For years Linux was perceived as the reserve of the truly geeky. The system admin, programmers and developers of the world kept the secrets of the streamlined OS to themselves, and the wider public for whatever reason has never really become excited about an open-source system to rival Windows.
In recent years, Linux has gained ground in a different form as the underpinnings of choice for a huge variety of gaming systems.
This stealth attack comes in the form of Android smartphones, Valve’s Steam OS, Kickstarted consoles such as the Ouya and even the PlayStation in its fourth iteration.
Full Steam ahead
Big news for Linux gamers came at the end of 2012 in the form of a Steam beta for Linux – Valve’s big seal of approval that Linux gaming was ready for prime-time.
There’s now over 270 compatible games in the library, and though most are indie titles rather than triple-A games with million-pound budgets, the selection is getting better all the time, thanks to Valve’s full on commitment to Steam with their Steam Machine project.
The rumbling rumours of a Steam-powered console started as soon as the Linux beta of Valve’s hugely successful platform was released. Most of those rumours have played out in full over the last few months with the reveal of the Steam machine, OS and curiously designed controller.
The Steam OS beta is now available for anyone to build a Linux gaming machine of their own.
Ouya: an affordable microconsole
While Valve is doing a stirling effort in driving Linux forward, It’s not all down to Gabe Newell and crew to seal Linux in the minds of gamers. Since smashing it’s $950k target and raking in over $8.5M in funding on Kickstarter, Ouya has proved itself as a tiny console that can still hold its own in the living room.
Despite marketed as being built upon Android, underneath you’re getting a miniature Linux-powered console, that took its choice of Linux from the Google campus so as to ensure gaming compatibility with a wide range of applications from the start.
Appeasing to Linux philosophies, Ouya’s games are all ‘free to play’, which translated actually means ‘try before you buy’ for most titles. There are some games that are truly free of any extra financial commitments, most of the better titles include in-app purchases or even subscriptions.
The home-hacking market is a growing area of Ouya ownership, with full-blown variants of Linux available alongside versions of XBMC and a range of console emulators too.
Sony is no stranger to Linux: its PlayStation 2 programming kits were Red Hat Linux machines, and when the PS3 came along one with the ability to run a Linux desktop alongside Sony’s own XMB operating system. Although the XMB is far-removed from more familiar variants of Linux, at the very heart of the console, Sony had to base the proprietary OS in some kind of well known territory to appease developers – despite many openly scalding the PS3’s development process.
Dig deep enough in to the list of open source software used in the PS3 and you’ll find FreeBSD and eCOS, both of which wouldn’t be present if not for their Linux foundations.
Moving forward a generation to the brand new PS4, and Linux still binds the heart of the now X86 based powerhouse. Sony confirmed back in November that the angular beast uses a modified version of FreeBSD 9 Kernel to power its own Orbis OS.
It’s a smart move by Sony to keep development for the PS4 firmly in the realm of open-source. They’ve already been vocal about their hopes and dreams for a large indie development scene, and by keeping things Linux-friendly they’ve kept PS4 development a lot simpler than the challenging development experience the PS3 was renowned for.
Android’s Linux roots
The final part of the Linux gaming puzzle comes in with a strong hand from Android. Google’s mobile OS , like the others mentioned, doesn’t run a flat out recognisable form of Linux, but instead uses a standard Linux kernel and a lot of the utilities and code that a desktop Linux machine would.
Like desktop variants, there’s a wide range of GUIs that sit atop of the kernel to present a user interface for the user to interact with, whether it’s Samsung partners like HTC and Samsung, or the one of the popular rooted versions of Android from folks such as CyanogenMod.
Android gaming has come on an awful lot over the last couple of years, with game devs able to really push the capabilities of what a mobile platform can deliver. The Linux foundation is what makes games so easily ported to different Android platforms like Ouya, as well as making the customisation of Google’s platform so much more open to developers and designers.
So you see, Linux may not be the name of the third gaming platform, but the next time you pick up your Android-powered phone, sit down in front of your PlayStation 4 or build yourself a Steam Machine, you’ll still be playing with a variant of Linux.
- Check out our Hands on: SteamOS Beta review