Steam on Linux will be a very big deal.

Today Phoronix “officially” announced that Steam is coming to Linux. While their definition of “official” doesn’t seem to require any input from Valve (the company that makes Steam), it does seem likely that they are correct given the screenshots and whatnot circulating on their site.

Its been pointed out before (I can’t remember where) that gamers are a perfect target market for Linux. They are more technical than the average user, looking for performance and geeky. I also think Linux and gaming are a match made in heaven, and now that it seems like it may actually happen, it does make you wonder about the ripple effect this will have across the industry.

For Microsoft there are a few interesting implications. First, one of the top games companies has gone cross-platform. To do this you would have to ditch Microsoft’s DirectX and code using OpenGL. Losing a company like Valve is bad, but its made worse since Steam is now cross-platform (currently on Windows and Mac, Linux rumours aside) and as such incentivizes other developers using Steam as a sales platform to follow suit.

Judging from the recent success of Wolfire’s Humble indie bundle, Mac and Linux users are worth the trouble of reaching out to. Had Valve been a little faster at making Steam cross-platform,  some of the nearly $1.2 million they Wolfire raised could have gone to Valve. All the games in the bundle are available via Steam already, but only for Windows. Hopefully other developers were paying attention.

Also, pretty much every Linux user I know has a Windows machine they keep around for gaming. There is also a pretty sizeable number of Mac users out there that do the same. If you can get all (or even most) of your favourite games for your chosen OS, why keep Windows around?

Linux users may have some additional reasons to keep a Windows box around (Photoshop jumps to mind) but Mac users will likely just jettison Windows entirely the first chance they get. This effect will probably be noticeable only in some indirect ways: more pressure on OEM’s like Dell or HP to deliver machines without Windows, sluggish sales of the next version of Windows. While it won’t be huge, I think this effect would probably be big enough to be noticed by Microsoft. That said, I don’t think you could ever make a direct causal link.

The effect on the Linux community is also interesting to think about. Will we see stripped down gaming distros, tweaked to get the highest possible Frames Per Second, running Xfce (or even TWM), Steam and not much more? Imagine having both game and OS compiled from source specifically to squeeze every bit of performance out of your processor. Gentoo… I think we have found your calling. Of course, if gamers come to expect the ability to significantly optimize their operating systems, they may start demanding that of their video drivers as well…

Even though Steam is still vaporware at the moment, it’s awfully fun to speculate about. While it’s still possible that it won’t actually happen, one thing if for sure; Steam on Linux would be a very big deal.

The budding business case for linux

Wolfire games has teamed up with some of the other top indie game developers and put together a cross platform game bundle that is selling like hotcakes. It includes the games World of Goo, Aquaria, Gish, Lugaru and Penumbra. Their “pay what you want” game bundle has made them half a million dollars (and counting) to be split amongst the developers from the participating studios as well as selected charities (EFF and Child’s Play). While the sale of the bundle is generating some good money, it’s also generating some fascinating statistical data:

Windows ~90% of the market 65% of donations 52% of revenue
Mac ~6% of the market 21% of donations 25% of revenue
Linux: ~1% of the market 14% of donations 23% of revenue

There is plenty of conjecture about why they numbers shake out that way but, pretty much any way you look at them there it is looks like a pretty solid business case for supporting Mac and Linux. Until recently there was precious data about what it might be like selling into the Linux community. Most simply wrote it off assuming that the ~1% market share was all there was to the story. While not every company will have the same experience as Wolfire, I think that they have proved there is more going on there than the 1% suggests.

This bodes particularly well for Valve and their imminent release of their Steam platform for the Mac (curently in Beta), and their upcoming version for Linux. It will be really interesting to see what kind of numbers they come up with after running Steam across all three platforms. If they are anything like the numbers from Wolfire, the next couple of years are going to be pretty interesting for Linux.

I also wonder if the bundle method could also be harnessed as a broader method of funding Free Software development. Imagine a web of cross promotion where developers with easily monitized software (like a game) include a donation to a less easily monitized project (like a bittorrent client) exactly as was done with the EFF in the Humble bundle. Wolfire has done something inspirational, and shown there are lots of possibilities to explore. Go and support them!