, for the most part, has not shown much love for us apart from some indie titles. Rockstar makes so much money on all the other platforms they can’t be bothered. Capcom was supposed to port Street Fighter V but there’s no sign it’s still coming. Konami is fading out their PC support progressively to focus on Mobile games so it’s unlikely they will start caring about Linux either. Activision has no plans to jump onboard (despite the Geometry Wars 3 port). CDPR has not officially communicated about any plans to release Witcher 3 on Linux despite early rumors coming from the Steam client itself back in 2015. EA‘s still EA and lives out of the Steam ecosystem and will probably be the last to ever consider Linux, unless they decide to release their own Origin client for us. So for the large majority of AAA games, things have not changed. As a Linux gamer we have to either forgo such games, or try to play them through WINE at this point in time.

Such companies are largely motivated by short term profits (because of shareholders) and there may be two ways to understand why things are not moving much. On one hand, it may simply that while Linux ports may be somewhat profitable, they have done the calculations and found out that focusing on other platforms is anyway more profitable, resource-wise. On the other hand, it could be that it’s simply off their radar at this stage (general awareness of Linux as a gaming platform is not very high and there is no direct representative to talk to about it).

Winter, or was it VR? … is coming… late

The HTC Vive support had been expected from its release date on Linux, and while many of us had given up hope to see it supported ever, Valve did show during the Steam Dev Days the Vive running on Linux. Nevertheless, at the time of writing, it is still not officially supported on Linux, but at least we know it is worked on, it is achievable, and it is only now a matter of time. Hopefully 2017, then – just like the latest book from George Martin, if all goes well.

The Overall Picture

So there were ups and downs in 2016. Yet on the whole, seeing how the market is evolving indicates more positive outcomes than anything else, and what’s being added is creating a more virtuous circle than there ever was before. While it will take a while for Linux to be a very large part of the Steam ecosystem, in the mid-term we could expect to come closer to the number of Mac Gamers (who knows, in 2-3 years time?) and become a more viable alternative for more people who want to escape the Windows/consoles world.


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Ekianjo

5 Comments

  1. Your summary on the Steam Machine is a little bit misinformed, while I can’t argue with the hardware summary. Richard Geldreich hasn’t worked at Valve for years, he also never said Valve had reduced the Linux efforts, he was talking about general lay-offs that happened at Valve back in 2013 that were not Linux specific. He just said the layouts “did impact the Linux team’s morale”.

    Valve has been upping their Linux efforts to improve the Mesa AMD Vulkan and OpenGL drivers, by recently hiring a number of developers including myself to work full time on improving the performance of the drivers.

    • Tim, thanks for jumping in to comment – your statement about what Richard said is entirely correct. Valve may not have reduced their efforts, but it does seem that from a commercial/marketing standpoint there was clearly a hiatus since the first announcement from Gabe. Also the fact that the HTC Vive did not come out with Linux support from day 1 was a little disappointing even though it was actively communicated prior to release. Now, your comment about Valve upping their efforts to improve MESA is reassuring, and AMD support has certainly improved massively in the past few months.

  2. I think you have written a fair summary Linux Gaming in 2016. During 2017 we can expect lots of small platform improvements and some major games releases that will gradually increase Linux Gaming popularity, but I think what we all want to see is a LARGE step change. I don’t think VR, or Wayland, or even major Windows 10 problems can provide the large step. I feel the best hope is for a combination of new first-class open AMD Linux graphics drivers along with a low-cost, low-wattage, but powerful new AMD APU. As this would allow smaller companies to innovate a console priced, small PC Gaming box from standard parts, for great gaming. This could be similar to what happened in 8-bit gaming with the Spectrum and Amstrad gaming systems in the UK in the 1980s.
    I think Tim and the all the others working on Mesa are doing critical work.

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