MMOs on Linux - More Choice Than You Think
Neil Kewn(Murxidon) , OnRPG Journalist
Microsoft Windows is the most popular operating system in the world, with over 92% of computers running Redmond's desktop behemoth. If you are primarily a PC gamer, it is unlikely you have, or have ever considered, moving to a different operating system. Why subject yourself to the issues that A completely new architecture, paradigm and approach to how computing should be for a user, would bring? All of your software won't work, your file formats won't be recognised, your games won't play, right? Not really. Deploying Linux on your hard drive has its advantages, and recent developments have meant that making the switch doesn't mean losing out.
"Linux can't play games!"
One of the fundamental reasons Windows users refuse to switch to a Linux based operating system is its apparent lack of video game compatibility. It is not unfair to say that Microsoft owns a colossal share of the PC gaming market, but installing and playing your favourite MMORPG on a Linux machine isn't impossible,. nor is it particularly difficult. Drastic advancements have been made which enable most popular games that used to just run on Windows, to work perfectly under Linux.
Linux' official mascot
The popularity of the penguin has begun to grow amongst average users, despite the platform being around for four decades. The netbook boom has finally brought a computer running Linux into many people's homes. Unfortunately, much to the open source community's dismay, developers still aren't very keen on making their releases compatible. As a result, there aren't many MMORPGs that can be run natively on Linux.
Up until early 2009, the popular space adventure EVE Online was actively supported, but the developers, CCP Games, discontinued the Linux client citing lack of uptake. Luckily, the ever-creative Linux community began work on making the game compatible with their OS of choice, and it wasn't long before users of Ubuntu, Fedora and other distributions were back playing. Thanks in part to Alexandre Julliard's Wine.
"Linux still can't play games!"
Linux will greet you with a blank stare if you try and run an .exe file, whereas Wine will treat it as just another Windows application. Wine is a free program for Unix and Unix-like operating systems which enables software written for Microsoft Windows to be installed and executed. Microsoft Office, iTunes, World of Warcraft, even Internet Explorer can be installed onto a Linux box in this way.
Wine is the preferred method to get MMORPGs up and running on a Unix-based systems, and development has come leaps and bounds from where it was several years ago. Support for pixel shaders and better 3D rendering have increased game compatibility, performance and functionality dramatically. Today, there are countless titles that will work flawlessly with an out-of-the-box Wine installation. No tinkering, no configuration, just install and play. Not dissimilar to Windows.
"But it's complicated. Will my favourite titles even run?"
The general consensus is that playing any kind of game on Linux is a tiring, impractical and cumbersome process. In reality, you can play almost any popular MMORPG without a hitch. The Wine Application Database has an extensive list of all the MMOs that have been tested, and what you can expect from running them under Wine.
For those who want an even easier way to game on Linux, PlayOnLinux is, frankly, idiot-proof. It is based on Wine, so you can expect the same compatibility with your favourite MMOs. A central window lists all Windows applications installed, with the option to add more using a wizard interface. Games can even be installed from a CD or DVD, meaning you don't have to fuss around with Windows clients downloaded from the developer's website.
"What's the catch?"
It is unlikely that any Linux user is a die-hard PC gamer, and there is naturally a downside to executing code written for Windows on a completely different architecture. Performance may take a slight hit in some games, and I personally encountered a number of texture and rendering issues in several MMORPGs (for example, the map in World of Warcraft didn't register my location properly). Usually, if there is a problem that a lot of players are having trouble with, a workaround or fix is generally developed and posted.
Drivers also play a crucial part in game performance, and both Nvidia and ATI have official releases for most chipsets. There are community-developed drivers (in Linux, there is community developed everything) for those looking for an open source alternative. I find the configuration of a strong Linux rig to be trial and error. If your frame rate in AION resembles a slide show, mix and match the drivers and settings.
Teething problems aren't uncommon
"Will we always have to use Wine to play our games?"
Unfortunately the answer is yes, and it may not change for some time. MMO developers don't wish to invest in Linux players because frankly, there just aren't enough of them. With the popularity of OS X growing, and the recent release of Windows 7 restoring consumer faith in Microsoft, It's not surprising that companies are focussing their efforts on an already established player base.
The Linux community is renowned for their creativity and problem solving, and are determined to increase market share by working to make distribution as easy to use as possible. Even so, some may say that Linux don't need game publisher backing, as the developer community are coping just fine going it alone.
"Okay, how much is this going to cost?"
Nothing. Linux is generally free, but for what you make up for in savings you will lose in time. To get the most out of the operating system, a big chunk of your time will have to be invested. Great strides in user friendliness haven't completely eliminated the need for most users to bash the odd command or two into Terminal. Still, you will be rewarded with an insanely more customisable system that is free from viruses and malware. Not to mention Linux's famed reliability, perfect for avoiding Window's relentless vendetta against important guild runs (BSOD at the most inopportune time, anyone?).
The compatibility is finally there, so switching to a different operating system no longer means waving goodbye to your MMOs. It may not be as seamless as double clicking an installer, but the fun you will have learning and playing with Linux is well worth the price of admission.