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Start-up sees game future for Linux

While big firms explore the commercial potential of the rival operating system, a small company is pushing another opportunity: computer games.

While computer heavyweights such as IBM have been focusing on the commercial potential of Linux, a small start-up in Southern California sees a new opportunity in the operating system: the market for computer games.

Loki Entertainment Software has begun translating big-name games to Linux systems, and its first product is expected in the first quarter of 1999, said Loki president Scott Draeker. The company plans to sell shrink-wrap versions of as many as ten titles in retail stores, he said.

"We're the first people to really do this, so we have the ability to cherry-pick the best titles out there," Draeker said. He isn't yet at liberty to say which titles the company is porting to Linux, but noted the first game will be "something that everyone will immediately recognize," and that Loki plans to sell games from several major segments of the gaming market.

Negotiations for Loki's first game are complete and the product should be announced within a couple of weeks, Draeker said.

Linux is a Unix-like operating system originally developed in 1991 by Linus Torvalds but expanded since then by countless people across the Internet. The operating system is free, although several companies make money packaging, distributing, and supporting it.

Market for Linux games is ripe for the picking
Draeker said there are an estimated 7.5 million Linux users out there today, a growing and largely game-deprived population. While there are some Linux games available, such as an unofficial port of Quake, "as far as we know, nobody is selling a Linux game in a shrink-wrap box," he said.

Draeker said that 7.5 million-person market is comparable to the number of Macintosh users with PowerPC-based machines, the processor on which most new Mac games are designed to run.

"There's substantial Source code for the masses interest among Linux users for games," he said, noting that many Linux users keep their machines configured so they can run the Microsoft Windows operating system just so they can play computer games.

And there is growth ahead for Linux, he said. "We're really at a pinnacle of the early adopter stage," but within a year, Linux will be available preinstalled on systems from major vendors, he predicted. "I think it's going to reach critical mass and flood down into more general consumer installations. I don't think our timing could be any better here."

Loki was founded in August and currently has a staff of three, one of whom is the lead programmer who ported the popular Macintosh game Maelstrom to Linux, he said. More staff will be hired in the next six months, he added.

Loki will piggyback on the original game developers' marketing efforts, but will sell, distribute, and support the Linux versions of its own games. "We are not contract programmers" hired by a company to port a game to a new platform, he said.

How games will come to Linux
To port the games, Loki first finds out if a particular game company is interested in having a Linux version. Draeker pitches the offer as a way for companies to make more money off an existing investment, similar to the way the movie industry sees sales of video versions of movies.

"They're not incurring costs or risks, they're making additional revenue off products they've already created," he said.

Loki then uses the original source code of the game to create a new version for the Linux operating system, he said. Eventually, the game should be available on the shelves of computer stores or directly from Loki, and Loki will provide technical support for the Linux version of the game.

There are technical hurdles in writing Linux games, however.

For example, Linux systems typically can't support graphics and video acceleration features the way Windows machines can, because video hardware companies don't release drivers for Linux machines or detailed hardware descriptions that Linux developers can use to write their own drivers. So a Linux game today isn't going to have the fastest graphics out there.

However, Draeker said video hardware vendors are adding support for Linux; for example, 3Dfx has announced it will support Linux its new Voodoo3 graphics chip, he said.

"It's a classic chicken-and-egg thing," he said. Graphics companies will better support Linux gaming when they see there is an active market.

"Part of what we can bring to the Linux community is demonstrating that there is a market for state-of-the-art gaming products," he said, adding that Loki will actively try to persuade hardware companies to support Linux.

Another technical problem is that there are many varieties of Linux in circulation, Draeker said. "From an development standpoint, we have to engineer code so there are as few dependencies on individual distributions as possible," he said.

Handling those sorts of detailed technical issues is a challenge for a game maker and for the user, but right now, a Linux user has to be technically adept, he said.