On the back of the dotcom boom, Michael Simms ploughed ÂŁ350,000 of his own money into a games company with the intention of bringing some of the most playable Windows titles to Linux.
Almost 10 years later, Linux Game Publishing, which specialises in porting Windows titles, is still going strong, releasing several titles every year.Â Linux Formatmagazine caught up with Michael on a recent trip and asked him about where the company will go from here.
Linux Format: What inspired you to start making games Linux-compatible?
Michael Simms: I started using Linux when I was at university, so I’ve been doing it for a long time. I did a few jobs in the Unix field and got to hear of Loki Software, who had just decided to makeÂ Civilisation: Call to Power. I got on to the beta for that, but I found it was hard to buy a copy of it when it came out. So I contacted Loki about becoming a reseller and that’s what started Tux Games.
When it became obvious Loki was going under, it was like: ‘crap, we’re going to have nothing to sell’. So we went to a company we knew weren’t able to make a deal with Loki, Creature Labs, and came to an agreement with them. We started off by publishingÂ Creatures 3 and went from there.
LXF: What do you think Loki did wrong?
MS: Loki overestimated the market. It would spend a lot licensing a triple-A title and not generate enough sales, but carry on doing that again and again. A classic example was itsÂ Quake 3 special edition where it made 50,000 tin boxes and only sold a few thousand.
LXF: Didn’t you do a similar thing with X3?
MS: That was a limited edition of 500 rather than 50,000! We did it slightly differently. Just 500, and we won’t be making any more. We’ll carry on making the standard edition until whenever, but try to avoid making the same mistakes as Loki.
LXF: After deciding to port a game to Linux, what’s the next step for you at LGP?
MS: Once we’ve made the agreement, we get hold of the source code and then we just do whatever we need to do for the port. Usually, ports are fairly similar.
LXF: Do you choose games with a similar back-end?
MS: No, we choose games based on playability. I personally pick out a lot of the games because they’re what I like! But we’ve also got a few other people that we trust to give a balanced view of things.
LXF: Is there a massive difference between taking on something like X3 and a 2D puzzle game?
MS: We aim to do fifty-fifty top-end games to entry-level games so that we can pay equal attention to companies behind titles likeÂ Jets’n'Guns. We concentrate on both to make sure that we’re still seen to port big games, but we do small games so that smaller companies also have a route into the Linux market.
LXF: How long does a game likeÂ Jets take to port?
MS: Well, withÂ Jets, we didn’t actually do most of the port. Rake In Games did it instead, we just added some polish and work at the end â€¦
To do a port of something likeÂ Jets would take one developer a couple of months. Maybe a bit less. X3 â€“ that’s more a team of four developers for five to six months.
LXF: Does LGP pay their wage full-time?
MS: We have a few people on a salary, but most are on a commission basis.
LXF: How do you find people to work on a game?
MS: With great difficulty. When the game comes out, and people start getting their commissions, they usually end up with a wage that’s roughly appropriate for the work they’ve done. But it’s hard because they don’t get money in advance.
LXF: And if there’s a year’s delay, as there was with X3, they don’t get paid?
MS: Exactly. It’s a bit of a problem. But we’ve got some good people on board now who are getting some royalties from previous games, so they’re able to work on new games without worrying too much.
LXF: How far along are your own technologies?
MS: The multiplayer, from our perspective, is fairly mature now. We’ve got it in a number of games and it seems to be working well. We’ve released PenguinPlay, which is our multiplayer matching service that we’re aiming to put in direct competition with GameSpy. It’s still suffering from having a low number of users at the moment, but it will grow.
LXF: Have you ever thought about porting a popular framework to build around?
MS: We have thought about that, but it would be taking us along the same lines as Wine. To get a good level of efficiency while doing something like that would be difficult. The company that originally did the port forÂ Knights and Merchants [Runesoft] tried to do it with something called the dexter library. It does the job, but it’s terrible for efficiency, it really is.
A game that runs on a 500MHz machine on Windows ends up taking over 1GHz on Linux because of the extra overhead of the middle layer. So it can make porting quicker, but you get a lower-quality game. One thing we won’t compromise is on quality. Every single game we’ve had was delayed in one way or another â€“ I won’t let a bad game go out.
LXF: Was that the reason for the X3 delay?
MS: There were a few issues with X3. It turns out that some versions of the Nvidia driver didn’t quite work the same way. Don’t even get me talking about the ATI driver, but we have to support it. Getting it perfect on all of them is what took a bit of time. We also had a delay of three months where we had to find a bug in the rendering engine. In essence, the random number generator didn’t work under Linux. And because it’s a random number generator, it was hard to work out that it was going wrong â€“ it’s random by nature!
LXF: Is there anything you can learn from the process?
MS: For the X3 port, we ported everything except the graphics engine in a week. The game engine was similar to the X2 engine, but the graphics engine was just so different. We were thinking, ‘we’ll be done in a couple of months’, but we weren’t. But all credit to my guys, they did a lot of hard work on that port.
LXF: Are you tempted to create an original game?
MS: We do have a couple of original game ideas, one of which is about half complete. It will be a fairly simple game to start off with â€“ we’re not a big-budget company. This is completely new, no one knows about this. It’s very simple, it’s based onÂ Sudoku. But it’s an entirely new take on the game. I can’t go into details because it’s still a few months away, but we’re hoping we’ll be able to get it out in the next six months.
LXF: Which are your favourites games?
MS: I’ll always loveÂ Majesty â€“ I’ve played it end-to-end about three or four times. I thoughtÂ Cold War was brilliantly done and although I wasn’t a fan of the gameplay inÂ Postal 2, I loved the message that the company was trying to put out. Because you can playÂ Postal 2 in the most violent and graphic way, but you can also play it without hurting a single person. I don’t know anyone who’s played it like that, but I like that the people who madeÂ Postal are saying you can get through this game without any violence.
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