I don’t think any sane person is going to disagree with the quote, “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
For those unaware, that quote came from British politician Baron Acton in 1887. That’s one of the few sayings man has uttered that stands against the test of time. Keep in mind, Acton coined this phrase from politicians who said something similar even earlier than his time; Acton’s phrase just seems to be the most popular, since it reads like modern English.
Now, I’m not trying to get into politics; we’re a gaming web site, after all. But sadly, after a number of events have occured – for the gaming industry in particular – within the past couple of years, I feel like even us Linux gamers get the short end of the stick. True, we always had the short end of the stick, up until Valve stepped in and basically saved our bacon around 2012-2013. But as far as native Linux games are concerned, and as advanced as Proton gets, competition that has arisen lately can either be a plus for us, or, as I bring out here, competion can be more so of a nuisance than it is anything else.
With a $150+ billion industry, naturally the big names are going to want to get involved in getting a slice of the pie of the gaming scene. We’re talking Microsoft, Nintendo, EA Games, Epic, you name it.
Because these corporations are loaded with cash, it’s not hard for them to hand over a couple billion (yes, with a “B”) to buy a company out for their own use. A popular example is Microsoft.
Yeah, some were probably expecting me to point the gun at Microsoft first. I’m not a total Microsoft hater, as I do appreciate some of their work, like some of the code they’ve contributed to the Linux kernel. But I seem to hear it all the time. Microsoft bought this company. Microsoft now owns this group. Just a few examples, for the gaming industry specifically:
- They bought Bungie of Halo fame in 2000
- They bought Rare – you know, the guys behind hits like Donkey Kong Country – in 2002 for $375 million
- They bought Mojang, the studio behind Minecraft, in 2014 for $2.5 billion
- They bought the Havok engine in 2015. Examples of games powered by Havok include Dragon Age: Inquisistion, Destiny, Killzone: Shadow Fall (PlayStation exclusive!), Assassin’s Creed: Unity, and Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor
- They bought GitHub in 2018 for $7.5 billion
- They bought Obsidian Entertainment in 2018 - rather famous for numerous titles since the new Millenia, such as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II, Neverwinter Nights 2, Fallout New Vegas and more recently Grounded.
- They bought Double Fine Productions in 2019 - the studio of Tim Schafer, behinds games like Psychonauts, Brutal Legends and Broken Age, as well as numerous remasters of older Lucasfilm games.
- They bought ZeniMax Media in 2020 for $7.5 billion, by far their largest acquisition so far. ZeniMax encompasses Bethesda, id Software, Arkane Studios, Tango Gameworks, and MachineGames, and includes franchises like the DOOM series, the Dishonored series, the Wolfenstein series, and The Elder Scrolls.
And this is just a small sampling; they bought Hotmail, Skype, Nokia, and LinkedIn, all among the hundreds of companies they acquired, nevermind having a stake in.
Makes me really wonder how much Microsoft really has in terms of money.
Actually, I just looked it up: they made $143 billion according to their 2020 report. Buy a company for a couple billion dollars? No sweat!
What do all these acquisitions mean for us? Well, something that kind of hits me home is their acquisition of Rare. I mean, they’ve owned the company for almost 20 years now, but before then they were making some great games, specifically, on Nintendo-branded hardware. Since the acquisition, the last time we’ve seen something from the Banjo-Kazooie series is Nuts and Bolts in 2008. Since then, they’re haven’t been any particularly noteworthy franchises that Microsoft has created. I haven’t played much of Bungie’s games nowadays but apparently they’re trash.
A lot of you may be concerned over the acquisition of ZeniMax Media. They are, after all, the company behind some pretty big hits. Will these games still be supported on PlayStation hardware? Will Linux ports ever see the light of day? The latter, most likely not, but hopefully they’ll make the games Proton-compatible. After all, it has been reported Halo: The Master Chief Collection runs well on this compatibility layer. As for PlayStation, Minecraft is still on this platform, so other games owned by Microsoft may still be available.
Microsoft joined the Linux foundation late 2016. Supposedly, they’re a high-paying “Platinum Member.” I don’t know if their claim, “We love Linux,” is actually true. If anything, they consider Linux as a threat, as long as they’re not making revenue via this platform. They haven’t made any official drivers for Linux as far as their Xbox controllers are concerned. Microsoft is invested in Linux at least when it comes to their whole Azure cloud services, a competitor to AWS and Google Cloud, and they have made it easier to develop for Linux within Windows with the WSL module developed in partnership with Ubuntu.
Microsoft tried to make their own locked garden during the Windows 8 era with the Windows Store and trying to force everyone to put their applications through there. Fortunately, they failed miserably, thanks in no small part to Valve creating SteamOS. But it doesn’t mean Microsoft won’t stop trying.
Up until a few years ago, we had it good on the PC gaming front. Most of the games we bought were on Steam. Ever since Epic got in on the whole launcher thing though a few years ago, stores have become increasingly fragmented. Epic wasn’t just making Fortnite exclusive to the Epic Games Store; they were making an attractive market share to publishers and developers alike. Publishers/independent devs would get 88% of the profit, rather than Steam’s 70%. In addition, to put their thumb over Steam, since they aren’t anywhere near as popular as a store front, Epic has been buying timed exclusives.
Now Linux definitely would be out of the question here. There’s no official Linux client for the EGS, besides the third-party Legendary (CLI)/Heroic Games Launcher (GUI). And getting the official client to run through Lutris was buggy, until it was finally working a number of months ago. There’s also no mod support here, no community forum for the game, no configuration of controls, no 10-foot interface, no workshop…effectively making gaming distros like GamerOS unreliable if you wanted to play a game outside of Steam. (GamerOS actually added support for EGS as of version 20, but who knows what kind of hassle ensues browsing EGS with a controller.) On top of this, besides the freebies that Epic brings to the table every couple of weeks, prices for games otherwise remain the same as on Steam. What incentive does that bring to a consumer to use EGS instead of Steam?
Not only this, but the way Easy Anti-Cheat (EAC) – which, of course, is part of Epic – works has borked all the games that use it on Proton. EAC compatibility is currently being worked on, as James Ramey brought out to us, but who knows how long that will take. Until that time, say goodbye to games like Fall Guys and other popular games that have forced you to play on other platforms. (Speaking of Fally Guys, unsurprisingly the company behind it, Mediatonic, has just recently been bought by Epic. It won’t be long before Epic goes on a buyout streak.)
Tim Sweeney, CEO of Epic, told Valve that Epic will stop making exclusives if Steam matches up the 88/12% ratio. Valve isn’t fazed by Sweeney’s ludicrous demands. I’m sure they have their tricks up their sleeve for this kind of situation. After all, Steam is still king of the PC gaming front, with over 24 million players online at the same time as of December of last year.
The problem here is that a lot of the time, we need to resort to the EGS because of the exclusives. And as more and more multiplayer games are incorporating EAC, it has made Proton effectively useless against such titles. Thankfully, the community projects like Legendary and Heroic Games Launcher make it possible to play EGS games through a native client, but again, the games themselves are not native, and it certainly won’t help against EAC by any means either.
For what it’s worth, many of our guests in the 2021 predictions’ article actually expect EAC to work on Linux within this year - that would remove a major roadblock for compatibility, if true.
They’ve bought out a lot more companies than just Codemasters though. Though their list is not quite as extensive as Microsoft’s, the acquisitions more often than not brought disaster. For instance, Origin, as a gaming company, was doing very well in the 90s. Once EA took over in 1992, what has Origin become now? Just this locked-down version of Steam, just like the Epic Games Store. VG Holding Corp/BioWare no longer makes the same RPGs as they did prior to 2007.
I can already tell you this is going to have a deeper impact than Microsoft’s acquisition over anything. For one, future games in these series will more than likely be locked to EA’s Origin client. Now, we’ve got EA Play for Steam, but it’s still a headache to have to log into Origin, install the client, and have it run in the background while we play, essentially needing two store fronts running while we’re playing the game. Not exactly convenient, if you ask me. Some games by EA are on Steam without needing to run Origin in the background (think of EA’s older titles), but EA may decide to remove those games at any time, again forcing us to use Origin through Lutris or by other means.
Another side effect of this is, forget about Feral stepping in to make a native Linux version of any future titles. Like Epic, EA has no interest in Linux whatsoever, as there’s no Linux version of the Origin client.
Lastly, a few questions we gotta ask ourselves is, “What will the future of these games look like? Will they retain the same formula as before? Will they still be fun? Will they introduce something that we may not like? Will there be micro-transactions, as Star Wars: Battlefront II was notoriously known for?”
Oh wait a minute. I just mentioned Star Wars. The good news about that? EA no longer owns the right to it. Ubisoft has already announced they’re working on their own Star Wars game. Oh wait. Ubisoft Connect isn’t available on Linux…
The result of Origin and EA’s acquisitions? Less native titles. More needing to use Wine/Lutris/Proton to run their games. A nuisance to install and run two game store clients in the background.
NVIDIA was looking to buy ARM for $40 billion back in Septermber. We don’t know the impact this would have on all our ARM devices, including our smartphones and tablets, the Raspberry Pi, the Pinebook Pro, etc. At least, you would know who could potentially be getting a slice of the profit whenever you buy your next ARM device (except for M1 Apple products; those devices are made out of Apple’s own silicon). There seems to be some anti-trust cases going on against this acquisition, so who knows if it’ll actually happen.
We don’t have just x86 and ARM architectures, however. RISC-V is starting to become a thing. Ars Technica reported that the device Micro Magic is currently working on is RISC-V, claiming “the CPU could produce 13,000 CoreMarks at 5GHz and 1.1V while also putting out 11,000 CoreMarks at 4.25GHz—the latter all while consuming only 200mW.” Take that with a pinch of salt, though; RISC-V is still in its infant stages. Still, RISC-V could be a cheaper alternative to ARM embedded devices, while at the same time reaping the benefit of being an open-hardware platform.
As far as the Linux landscape is concerned, gamers who have NVIDIA hardware are going to need to use the proprietary drivers from the company to get the best experience. Additionally, there are more than a few things users can do that they couldn’t otherwise do on the Mesa drivers:
- they can use GPU encoding for video editing
- they have many proprietary advantages, including ray-tracing, deep-learning super sampling (DLSS), and CUDA
It’s all up to the graphics giant to do the things we want our graphics cards to do, and more often than not we have to wait a while for NVIDIA to update their drivers so we can use the latest kernel. It also means having to resort to the proprietary CUDA for machine learning, and always having to use the older X11 display protocol rather than the newer Wayland, which supposedly helps eliminate the hassles the former has.
During the initial stages when Linux gaming really started to kick off around 2013, a lot of the native Linux games only had official support for NVIDIA hardware, including SteamOS; sometimes a workaround had to be made for those who have an AMD graphics card.
AMD owners, however, have the advantage of using the open-source Mesa drivers, and as time evolved, their gaming experience only got better. AMD cards also yield better reprojection support when it comes to VR, and certain VR titles that can’t run on NVIDIA will run on AMD. They also have better support for Wayland. I’m hoping that AMD will eventually catch up with NVIDIA in terms of other features that NVIDIA supports but AMD doesn’t.
The risk? Wayland adoption slows down. Not as good VR support. Still having a broken experience with Cyberpunk 2077. The need to use proprietary software for Machine Learning. Not as fast growth as AMD/Mesa.
So What Does This All Mean?
Monolithic companies all trying to get their giant hands on everything that we admire: the games, the distros, the hardware, you name it. It’s getting more and more difficult for anyone else to make a name for themselves, because they would need a more than massive budget to do so. It also means a headache for us as individuals and end-consumers. The term “universal” is in itself becoming increasingly fragmented. Snaps? Flatpaks? AppImages? What “universal” solution would you use?
Multiple store clients have to be installed in order to play the game you want. You may suddenly have to switch to another distribution, because the giants got a hold of it and now they’re forcing you to pay in order to keep using it (think of IBM forcing customers to pay for CentOS now – fortunately there’s Rocky Linux). There’s a whole lot of other companies that I could get into here, including Ubisoft, but the ones I mentioned here I think impact us the most.
A franchise may be bought by a first-party company and you will no longer be able to play it on the platform of your choice, or the series in-game mechanics may be altered, either for your benefit or, more likely, to your annoyance. Worse, they might just kill off the franchise altogether.
Competition is good, but only to an extent. I feel that these giants are going too far. It’s ruining our experience. Games may not work out-of-the-box as they once did. Native Linux ports are vanishing. In fact, I feel these acquisitions and forcing customers to switch over to other game store clients is anti-competition. It’s just… not fun at all.
I think this is where Linux and open-source shines. If a company grabs a hold of something, chances are someone will come up with a better alternative – think of Rocky Linux (alternative for CentOS when IBM killed it) or RISC-V, for example. For proprietary services, however, this can be a nuisance. Do you want the Xbox Series X or the PlayStation 5? Do you want to claim a freebie on the Epic Games Store, but be forced to use that client on Proton rather than Steam? Do you want to have the more advanced features of Discord, or use the open-source Matrix with less options? All these factors come into play.
In the end, a business is to make money. And competition for businesses, especially here in the gaming space, is huge. If a business can get a hold of something that others can’t do, they’ll keep it that way, forcing customers to switch over to their product. If that includes buying another company to essentially kill it, as especially exemplified by Microsoft, they’ll do that too. The result of this is that is has caused a headache for us as end-users for choosing the right product.
Good ol’ Valve, that animal. Though Steam is proprietary, they’ve done a lot to contribute to open-source projects, including WINE, DXVK, D9VK, Zink, FAudio, etc. Linux gaming would be nowhere where it is today without Valve’s efforts. It seems like they’re the only gaming company that actually cares getting out of the Windows-centric comfort zone and moving on to an open-source platform, using the source code for their (and our) benefit. They are also very relaxed with their fanbase, allowing and sometimes even promoting mods and HD remakes of their games. They don’t
force incentivize developers to use their platform, and thus do not promote or demand exclusivity to Steam. This is the type of company I want to support. Here’s hoping Valve continues to break the chain.
And yet we go back and forth. What if we become too reliant on Valve? What if Valve becomes the de-facto standard for everything? Then they could acquire companies left and right and continue anti-competition. On the other hand, if Valve got acquired by, say, Microsoft, what would Linux gaming be like then? I don’t think that would ever happen, but it just goes to show how thankful people like me are that they actually support Linux in the first place.