A little while ago, Gamespy produced a short article in which they suggested we might, just might, be seeing the beginning of a shift in PC gaming from Windows dominating to Linux taking over. In the short article, they promptly asked at the end if we as gamers would embrace such a change. Today, we explore the possibilities… what if we are about to see the beginning of this shift? How would it happen, and how would we be effected? Join me in a little “future history” and see if maybe you could see this happening.
How It Would Happen:
Oddly enough, this change, while assisted by current events in the PC market, such as THQ looking into making their games for Linux as well as Windows and the general revulsion from some of the most outspoken and successful PC developers towards Windows 8 and the steps it could represent for the future of Windows software, it is the events in the living room that we can confirm will happen that would most likely bring about this change in the PC gaming world.
During the VGAs, Gabe Newell basically told us all that the SteamBox is coming. For those of you who do not know, it has been rumored for a long time that Valve is looking to create some kind of device to put PC gaming in the living room. This device is the Steambox, which if rumors hold true will be a PC designed to connect to the TV and, using the Big Picture interface currently available in the Windows release of Steam. Should this come to be, the Steambox will need an OS they can get cheap or free, and between their public beta of Steam for Linux going on right now, Gabe being one of those outspoken developers against the direction Windows is going, and their further experimentation with their current game engine with the OS, it seems a natural fit to expect this to run on Linux. It is on this device that the beginning of a shift to Linux on PC would most likely begin.
Should the system be successful, it will be a console-like system which will be a good opening for console gamers to play PC games on without any of the complexity that PC gamers have (admittedly, this is going away, but still). An audience there would draw developers and publishers to want their games running on this box, and therefor, on Linux.
Further adding to this picture, Gabe was already quoted saying if someone wants a more open PC in the living room, others will offer other options, suggesting that there are plans to allow the library on their box to be on other PCs, and one of the big features Steam has always had since first adding Mac to their support is that if your game is sold through Steam on a platform, you have it on that platform, regardless of what you bought it for. These details suggest that when you buy a game for the Steambox, you buy it’s Windows counterpart and a copy for linux in general. Should this happen, every game that comes out for the Steambox also comes out for linux, building the library of games from basically indie titles only to a major platform worthy library. The path would not be to conquer Windows, but to go around it. Is it plausible, I do not know. But I do know it’s possible.
What It Would Change:
So now we have seen how this could happen, what would it mean to us as gamers? Well PC gamers would probably be in for a tumultuous time until this resolved.Unlike their console counterparts, they are not used to changing libraries every “generation.” If you think about it, in the entire 30 year lifetime, PC gaming has never gone through a “generation style” update where one OS did not natively support the previous OS’s software. The closest we have ever seen was when Windows XP came out and suddenly Windows did not include a DOS to boot into, losing native access to DOS-based games. This time, the change will be more drastic, as there is no native support for anything Windows-based in the Linux OS.
Based on that experience, however, I would expect the community to take up the charge, and, given some time, you will see patches to allow the games to work on Linux and ultimately a “Windowsbox” program of some kind, so gamers can revisit the past as easily as they do now with DOSBox. The end result I would expect to be business as usual, just under a publicly made OS instead of a privately made one.
On the console, side, it would remain business as usual as well, though the effects of this would be much more on the console-makers then on the gamers. I can not honestly tell you I believe there is room in the console world for 4 console-makers. If we assume Valve succeeds, I think we have to assume someone else will fail.
I do not believe Microsoft has any worries here. They have a very strong brand and the dedicated console audience will likely support them as can be shown by how quickly any argument about if XBL is worth paying for anymore in any gaming forum becomes a shouting match of who’s an xbot and who’s a Sony fanboy. Whatever you actually believe, the strength of support from their fans is unmistakable.
And while Nintendo does not have that kind of support from the hard-core audience, they have mastered the art of fanservice to such a degree that their long-term fans will stick with them no matter what as well. Add to this the fact that even the WiiU, which in it’s own right is the first system they have ever sold at a loss, is calculated to not just break even, but be a profit on the very first game perchase, and they should have the resources to hold on through anything.
And this leaves Sony… who seems to have had nothing but trouble this generation. Between the great PSN outage, the lack of sales on the Vita, the Wii-like complete abandonment of the PSP of 3rd party support thanks to piracy, and how long it took to make a profit on the PS3 (if they have managed to yet), Sony strikes me as the weak link. I would expect them to bow out of consoles and have to try to make the Vita into something to stay in the game business at all.
So in the end, console gamers would likely be swapping Sony for Valve among their choice machines, but the audience is used to switching libraries at each generation and it wasn’t that long ago that the switch between Sega and Microsoft occurred, so it would not be a very big deal.
And there you have it. This is the picture I could see happening should Linux become the PC gaming OS. Now, there would be other ramifications, I'm sure, but these are no longer game-related, so they do not belong in this picture. Will this happen? I do not know. I honestly believe it is possible, but right now, our eyes are on Valve. If this happens, they will cause it.