Rarely do major game developers and publishers make a cross-platform game, and those that do rarely release the game for all platforms at the same time. Usually if there is a Linux or Mac version of a game, it won’t be released for weeks, months, or even years after the Windows version.
Indie developers seem to follow suit. Introversion Software released Defcon for Windows in September of 2006, and there wasn’t a Linux version of the game until May of 2007. The Mac version was released a month earlier.
At least these games get released. Most developers focus on Windows exclusively. The thinking is that Windows has such a large market share that there is no need to focus on the smaller Mac and Linux user base.
Of course, indie developers have already found that the Mac users are starving for good games. Providing a Mac version can sometimes double your sales, according to the sales figures that some developers have released.
But why not Linux? Oddlabs created Tribal Trouble, and the sales figures were as follows:
Direct online sales: 1500
….. Windows: 460 (31%)
….. Mac OS X: 680 (47%)
….. Linux: 160 (11%)
….. Undefined: 200 (11%)
160 direct sales, while lower than either Windows or Mac sales, are nothing to sneeze at. The conversion rate for Linux was 1.1%, while for Windows it was 0.8%. The difference between having a Linux version of a game and not having one is clearly significant.
And Tribal Trouble is just one example. I know A Tale in the Desert is an MMO, but there were two Linux users for every Windows user subscribed to it at one point. I would love to see stats for Vendetta Online as well.
What about games that release a Linux client after the Windows version has been released? I imagine that sales would be much lower. After all, since there aren’t many games available for GNU/Linux, many gamers will continue to run a Windows machine specifically for games. If they can buy the game for Windows, why wait for the Linux version to be released?
And so publishers find no reason to support a completely new platform when they know that their customers will buy their games anyway. Those publishers who invest in a port after the original Windows release will of course be disappointed when the only people buying the Linux version of the game will be those who waited patiently. Linux users who play games on Windows aren’t going to buy the game a second time just because it is available on their OS of choice. I’m wondering how Defcon for Linux sold since it was released seven months after the Windows version. I would also love to see a comparison to Darwinia, since the time between the Windows release and the Linux release was a little over a week.
A lot of people point to the now-dead Loki Games as proof that there is no market for Linux games, but from what I was able to learn about Loki’s business, it didn’t close its doors due to lack of sales so much as bad business management. Having the owner of your company order tens of thousands of units over what could be sold is painful financially, but Loki: A promising plan gone terribly wrong also details a lot of the shadiness that contributed to the damage. It’s hard enough to be a success when running a business without someone sabotaging it.
Of course, why would I buy Quake 3 Arena (I actually do have the Loki Q3A tin, still unopened, that I found at a store after Loki was liquidated), Railroad Tycoon II, or any number of games for Linux when I was already playing them on Windows? Was Loki going to make original, exclusive games as well as ports? It didn’t seem like it was going to do so anytime soon.
So perhaps the problem isn’t so much that there aren’t any games for Linux. While there are fewer games, they exist. It’s just that most of them were bought and paid for when they were initially released on a different platform, and people don’t like spending money on the same product twice. At least with Quake 3 Arena, I can use the same CD to play on my Linux-based system as well as my Windows system. When I downloaded the full versions of Orbz and Dark Horizons:Lore Invasion from Garage Games, I could grab the Windows, Mac, or Linux versions without paying separately for each. Now compare the experience with buying The Sims for the Mac. If you already own the PC version and just bought a Mac? Tough. EA outsourced the port to another company, and that company handles Mac sales. It’s the same game, but you’re expected to treat it as if there are two separate games to pay for. Great for EA, but not so great for the customer. I know of one person who decided that paying for The Sims and all of the expansion packs a second time just to play it on her new computer was not worth it, and so she turned to not-so-legal channels instead.
Anyway, back to the existence of Linux games…where are they?
LinuxGames.com is always announcing new games, but there is also a podcast, sometimes featuring icculus, a former Loki employee who makes a living porting games and game engines to Linux. The Linux Game Tome will announce new games as well, but the forums and irc channels are great places to talk about games, whether playing them or developing them.
And usually on these news sites you will find indie game developers mentioned almost as often as the open source games are. In fact, recently an update to Dark Horizons: Lore was in the news, sitting next to stories about Nvidia’s new 3D accelerated drivers and updates to Abuse and Battle for Wesnoth.
With over 30,000 registered IDs in the forums, even if not all of them are active, you have to wonder what the total market for Linux gamers looks like. Just 160 of them paid for a Real Time Strategy game about vikings and islanders. The creator of Dirk Dashing claimed that 33% of total sales were from the Linux version after it had been released for only 10 days.
What I am learning is that the Linux user base is actually very diverse, and there are a lot of people who use Linux simply because they don’t like Windows and want an alternative – at the end of the day, they don’t care about the ideals of the FSF or the GPL, they just want something safe and reliable that they can use. And they are very hungry for commercial-quality games!
While Linux may not be a viable platform for every kind of application, I think it is certainly viable for games. And I am so glad we tried a Linux version of one of our games – this has turned out to be a huge shot in the arm for our business!
Clearly the market exists, and it is significant. It may not be as significant as Windows or Mac, but it can be for some developers.
So forget about asking where the Linux gamers are. I think a better question should be: why aren’t there more games being made for Linux?