OpenGL and 2011 as the year of Linux – Will it be because of Apple and Valve?

Somehow, no matter how many “will 20xx be the year of Linux” articles get published every year, the moment never seems to arrive and why is that? Linux has been packaged into great consumer desktop OS’s for at least six years, and by that I mean that even a novice could use it. Since that point Linux distributions have had a reasonable plug-n-play install experience, there were distros with sophisticated management tools that negated the need for command-line wizardry, the desktop environment was recognisable and usable by windows/mac users, and tools for packaging, distributing and installing apps were becoming common place. This blogger has been using SuSE flavoured distro’s since 9.1 was released in 2004 (thank you Novell for that free promo disk). Arguably, Linux has been a useful desktop OS for even longer, provided you were more technically minded, as can be attested to by the native Linux ports of games like the Quake and Unreal Tournament series which hark back to the end of the 20th century, so what happened……….

Ah gaming, that’s what has been missing from this whole desktop Linux equation, somewhere along the line it all went awry, the games dried up and somehow the great desktop revolution never happened. After all, we all know you can browse the web just fine under Linux, they even have flash support, just as we all know that the desktop experience is pretty polished these days, and that there are some truly stellar apps which compete toe-to-toe with the best windows and Mac equivalents, even better, you never have to worry about viruses or trojans, but what is that without games!

So where did Linux gaming go wrong?

OpenGL is the answer. From 1997 to 2003 OpenGL was going strong with annual releases bringing an ever more sophisticated API and support for new hardware functions, and the results spoke for themselves, top-tier developers like ID, Epic and Bioware all released native linux ports of their titles, but then OpenGL hit the development slow-lane and even 3D Labs attempt to rejuvenate development with the release of OpenGL 2.0 in September 2004 seemed to falter, as it was two years before the next release arrived with 2.1, and then yet more years of stagnation. During this period GPU makers had no option but to release custom extensions to the OpenGL spec in order that the new hardware functions driven by Direct3D development might also see use under OpenGL.

Unsurprisingly games developers and publishers looked at a stagnant API with a fragmented feature set dependant on which GPU you had and thought “no thanks!” Likewise the GPU companies looked at the apathy evident in Linux games development and saw no market there to serve, so while they continued to throw out a OpenGL driver or two to cater for the professional graphics crowd features and performance suffered, as did stability on any non certified CAD computer. ATI in particular made a bad name for themselves. Thus it became a self reinforcing cycle of decline, and lo, Epic and Bioware declined to release Linux version of their latest games, ID threatened to ditch OpenGL programming altogether, and even long time OpenGL developers were saying this in 2007:

Assuming GL3 is sane and well designed, it’ll take at least 1 or 2 years before we start to get mature and stable drivers from nVidia and ATI. I’m just tired of waiting for the “next big thing”, it is never ending. So, no, it won’t change my decision of going to DirectX.

So why does this blog think this will suddenly get better?

Apple and Valve are the answer. Fair dues must of course be given to Khronos Group who took over developmental control of OpenGL, releasing version 3.0 in 2008, and more importantly continuing to provide regular updates up to and including  OpenGL 4.0, which arrived less than a week ago. OpenGL is once more a vibrant and viable graphics API.

However the real meat of this story is Apples desire that the OpenGL dependent Mac OSX should become a gaming platform, as well as Valves desire to become a big player in the Mac gaming market, because games released natively on Unix derived OSX will need decent drivers from ATI and nVidia, just as they will also need OpenGL 3D rendering engines. With a huge market like Mac OSX opening up ATI and nVidia will pour more effort in ensuring stability, speed, and features in their OSX drivers, and what is good for Mac drivers should be equally good Unix based Linux drivers. By the same token, an OpenGL game developed for distribution on Mac is going to be a hell of a lot cheaper to port to Linux than a native Windows/DirectX game ever would be.

It also does not hurt that the premier DX11 3D garphics benchmark, Unigine Heaven, is cross-platform and gearing up for a big release at GDC, and if ATI and nVidia are going to capitalise on it as a marketing tool then they will have to ensure that their Linux drivers are up to the job of rendering this complex and advanced demo which uses the latest hardware features provided by DX11.

It’s not going to happen overnight, games developers will need to become comfortable developing cross-platform titles for release on PC and Mac, and they will have to gain confidence in the ability of both OpenGL to keep up with GPU development, and of Unix GPU drivers to attain the same quality as their windows counterparts, but if by the end of 2010 we have at least a couple of AAA titles released as native Linux versions, such as ID’s Rage, then other developers may look to follow their lead in 2011.

At that point we really will be talking about the year of desktop Linux as being upon us!

Update 24/03/2010 – The Unigine 2.0 demo has been released with full linux support via an OpenGL 3.2 rendering engine.

21 responses to “OpenGL and 2011 as the year of Linux – Will it be because of Apple and Valve?

  1. Steam is already is already well supported through WINE on Linux with Direct3D(WineD3D) and OpenGL. Why should Valve spend the money and manpower in support,etc when they don’t have to and have someone else do the work for you. Obviously, us WINErs get the best of both worlds.:)

    Valve, as a company, has never contributed anything to Linux apart from the server-side l4dead stuff. Why people think they are a part of this(open source) community and get all excited when they fart in our general direction is beyond me.

    Businesswise, remember the Source engine[tm] has to compete with everyone else ie. the Unreal3(Supports both OpenGL/Direct3D) and IdTech(Supports both OpenGL/Direct3D) engines and bringing back(!) OpenGL support broadens their marketplace and appeal….somewhat.

    Try to play a Direct3D title with an Apple computer(without Darwine). Apple gamers(zombies) are going to get a bigger letdown then they expected if they think they can play the latest and greatest….albeit there are only a handful of them.

  2. Valve have obviously decided that native Mac OSX ports are a better solution for them, than relying on third party WINE support.

    They are important to the open source community because open sourcers like playing AAA games too, and Valve will have contributed massively if they force nVidia and ATI to ship quality drivers on Mac, as it will also improve their linux drivers.

    Agreed, so this is a good thing, right………….?

    That’s presumably why Valve have opted for native OpenGL ports I would think.

    • No one cares about linux?? hah
      and we people, are supposed to follow what the masses use? and why?
      because you prefer mac or windows?
      get YOUR head out of your ass.
      you restrict yourself to windows or mac because you are a tool.

  3. I can only hope we will see good gaming on Linux soon, if’s it Apple and Valve that help us achieve that it’s fine by me. And everyone knowns when popular games and photoshop come to Linux many people will switch. 😉

    • Photoshop runs just fine on Linux – although it still remains awful software. Most games work under Wine.

      The reason why most people haven’t switched is because they are helpless cosumers who listen to Microsoft’s FUD and marketing and buy every word of it. OpenGL and WebGL are helping games developers take Linux seriously but Microsoft are desperately trying to fuck both of those in the ass too.

  4. I tried converting my mom to open source software but she keeps saying that free alternative programs will never get you anywhere and she is really into photoshop and other adobe products I swear she has the whole adobe suite and microsoft suit and she hates firefox and all in all she’s a real tool. If linux is going to gain popularity we will eventually need to appeal to the masses like my mom.

    Btw I’m not a teenager(22yrs) I’m just really close.

  5. It would take more then open GL catching up with direct X to sway the masses over to linux. Even if this did happen, it will still only pull those technically minded who mostly already work in the IT or software development industries… as it does now, except you can’t play any newish games, with the exception of couple dozen wine lets you play.

    By the way, how many of those worked well on day 1 of the games’ release? Hardcore gamers are an impetuous bunch.

    Don’t get me wrong, I have a fedora server that acts as my workhorse at the office, but its going to be a long time, if ever, that you’ll see it in widespread use for common desktops.

  6. While I agree that atm, there is very little reason for the average user interested in gaming to choose a GNU/Linux build over Windows7, the people saying that no one would ever look to Linux distos for that is a bit of a reach.
    With most distros updating to a new and updated version about once every 6 months for free. If game developers were to come up with a way to develop games that ran natively in GNU/Linux why would anyone pay Microsoft 400 bucks for a new version of their OS, when they get all upgrades for GNU/Linux distros for free.
    As for the WINE crowd, while I agree it’s a decent option for the moment (many people even see framerate increases over running games in windows natively) running something natively would be a MUCH more attractive solution.

    On a side note, the allure of OpenSource operating systems has really taken a huge leap for the average user. You’ll be hard-pressed to find someone unfamiliar with the Android smartphone. It has quickly surpassed sales of both the OSX and Microsoft counterparts primarily due to it’s OpenSource nature being good for smartphone manufacturers.

    How long do you think it will take people to start asking, “If I can access all this for free on my phone, why not my PC?”

  7. I wish it all the best, but sadly, windows just works.
    Linux doesnt.
    It can be made to work. But thats not the same thing.

    Most people dont “buy” windows, its just comes with their PC or laptop.
    To get any real penetration, you need real sales of linux machines, I’m aware it was tried once, but dont know the results.
    If pressed, I’d guess people turned up complaining their PC was broken because their new game didnt work, or new mouse didnt work.

    Been a happy microsoft customer since windows 98, now use XP, made to look like 98.
    Had 95, but its hard to say your happy with windows 95….

    • i use win7 64bit and it’s great, but i prefer doing everything in linux that isn’t gaming.

      that said, because my main PC is a hardcore gaming rig it doesn’t have linux installed on it at all at present.

      that said, i reckon old gog games may start to run better on wine than they do on win7 before long.

      • Maybe, but I consider myself a relativly techy person, in that I built all my PC’s, but I just dont have a reason to make a jump.
        Windows has to be bad as well as Linux good.

        Currently, neither is really the case.

      • indeed not, Windows 7 is a very good operating system, which will put pressure on linux adoption numbers that maybe they didn’t expect back in the Vista days.

  8. Is there anybody here who believe that opengl games have the same performance with directx windows games ? Cause i think directx is better.
    I like linux and i like mac but ive been playing games on mac and i played games in the same mac on windows os and the frames per second cannot be compared , bigger resolution better detail and more frames per second, while in mac the games seemed pretty dead.

    I hope for the best cause i like linux and mac osx.

    If companies dont start making software for linux then every advancement linux would bring in future distros will be in vain.
    I think we should help linux to spread. We can advertise linux and not only online. If more people would use linux then companies will write apps for it too.

  9. Pingback: The Linux Steambox Cometh – A new franchise model for ‘console’ gaming | Jedibeeftrix's Blog

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