There's No Such Thing as "Linux Games"


Happy New Year 2019 to everyone! Now it’s time to look forward instead of back at 2018. I saw that on GOL they posted an article about their “Top Linux games” of 2018. The wording, and the underlying idea seem wrong to me. And it’s not just about nitpicking. The words we use reflect our model of the world.

There are no “Linux games” out there.

At least, not in the commercial world. Most games nowadays do NOT target a single platform. Sure, platform exclusivity is still a thing. So, in that sense there are still games made only for the PS4 that have no other target, and these can be called “PS4 games”. The same can be said for Nintendo, since all of their games are pretty much exclusive to their own devices. Those are “Switch/3DS games”. The distinction also made sense when I was a kid and we had “Sega Megadrive games”, “SNES games” and “Amiga games”. There were some rare cases where a game would cross platforms but when it did it was almost a different game, with different graphics and music - and different control scheme (computers had one-button joysticks while consoles had at least gamepads with 3 buttons). Look at Final Fight on SuperNES and Amiga for a good laugh. Look at how different each version of Street Fighter 2 was at the time to be convinced.

On the other hand, one of the most consistent multi-platform games was Another World, and that’s because it was designed to be portable (it implements a kind of VM) in the first place. This sad state of affairs was driven by the fact that each machine required its own dev toolkit and there was nothing compatible across the spectrum. You had to start from scratch for every new device.

But in 2018, or even for a while now, we live in a post-platform world. There are less and less platform-specific games. When one decides for exclusivity, it is driven by marketing strategies, not by huge technical hurdles. There’s a wide range of games made available on multiple formats at the same time, and released almost on the same day (which was inconceivable back in the 90s - remember when ports took 1 or 2 years?). Games nowadays can be released pretty much at the same time on multiple operating systems because they are built to be portable (using middleware or other solutions such as cross-platform APIs). In practice, there is no reason to talk about “Windows games” or “MacOS games” or “Xbox games” for a game that is designed to run on Unity. Such games are “Unity games”, and will run everywhere where Unity is technically supported. Same for the other engines.

There are no such thing as “Linux Games” since nobody has any intention to make a game exclusive to Linux, just like there are no “Windows games” when such games are released at the same time on PS4/Xbox. What we get instead is “games that happen to run on Linux” but that does not make them “Linux games”. We don’t get to attribute any kind of ownership because a third party (often not even the original dev!) made a port 1 year after every other platform out there.

This wording further loses meaning as we enter a post-Proton world on Linux. Proton enables a Windows-Binary and DX9-to-11 compatibility layer. Now we have literally hundreds if not thousands of Windows titles can run on Linux at a click of a button within Steam. Even if you don’t like Steam, Lutris enables similar capability with GOG Windows games. You would not even know that they are not native clients when everything works as expected: controllers, performance, and even Alt-TAB are supported. So, aren’t these “Linux games” too? Should we make a distinction between “whitelisted games” and the rest?

At this stage, trying to draw the line is absolutely meaningless. For the end user, what matters is what games one can actually play on Linux without a huge amount of effort, be it native clients, Proton-based clients, Lutris or games running in emulators (Steam has those too… do they still qualify as “Linux games” just because they have an Linux support icon then??).

As a kid, platform exclusivity used to be a bitch. There was always one game you wanted to play on some other platform but you could not have them all. It sucked for everyone involved. Even the one rich kid who had a Neo Geo but could not play the latest PC Engine game that happened to be great.

Welcome to 2019, where that problem is slowly, slowly going away. Now the main problem you are going to have, my friends, is to pick up what game you want to play and find enough time for it.

Time to leave the old thinking behind.