The rise of Linux as a gaming platform

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Linux has never been considered a player in gaming, but it’s never had a supporter like Valve before. Having publicly declared the recently released Windows 8 “a giant sadness [that] just hurts everybody in the PC business”, Gabe Newell is throwing his company’s weight behind not only legitimising the platform for games, but creating a new Linux-based console that will bring it to the living room: the Steam Box.

Valve has several reasons to make this happen. Traditionally, PC gaming has been bound up with Microsoft and its technologies, such as Windows, DirectX and DOS. Love or hate Windows 8 and its shift to a more tablet-focused design, it’s been a cold reminder to everyone of exactly who owns the platform, and the attempted migration to a more locked-down world of Microsoft apps and services hasn’t been popular.

Free software activist Richard Stallman has complained that unlike the OS, games released under Valve’s plans won’t be open source

It also obviously threatens Valve, whose Steam gaming and digital distribution service is today’s de facto face of PC gaming. Linux, however, is an open platform. Anyone can create a version of it, known as a ‘distro’, and while creator Linus Torvalds and his team maintain the core code – the kernel – everything can be ‘forked’ in different directions and built on by anyone with the desire and technical skill. Ubuntu, for example, is an attempt at a Windows-style interface that anyone can use, while Debian is aimed at more experienced users. For Valve, Linux means a platform with nobody else calling the shots – and especially not a direct business rival with a new console of its own on the way.

The official Valve-created Steam Box isn’t due until 2014, though that’s only part of the attack plan. Other firms will be able to build their own versions, with Newell hinting that a ‘Good’, ‘Better’, ‘Best’ ethos will be used in lieu of complex system specifications. Under this regime, a Good box would likely be built around streaming, similar to tools such as OnLive, with a Better box having a dedicated GPU/CPU and the tightest restrictions, and a Best box being a device of a certain performance plus anything else the manufacturer wants to throw in – a Blu-ray drive, for example. The official Steam Box won’t be locked down if anyone wants to install Windows on it, though it will ship running Linux. Valve’s challenge over the next year is to get enough support from other developers to ensure a good lineup for gamers willing to take that plunge.

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