Game On!

The Linux revolution spreads to gaming

When Scott Draeker decided he wanted to make games for the Linux operating system, he had to work hard to convince computer-game companies there was a market for them. "Frankly, it took a hell of a lot of cold calling," he admits.

Two years later, he's having to fend off the market with a stick.

Draeker is president of Tustin-based Loki Entertainment Software (www.lokigames.com), which takes games created by other companies and ports them (in essence, translates them) over to the Linux system. Loki has thus far released seven games—including such heavy hitters as Civilization: Call to Power, Quake III Arena and Heretic II—and is in talks with a number of other companies about porting over their games.

Indeed, the Linux community's interest in games for their beloved OS is so high that last month, Draeker posted a plea on the Internet asking them not to nag Irvine-based Blizzard Entertainment, publisher of such immensely popular games as Starcraft, Warcraft and Diablo II.

"There have been a number of rumors circulating about possible Linux ports of Blizzard's products," Draeker wrote. "While it's great that people want to play these games on Linux, mail-bombing Blizzard is not the answer."

"Blizzard is in many ways the king of this industry," Draeker says. "The stuff they release is just incredible; everyone would love to see a port of Starcraft or Diablo II. We would love to do something like that. Unfortunately, it's possible for Linux users to be seen as cranky. We don't want to give any publisher the impression that the supporting base is going to be more trouble than it's worth. Sending Blizzard 100,000 e-mails isn't going to get Starcraft ported to Linux. Selling 100,000 copies of Quake III is."

"Cranky" is a word that tends to crop up frequently regarding Linux users, as are "idiosyncratic," "independent" and "smart." In the past couple of years, Linux has begun to break away from its image as a difficult-to-learn OS suitable only for hardcore techies and become a media darling; more than twice as many copies of Linux shipped last year than in 1998. More and more corporations are beginning to use it on their servers. The city of Garden Grove runs its computer system, including its Web site (www.ci.garden-grove.ca.us), on Linux. That's pretty good for an OS that started out as a hobby.

In 1991, a Finnish graduate student named Linus Torvalds got so irritated by his computer's operating system that he decided to write his own and released the result, an OS similar to Unix, to the world. The result, Linux, is "open-source" software, meaning that the source code of the program is freely available to every user, and every user is free to make his or her own changes, suggestions and contributions to it. Thousands of users around the world have tinkered with Linux in the past nine years. Linux supporters argue that this makes for better software than the "closed-source" model used by most software manufacturers, such as Microsoft, in which only a few programmers ever see the source code; users see only the end result on their screens.

That's the advantage. The drawback is that there's no one established standard for Linux and no formalized tech support. In other words, if your OS crashes for the eighth time in one day, you can't call an 800 number and get put on hold for 40 minutes while flames lick at your hard drive. Of late, however, that has been changing. Durham, North Carolina-based Red Hat produces a shrink-wrapped version of Linux and offers tech support.

But beyond all this—and beyond Linux's rather steep learning curve—one of the main things that has held back its widespread acceptance is the lack of applications. You can't get a copy of Microsoft Word or Quicken for the Linux OS, to name a couple of the more popular consumer applications.

Nonetheless, expectations in the Linux community are high. In 1999, according to a survey by International Data Corp., Linux accounted for 4 percent of all desktop systems; that may not sound like much, but by way of comparison, Apple's Macintosh system accounts for only 5 percent of the desktop market (thank you, Bill Gates). Draeker believes those numbers can only go up, and he thinks games will be a big part of it.

"Games drive hardware sales," he says. "Once you've got a market established because people are buying games, companies will start manufacturing hardware to support it. Most users don't care what OS they're using, but they have expectations of being able to do certain things—checking their e-mail, for example—and playing games is a big part of that. If you go to a store and have a choice between a computer with Windows and a computer with Linux, you shouldn't have to give up anything if you pick the Linux box."

That's part of the reason Draeker decided to found Loki back in the summer of 1998. At the time, he was working as an attorney, but he had a long history in the computer business—"I was a geek from early on," he says—and had been following Linux's development with great interest. In the dearth of games, he saw an opportunity. "Linux users are very tech-savvy—that's your game demographic right there," he says.

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