Ryan C. Gordon and Michael Simms

Unreal Tournament 3: Coming to a Linux computer near you! Or so they say...

Ryan C. Gordon

First, could you please present yourself and what you do?

My name is Ryan, and I port video games to Linux, Mac OS X, etc.

When I'm not doing that, I run icculus.org, an open-source incubator. I also spend a lot of time developing open source tools to make game development on Unix suck less.

You have an amazing resume, consisting of making Linux-ports of the Unreal Tournament series to the recently released Linux-port of Prey. How did you get into this buisness?

I entered a contest.

Loki Software did something at the Atlanta Linux Showcase in 1999, called Loki Hack. I drove about four hours, and didn't sleep for 2 days to play around with the source code to Civilization II: Call to Power.

Loki liked my work, and gave me a job. I got to touch a lot of code for a lot of triple-A games.

When Loki fell apart, I had to find something to do. I was working the counter at a friend's cybercafe and lived with my parents. I hated it.

I found I loved playing Serious Sam (it really captured the feel of the original Doom!), and hated working a cash register, so I wrote to the only email address I could find for Croteam (one of their artists!), and talked them into letting me do a Linux port. From there, I had some luck and started collecting other work... Medal of Honor, Unreal Tournment 2003, Battlefield 1942 etc.

Now I do this sort of thing full time. I've touched pretty much every major game engine of the last decade, and worked with a lot of games.

Has the demand for Linux-ports and Mac-ports increased over the years? Do you think the demand will rise in the foreseeable future?

Absolutely. The Mac is really at a tipping point for consumers... when some functionality is Windows-only, people notice and companies lose business because of it, now. The last wall to fall here seems to be games; people are still somewhat forgiving about this in ways they wouldn't be if, say, a website needed an ActiveX control to work. I suppose that's because we're in the part of the cycle where "PC games are dying" and consoles rule. Wait two more years, when all the console hardware feels really ancient, and that will solve itself.

Linux is somewhat harder to predict. It has definitely gotten better in some regards, but not so much in others. It's not unreasonable to think that friends and family of those making big-name games will have Macs, but it's not likely that there are Linux gamers talking into their ears. Linux is either going to have to increase market share - like Mac OS X has - or it's going to have to find a market in unlikely places.

It goes to show that there are big markets that aren't being tapped well, even on Windows. Imagine what we could be picking up outside America and Western Europe if we were selling Linux software directly. These are markets Apple can't penetrate nearly as well as an Ubuntu.iso could, for instance.

In your experience, is the Linux and Mac market for games worth making a port for? Do the companies make or lose money on the extra development?

The short answer is "make money" but it's not such a simple question:

  • Windows-only titles still need a Linux server to thrive in many cases, even if they don't offer a Linux client.
  • Linux titles can sell well where Windows titles don't, since the market isn't flooded with cheap product.
  • Porting to new platforms finds bugs before you ship, which translates into happier customers.
  • Porting to Mac OS X gets you Shark, porting to Linux gets you Valgrind. Using both tools gets you a better product.
  • Producing a Linux port from an unported codebase will take one developer a reasonably short time: depending on the project, it may be three months, it may be 24 hours. This is nothing to modern games with multi-million dollar budgets and three year timetables, and this developer can still be contributing to the main programming effort in addition to the porting work. Maintaining it thereafter is trivial. Just paying this developer's salary and doing zero marketing can still turn a profit. Being smart – porting early and piggybacking on the Windows marketing – can be a huge win.

I can find lots of examples where a game won't make you rich, but I can't find a reasonable case where a Linux port doesn't have at least a small, positive return on investment. The problem is frequently that small profit isn't worthwhile to big companies.

Then again, go ask Blizzard how the Mac sales are going: every Blizzard title ships with both Mac and Windows versions on the same disc, and all are supported on all platforms years after release. I think you'll find they've been happy with the results.

We will probably move out of an era where we ship games on discs before Linux game penetration has a chance of being significant... but if you look at Steam and iTunes, you can't help but think that era is ending soon.