Monday, October 15, 2007

Linux Gaming, lets run the numbers.

One of the questions I see asked a lot in commercial gaming circles is why I continuously push developers on releasing native Linux clients. A Sony Online Entertainment official outright said the market share is not there, so as a company focused on marketshare, they were not going to release a Linux Client.

So, lets stop for a minute and actually run the number we do know about.

Nobody knows the true number of Linux Desktop users. Desktop Linux users are people like me who use a Linux Desktop to complete their daily routines such as writing letters, doing taxes, keeping track of finances, sending mail, and so forth. According to Novell there are at a minimum 30 million Linux Desktop users available. On the face of it Novell's numbers seem to jive with the known interest in Fedora, Suse, Mepis, Debian, and other distributions. If anything, Novell's number is probably a low guesstimate.

So, lets play it safe and say that there are 30 million Desktop Linux users out there.

Now, can anybody tell me how many units a game needs to sell in order to be profitable?

The quick answer is that the profit number changes per game. High End titles like Epic Software's Gears of War was doing pretty good to hit 3 million sales in 10 weeks. Final Fantasy XI for the Xbox 360 was doing pretty good when it hit 100,000 users in beta.

The 900 lb Gorilla in the MMO market is World of Warcraft with over 9 million registered accounts. Other MMO series such as City of Heroes, Everquest, Lineage, and Guild Wars are happy with only a few million each. Ultima Online is still going and it only has a user base best described in tens of thousands.

Most console sales are doing quite well if they pass 5million systems. With average attachment rates of 66-70% of consoles getting a single game, sales of
a single game around 3-4million is considered a good number of sales.

Stop and look at those numbers again. 30 million Desktop Linux Users. 3 million game sales.

Suddenly the Linux installed base isn't that insignificant. The installed base is far greater than that of most consoles at the end of their life spans. In the case of Gears of War, that's only a 10% attachment rate.

With dominate MMO World of Warcraft, that's still less than 30% of the available user base.

For a non- AAA First Class title? Where sales are generally expected to be between 500,000 and 2 million over the course of the game? That's a very small percentage.

So, lets put two and two together. Who exactly is running Linux on the desktop?


Think about it. Your average Desktop Linux user is probably someone whose known for being tech proficient. Your average hard-core gamer is also known for being tech proficient.

Somebody on Anandtech / DailyTech comments pointed out once that purchases of high end graphics cards ($500+) were probably running both Windows and Linux at the same time. The theory was carried out by reports from both Nvidia and ATi. ATi ran into a public relations nightmare as it took flack for not having operational x1x00 series Linux drivers for over 6 months after the x1x00 series launched. RadeonHD also faced severe backlashes for it's lack of Linux drivers. Many Linux uses recommended buying Nvidia cards, despite the broken drivers, because at least drivers were available.

With these factors in mind, why hasn't Linux gaming taken off?

It has. Just... not in a way that can be actively tracked. The fact is, W.I.N.E. technologies are designed so that applications don't know they are not being run through a non-windows environment. If Cedega works properly, as far as any game is concerned, it is running through the version of Windows that is specified in the configuration.

NCSoft doesn't know who is running their games on Linux because of this. Blizzard also doesn't know who is running their games on Linux because of this. The same goes for any other game out there run through W.I.N.E. technologies.

The sales result is that a sale is a sale. To a game that runs under W.I.N.E. technologies, if any tracking software is installed, all that tracking software will see is Windows. Now, it might note some abnormalities, such as out-of-date drivers on City of Hereos, but the real operating system isn't reported.

Native Linux clients are in a similar position. Sales of Unreal Tournament 2003 and 2004 included the Linux client on the disc. Unreal Tournament 2007 also has been reported to include the Linux client on the disc, although more recent reports now indicate that the Linux client may not be on the disc. In the cases of retail sales for the Unreal Series, there is little to nothing to tell the publisher what platform the game got put on. If the game client works properly, the server won't care.

Eve Online also recently put a Linux Client out in conjunction with Transgaming. However, if the Linux Client works properly, there won't be any difference between it and the Windows Client. Because the client can also be downloaded from there isn't any difference between an Eve Online Linux sale and an Eve Online Apple Unix or Microsoft Windows sale.

Even when the game client is released separate of the game itself, tracking game usage is next to impossible. Consider UT99 and the various Quake games from IDsoft. The installer to run the games is generally made available from the main site, in the case of IDsoft the Linux installer can come from their FTP server. Yet, if you go around to just about reliable hosting service, such as FilePlanet, FileCloud, or the like, you'll find the same files uploaded in those locations as well.

Now, having played all of these on Linux and having written install guides as well, I'm fairly safe in saying that I couldn't tell you who on the network has the Windows install of UT99 or a Quake game, or who has the Linux install. Except when the system crashes. That is normally the Windows install.

The real problem with Linux retail gaming is that accountants don't know how to absorb or collate this data into something usable. With Microsoft Windows and Apple Unix it is a fairly trivial process to collate the end user data. Windows is something accountants understand, Linux and Linux gaming is something accountants do not understand.

Problem is, after posting this, I have little doubt that I'm going to get several angry emails from current accountants that they no longer can remain ignorant about Linux numbers and ratios.
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