The Torvalds Situation

This is old news to some, but it’s still something I wanted to write about. Linus Torvalds, the Linux kernel creator and project manager, has stepped aside (temporarily) to work on his attitude, which is acerbic and awful. Spewing expletives and insults at anyone who dares to work on the kernel. At first, it wasn’t understood why Torvalds chose this moment to take a break.

Noam Cohen has the scoop for The New Yorker:

Torvalds’s decision to step aside came after The New Yorker asked him a series of questions about his conduct for a story on complaints about his abusive behavior discouraging women from working as Linux-kernel programmers. In a response to The New Yorker, Torvalds said, “I am very proud of the Linux code that I invented and the impact it has had on the world. I am not, however, always proud of my inability to communicate well with others—this is a lifelong struggle for me. To anyone whose feelings I have hurt, I am deeply sorry.”

It shouldn’t take a journalist looking into your attitude for some self-reflection to happen, but I’m pretty happy that this acknowledgement is happening at all.

Torvalds’ shitty attitude of non-conformity to being a good person was infectious, it helped encourage a younger Jack Slater to be a bad leader for the ioquake3 project in the IRC channel and on the mailing list. I thought this attitude made for a good leader, it had the opposite effect. Being an asshole only brought in other assholes and a few extremely great people who helped me change as a leader.

Other “open source” leaders like Eric S. Raymond have already been found to be complete shitbergs blocking the flow of progress, at least Torvalds had enough sense to step aside and try to change.

It is decades past time for better leadership in open source and free software. Bring out the open-source 3D printed ultra mega guillotine for the leaders who refuse to step-aside or change.

Cheese’s Thoughts on Steam Play (Proton)

Josh “Cheese” has a ton of thoughts on the latest developments with Valve’s Proton Windows pretendulation software for Linux gaming through Steam. Cheese is always good reading, but he provides some especially useful historical context for this conversation.

I am still extremely concerned for where Linux gaming is going with Valve-controlled pretendulation as the default mode for new and old games, instead of native ports. It isn’t something many people playing those games will care about, if the pretendulation is good enough for them.

Windows Pretendulation Is Bad Even When Valve Does It

Valve’s Pierre-Loup A. Griffais announced that they’re including their brand new fork of the WINE Windows pretendulator in a new beta product for Steam. They call it Proton. WINE is an open-source Windows API emulation layer that lets Linux users play Windows games without rebooting into Windows. I call this process “pretendulation” because it isn’t emulating the entire operating system, but it is still far from native.

That sounds good, more games for Linux, right?

Well, when I started writing about Linux gaming 18 years ago there was a commercial, closed-source, fork of WINE called WineX. WineX had a lot of fans, it was developed by people who had been working on Wine, which was a more generalized product for Windows software, to target game software. These developers of WineX (later called Cedega) did a good job at writing the software, but it had a number of issues.

One of those WineX issues was that Windows compatibility is a moving target. Any progress the WineX developers made to support new versions of Microsoft’s DirectX game software programming interface were usually still years behind where modern games were. If the latest Battlefield game came out and it only worked with DirectX 8 and WineX was still on 6 or 7, it was going to be a while until they could support that new game.

Even though new DirectX versions are less of a headlining feature in Windows these days, compatibility with a wide range of games is going to be a problem for Valve’s Proton as well. 

Any emulation, or translation, layer, is also going to introduce some amount of performance overhead. You can’t emulate a PlayStation 3 or Dreamcast at full speed on a lot of expensive computers today, but you can buy the original console for $50 that plays those games perfectly. The same issue happens with emulating Windows APIs under Linux. Some games will only have a very small hit to performance, but others might be more of a problem and you won’t get the same framerate that you do under Windows.

So there are compatibility and performance issues, that’s it, right? Nope, there’s one more technical hurdle. When something breaks, you’re not going to know if it’s the game or the emulation layer. I imagine this will infuriate some developers.

Valve claims that games they’ve tested and whitelisted in this beta have an almost identical gameplay experience to Windows, and they acknowledge the performance overhead. Valve doesn’t acknowledge the negative effect this will have on real native ports of games. Back in those WineX days there were some developers and publishers who cancelled their plans for native Linux ports because Windows pretendulation was “good enough” for them, even when Wine or WineX didn’t provide a great experience for players.

“Good enough” Windows API emulation eventually turned into developers porting their games with Wine wrapped up into a library, giving Linux players some of the half-assed ports they have today.

One additional issue that wasn’t a problem with WineX, these improvements to Wine are only designed to work with games on Steam. You won’t be playing Battlefield  5 with Proton. Although Valve’s fork of Wine is open-source, unlike the old WineX fork which had its source closed behind an agreement that the executives at Transgaming later deleted and refused to acknowledge.

Proton is an interesting technology, but a bad thing for anyone who loves Linux gaming and wants native ports of games brought to Linux.

Steam Has Over 3000 Linux Games

Liam Dawe:

Steam has hit another milestone for Linux games. We now have over 3,000 Linux games to fill our time with. The exact count for me right now is 3,008!

An impressive number of games with Linux support. I wonder how many are native ports versus Windows pretendulation.

My search comes up with 3164 for Linux and 13433 total games on Steam.

1,800 Games On Steam for Linux

Turns out, we’re up to 1,800 games on Steam that run under Linux. It’d be great to know how many of those are vegan, charlotte/georgia-based, handcrafted, locally-sourced, artisanal, native ports and how many are pretendulated, factory-farmed, gmo-enhanced, toxic garbage from Virtual Programming.

Oculus Rift Pre-orders At Pricey $600

The only head-mounted displays (HMD) for virtual reality games and other activities available last year were pre-release versions for developers only (the $350 Oculus Development Kit 1 & 2, limited quantities of the HTC/SteamVR Vive), through crowdfunding campaigns, or scraped together garbage used to fill in the features and benefits lists of terrible smartphones.

This year the HTC ViveOculus Rift, and Playstation VR are supposed to be more widely available and will be of a higher quality level than the versions developers had access to. We’ve been warned that they will be expensive, and so they are. Facebook’s Oculus is the first to announce the price of their Rift HMD and make their product available for purchase at $600. Though it won’t actually be available to anyone before June at the earliest. When it does ship, it will include two games (3D platformer Lucky’s Tale, starfighter Eve: Valkyrie), an Xbox One controller, external sensors for head tracking, removable headphones, and a simpler remote control option.

People who participated in the original crowdfunding campaign will receive the first public version of the Oculus Rift HMD for free, everyone else who was interested and didn’t participate is kicking themselves right now.

The price is high, but the Rift device is going to be at a higher quality and performance level than the development kits that preceded it, and it is cheaper than the PC you’ll need to run it. As the internet’s Daniel Gibson points out, the Rift is even more expensive after including the cost of shipping, taxes, and other fees. To get it in Germany, the total price goes up about $200 to $808, and the total after tax and shipping just to California’s Oakland is $688. This is all after you acquire the correct hardware to match the specifications in the downloadable compatibility checker. I expect many people will be very disappointed when they attempt to use the Rift with an underpowered computer having ignored the system requirements. Even my gaming computer’s CPU is not up to the task according to the compatibility checker. PC gaming is not cheap, and although I expect the price of all of these components to drop, I would be very surprised if the Rift’s price lowered before 2018. It is unlikely that the HTC/SteamVR Vive will be cheaper or have more limited hardware demands. The only device that could possibly be less expensive is Sony’s Playstation VR, and then it would be a more limited experience in terms of technical capabilities than anything on the PC.

It’s exciting that we’re finally going to have widely available HMDs, even at that price, but there are still unresolved issues.

Oculus first announced cross-platform support for their platform during their extremely successful crowdfunding campaign with logos for Windows, OS X, Linux, iOS and Android. The pre-order campaign only includes a downloadable compatibility checker for Windows and though it would be ridiculous to expect the hardware to work with the limited power available on devices without active cooling systems like smartphones, it is kind of outrageous how quickly they’ve dropped support for Mac and Linux. Linux is promised to be supported post-launch, and OS X support is supposed to be limited by the hardware currently on offer from Apple.

Software availability is going to be an issue. Besides the two games shipping with the system, and a broad range of technical demo software, it isn’t clear what compatibility will be like for software between headsets and what complete software will be available soon after launch. Most complete games take 1-3 years to develop, and the software that truly takes advantage of hardware available through the SteamVR system might not be compatible with the Rift at all. Valve is trying to resolve compatibility with their OpenVR program, but theVive hardware developed with HTC is more like walking around a holodeck than the limited-to-a-cockpit experiences of the Rift.

Finally, as an expectant father, I cannot imagine a scenario in the next two years where I will be able to use a completely-detached experience like the Rift while my family needs my attention. This product seems to be only targeted at people who are either totally alone or have no responsibilities in the outside world for extended periods of time. Awareness of the world around you is going to be a big problem with every HMD. The only ones that are looking to avoid that issue so far are Microsoft with their Hololens augmented-reality HMD and a few other companies developing AR devices instead of VR. Augmented-reality will be for completely different, less immersive, kinds of experiences from virtual reality.

I recommend that anyone considering the purchase of this headset wait until more of these issues are resolved, especially the software availability and compatibility as that is going to be the largest roadblock.

Ian Murdock Passes

If you’ve ever used Linux, you’ve probably heard of the Debian distribution of the Linux kernel and the associated software that make up the thing that you run on your computer or server. It hasn’t been everyone’s first choice for a distribution, but so many other projects owe their inner workings to borrowed code from the Debian project.

Valve’s SteamOS.

Ubuntu Linux.

There are dozens more here, over a hundred more here, and the maintainers of packages for Debian contribute to hundreds of other free software projects that keep the very fabric of the internet and systems that serve you in the rest of your life functioning and it’s been going for twenty-two years.

Debian is just one of the massive projects that Ian Murdock created, and he’s passed on. Murdock’s recent employer, Docker, has posted a memorial as has Debian.

A few months before he passed, Ian wrote an excellent post about how he came to find out about Linux and the people who made it:

I became enraptured not so much by Linux itself as by the process in which it had been created–hundreds of people hacking away at their own little corner of the system and using the Internet to swap code, slowly but surely making the system better with each change–and set out to make my own contribution to the growing community, a new distribution called Debian that would be easier to use and more robust because it would be built and maintained collaboratively by its users, much like Linux.

What Does Linux Get Out of SteamOS?

Liam Dawe on the lack of good news coming out of Valve regarding their Linux-based Steam Machines in the past year, compared to the overall state of health for Linux as a gaming platform:

We haven’t had developers like Aspyr Media and Feral Interactive support us for very long, and with their commitment to our platform with their current catalogue and teased future games, we still have a lot of higher-budget games to look forward to. For the short time they have supported our platform we have already gained some massive games, and they haven’t even been supporting us for a year yet. Both of their first Linux games came to us last summer, so that’s a bit premature to call Linux/SteamOS gaming dead or dying when in the last part of 2014 we gained some huge releases.

Who could honestly say at the start of last year they would think Linux would see a same-day release for a game like Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel? No one, Linux gaming improves month after month with not just the number, but the quality of games we are seeing.

We are a small platform, and no one should think that pumping out a Linux version is suddenly going to make them rich. It’s all about understanding the market, we pay well for good-quality games that are fun to play. We are still starving for certain game genre’s like MMORPG’s or more realistic shooters, to which we have hardly any. Porting games to Linux can also help to make your code cleaner, and help the overall portability of it to other platforms.

About a year ago I was at Valve’s Steam Dev Days conference. Some people gave talks on how Valve was monetizing teens, others spoke about cool VR stuff. My personal interest was in the talks on Linux.

In order to convince developers to bring their games to Linux and specifically Valve’s SteamOS Linux distribution, about 11 of the 27 talks given at the conference were directly or indirectly discussing SteamOS, Linux, OpenGL, SDL (the portability layer that is behind most cross-platform PC games), or Steam Machines in general.

Valve also gave every Steam Dev Days attendee a Gigabyte brix Steam Machine, it is a pre-release product that included a USB stick loaded with the beta installer of SteamOS. The brix is a petite thing about the size of a few books stacked up. It’s built-in cooling system sounds like a VTOL jet taking off whenever it’s rendering anything using the pint-sized intel graphics accelerator.

A few times every month I fire my brix up my so that it can get whatever updates Valve releases for their still-in-beta SteamOS distro and see what games have been brought over. Some of those games work fine, some don’t quite get along with those intel graphics on this particular Steam Machine. When the real Machines eventually ship, they’ll have different hardware and presumably a non-beta Steam OS.

That commitment from Valve, a company built by former Microsoft employees, was a huge payoff for spending about 15 years involved with free software and Linux gaming. At dev days I definitely got my hopes up about the Steam Machines’ potential for revitalizing what had been, up until Valve got involved, a mostly quiet period for games being released on Linux after Loki and Linux Game Publishing had both kicked the bucket.

Liam points out in his article which you should read in full, we’ve seen Feral and Aspyr step up along with the developers of over 900 other games and decide to bring their games to Linux.

Despite the conference, and the 900+ games, there still hasn’t been a landslide of developer interest and any official Steam machine release seemed to be dead in the water until Valve posted this website that indicates they’ll have more news at GDC next month. Those 900+ game releases are more like a steady stream from the few developers who had their “come to jesus” moment like with Gearbox and Borderlands.

Here’s what I’m wondering though, what happens when those Steam Machines actually ship and supposing Valve convinces a landslide of developers to release their games for Steam OS: will it benefit desktop Linux use? Or is this another Android where Linux desktop  users don’t see any benefit?

SteamOS uses the Linux kernel and Debian’s APT packaging and distribution for the basic functionality until  it merrily skips the desktop and launches directly into Steam’s big picture mode. There is an exit-to-desktop option in SteamOS, but like installing apps outside of the Google Play store in Android, it isn’t obvious how to get there and once you are on the desktop installing programs is currently a pain in the ass.

The real benefit to desktop Linux could be a side-effect. There’s no distinction, as far as Steam’s distribution is concerned, between SteamOS and Steam installed on Linux desktops. When a game is released for one it is available on the other. A side benefit is to new game developers who could get their start by moving the Steam Machine from the living room to a desk and install free game development tools like Blender and the best first person shooter engine ever. It would be tremendously valuable to Linux if people end up doing that and even better if Valve supports new game developers to do the one thing they can’t with any console, making games on the system that plays them.

I hope that Steam Machines do come to market and offer people a genuine alternative to Windows for gaming, but unless Valve makes it easier to go to the desktop Liam will still be right:

SteamOS and Steam Machines are complementary to Linux Gaming, but they aren’t Linux Gaming.