OpenTTD Went to Steam to Solve a Hard Problem


OpenTTD, the free and open-source software recreation of Transport Tycoon Deluxe, has been a popular game for a long time, but recently something unusual happened. The team behind the project decided to release the game on Steam (still free as always) and this has changed everything. Let me explain why this matters.

If you have ever played OpenTTD on Linux, let me venture that you have probably relied on your distro’s package manager to keep your game up-to-date. In theory, this is the BEST way to keep your packages up to date. Rely on maintainers. In practice however, it’s far from being something you can rely on, beyond security updates. Debian stable tends to have really old packages, sometimes years behind their latest versions. So on Debian stable you end up with OpenTTD 1.08 as the most recent version. That’s what shipped in April 2018. Just about 3 years old.

How about on Arch? Presently, you would be on one of the most recent versions, 1.10.3-2. After all, it’s normal: Arch is a rolling distro and you get the most recent packages for everything right?

Except that no, 1.10.3-2 is not the latest version. It’s from December 2020. 1.11 is the latest official version of OpenTTD, and Fedora, not remotely as popular as Arch, actually features the 1.11 version in their repos!

I could go on and on with more examples, but you get the idea: the distro fragmentation and the lack of standard when it comes to the maintenance of such packages makes every Linux user under the sun end up with a different version of the same game, sometimes behind by several months or years vs. the current release. While it might not matter much for your typical everyday tools, for games you certainly want to have the latest version as soon as possible. Especially for games like OpenTTD which features a multiplayer mode: having different versions will likely cause clients to refuse to each other’s on the same server.

Having the game on Steam resolves all of these problems: now, the developers behind OpenTTD have a single place to keep the game up-to-date, and all gamers who use Steam can rely on the fact that they are on the latest version of the game, at the same time. And this is not just great for Linux gamers, as already explained, but just as well for gamers on platforms such as Windows, where update mechanisms are even less reliable than on Linux (as in, mostly manual).

The cherry on the cake: having the game on Steam increases its popularity to reach new gamers, and since OpenTTD made it there, a plethora of new servers are available to play OpenTTD online. So it might be easier than ever to find a game to join - and this can all be linked to this single decision.

Now, it’s somewhat of a shame that for FOSS games, we have to rely on a proprietary game store which requires registration to solve this kind of problem. We could also have had a FOSS game center that would package binaries for various distributions and other operating systems, but Valve has already done most of the work with the presence of the Steam Runtime to make single Linux binaries run pretty much on any distro.

The success of this initiative (both in terms of solving updates and increasing community reach) will surely be a good example for other FOSS games out there to follow. Expect more and more FOSS games to make it on Steam this year.