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Opinion: Can Linux score big with IP gaming?

April 1, 1999
Web posted at: 3:19 p.m. EST (2019 GMT)

by Nicholas Petreley


(IDG) -- I love computer games. Bear with me: This will be a column on Linux. I promise. But it will take a few moments to get there. If you're a real die-hard game fan and don't need convincing that this market is about to explode, feel free to skip to the section entitled "Radio days."

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As I was saying, I love computer games. My favorite genre is the roleplaying game, like Dungeon Master, Wizardry, Might and Magic, Fallout, Diablo, Krondor, and Lands of Lore. But I also like realtime and turn-based strategy games, such as Heroes of Might and Magic, Civilization, Alpha Centauri, Warcraft, Starcraft, and even Planet Blupi, which I play with my daughter.

Nothing beats a good strategy game for online play. Going head-to-head with a human opponent is far more satisfying than beating a computer (or losing to a computer). And the online mode for most games disables all the cheats that are available to you in single-player mode. So online gaming is a better test of skill.

Finally, I love the social-gathering online computer games, like Acrophobia. Acrophobia requires many people to gather and try their hands at coming up with a phrase that fits an acronym. For example, the game might pop up the letters CALCTF, which one might expand as Clinton And Lewinsky: Clinton Told Fibs. After a time limit, Acrophobia posts all the submissions, and everyone votes for the one they think is best. The person with the most points after several turns wins.

The only type of game I've consciously avoided -- until recently, that is -- is the 3D first-person shooter. I honestly couldn't understand the fascination with Wolfenstein, Doom, and Quake. Sure the graphics are pretty. But the game play boils down to "run down halls, shoot everything you see, find key, open door, run down halls, etc."

But that all changed when the latest batch of 3D first-person shooters came out -- Half-Life, Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six, Battlezone, and Starsiege: Tribes. I purchased Half-Life first, along with a Voodoo2 3D graphics accelerator card. It was supposed to be strictly for my son to play. But as I watched over his shoulder, I was blown away. The graphics and sound are phenomenal. It was so impressive that I had to try it myself.

That was a mistake. I was hooked inside of five minutes. The playability is superb because Half-Life isn't your average 3D shooter. It has a plot. You have to plan what you're going to do. And most surprising of all, you have to avoid shooting some players -- they're there to help you.

Better still is the multiplayer mode of Half-Life. Half-Life has laser-triggered traps and radio-triggered mines you can set in various places, which gives the game strategic elements. And it has a way to deal with those who like to camp (hide in a room and occasionally shoot from a window). A laser gun that shoots through walls takes care of them quite nicely.

But that was only the beginning. I broke down and bought a Voodoo2 card for myself and added Rainbow Six to my library. Rainbow Six is a breakthrough in playability and immersion. The game puts you in charge of a SWAT team assigned to rescue hostages and take out terrorists.

Based on a realistic one-shot/one-kill philosophy, Rainbow Six requires a keen sense of strategy and tactical combat, and essentially forces you to cooperate with other computer-generated or online players. It is virtually impossible to play this game by barging into every room, guns ablaze. A Rambo-type simply won't last in a game like this.

One thing that really enhances online gaming (my preferred term is IP gaming, because most of the exciting developments are in Internet game play) is the ability to talk to your teammates using a microphone as you play. Rainbow Six has this feature built in, but you can add the feature to most games using a utility called Battlefield Communicator.

But while IP gaming is getting more compelling than ever, one thing makes the gaming experience frustrating: system crashes. For a while there, I had to reboot and fiddle with my son's computer several times a day to keep it working. And the frequency of crashes or other problems seems to increase with the sophistication of the equipment. It's sad that the cost of improving your game experience with a high-powered 3D accelerator card or 3D audio card is instability.

Radio days

I could go on about other games, but I think I've covered enough ground to make some observations. On the negative side, the scourge of computer gaming seems to be wrapped around the instability of Windows. On the positive side, there are two aspects of computer gaming that have crossed the threshold necessary to push IP gaming into the limelight: Cheap, high-quality 3D audio-video acceleration and the increased sophistication of online communications and participation.

The IP gaming market isn't huge at the moment. Only the top games reach sales of 1 million or more copies. If a game sells 200,000 copies these days, it's considered a major hit.

But I predict IP gaming will begin to explode within the next two years, as Internet connectivity and audio-video hardware acceleration and enhancement become more commonplace (and you can hardly buy a computer these days without some form of 3D acceleration).

Linux should be there when it happens.

If IP gaming only begins to reach critical mass sometime in the next two years, there's time for Linux to stake a claim in what promises to be a huge and influential market. If Linux can provide a gaming experience like those I've described above -- and do so without crashing -- Linux could easily become the de facto standard gaming platform for home use.

Think about it -- what do people really demand from a home computer system besides easy installation? A Windows GUI? Some will argue that, but I don't buy it, at least not to the extent it has been argued. I've heard people say KDE is inferior to the Windows 95 interface. Even assuming they have a case (I disagree, personally), is that a meaningful measurement? How much did the vastly inferior Windows 3.1 interface inhibit the adoption of Windows into the home?

What else? The most powerful word processor? Hardly -- most people I know who have a home computer barely know how to use cut and paste, let alone the advanced features of Microsoft Word. Yet they wouldn't settle for anything less than high-quality graphics and fast performance for game play. I'd like to see the research, but I would bet the advancement of PC hardware in the home is driven more by games than productivity applications.

The challenge

The problems for Linux are numerous, however, and need immediate attention. In the first place, Linux needs a standard 3D API with broad support for hardware acceleration. OpenGL is already available for Linux -- perhaps this would be the way to go.

More important, Linux needs to support the vast majority of sound cards and their special features.

Last but not least, Linux needs to support USB as quickly as possible. This is a subtle performance issue that applies most of all to 3D gaming. One reason 3D animation is more compelling these days is the fact that you can get faster than 30 frames per second with high-quality graphics. (Thirty fps is the traditional threshold to remove choppiness from animation.)

The problem arises when you manipulate your 3D environment with a serial or PS/2 mouse. The mouse generates interrupts about 20 times per second -- less than the 30-fps threshold. Therefore all mouse-generated movement tends to create choppy graphics. USB, however, increases the rate of interrupts dramatically. If you want to see by how much, set your Windows display to the highest resolution and color depth possible, turn on opaque windows, and move a large window around on the desktop. Do it first with a regular mouse, then with a USB mouse. Although I actually find the USB movement more annoying (because the smooth animation slows down the process of moving the window), you'll be amazed at the difference.

The coming quake in games

There is hope that independent software vendors see this potential. Id Software is creating a commercial version of Quake III for Linux that it plans to ship at the same time as Quake III for Windows. Loki is almost ready to release Civilization: Call to Power for Linux.

But I have a advice for both developers and users who truly want to see Linux in the home.

I would like to see developers form a committee to create an open source-based API specifically for Linux IP gaming.

My message to users is the same advice I gave when I talked about the success of Linux and commercial productivity applications: buy the software. Yes -- it's wonderful that there are free, open source games. But remember that companies like Id Software and Loki can't advance the state of the art of Linux IP gaming for free. Your vote with your dollars will go a long way toward proving that Linux is a worthy contender for the home market -- a move that will simply increase the momentum.

Stable online 2D and 3D gaming is a relatively easy ticket for Linux to use in order to work its way into the home. All I can say is I hope the right people grab it.

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Last week's Penguin Brief, "Removing the plank"
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Battlefield Communicator
Id Software
Loki Software
3Dfx Interactive, makers of the Voodoo2 card - Linux programs on the Web
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