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Attack of the Undead Penguins

Pep rally post about my hopes for Steam on Linux.

Steam coming to Linux, you say?

People following the Valve/Steam/Linux news already know that the awesome hackers at Valve have Left 4 Dead 2 running on Ubuntu like a champ. They know that Valve has been doing some work toward a so-called three meter display (ie, for television display), and have probably speculated that they are at least considering building a console.

This is a post about what I’m looking forward to seeing out of Valve on Linux.

Playing Games

Foremost, I’m looking to playing games without even the minor inconveniences of WINE. Often there are tweaks, there’s turning off features, or some minor thorn of just about every game I’ve played on WINE. WINE is awesome, and it’s made some money for game companies, as there are games I bought because I knew that I could play them.

But it’s not perfect, and for people that eschew yak shaving to play a game, the set of titles they might purchase and play drops (I’m not thinking about side projects like PlayOnLinux, as I’ve not tried them).

For a lot of games, if they make it to Linux, that means getting full eye candy. Full features.

Building Games

Secondly, I’m hopeful that the game creation tools will be coming to Linux. Some of these kind-of-sort-of run under WINE, but my experience with these hasn’t been nearly as good as with games. Even if the current generation tools don’t make it, maybe the next generation will.

The lower the barrier to entry for creating game content, the more that will be created, and the better games we will see. That’s true of technology in general.

I’ve made a few maps years ago under Windows, but the few times I tried to build maps under WINE it was much clunkier and fraught with peril. I’m very hopeful that in another decade or so it will be commonplace for gamers to be mappers and modelers, even if their extent of mapping and modeling is just to customize existing maps and models.

Building Bridges

But, like others, my biggest hope is that this work will result in greater support from the four corners of the earth for Open Source and Linux. That it will widen the market for gaming, while making governments and businesses evaluate Linux as a greater possibility for their employees.

Just like Android has pushed a device with Linux to far more hands than ever before, a Valve console could do it again. But so can Steam for Linux. There’s plenty of people that keep a second computer or dual booting just for games. There also a general perception that Windows is the king because of gaming. Linux getting more gaming means that even Apple may end up supporting iTunes for Linux one day.

A side bet is, assuming the success of Steam for Linux, could that competition bring Microsoft back from the brink? For years Microsoft has had the capacity to push the computing world far beyond its current state. But it’s had no reason. That’s harmed its server market, which hasn’t been very competitive.

Conclusion

In any case, as a long-term fan of Valve’s games, I look forward to playing Half-Life 3 on Linux (just like I played Half-Life 2 here), and with any luck the Black Mesa modification can be playable on Linux too.

Discoverability in Software

Certain UNIX text editors have extensive tutorials to help people learn their commands and behavior. And the evidence is compelling that once you learn them it makes you more productive. But, learning them is still a fairly big hurdle, even with tutorials. This is purely a discovery issue.

Discoverability

One of the big challenges in writing usable software is making all of the features and options apparent to the user, particularly to the novice.

Menus do a good job, by being visible and readable (including by accessibility tools).  But keyboard shortcuts that are not menuized have poor discoverability, as do some mouse actions (gestures, uncommon or inconsistent button behavior).

For example, you’ve probably repeatedly clicked on a text field in software before and noticed portions of the entered content are selected.  It’s not obvious what happens if you aren’t paying close attention.

The general behavior here is that a single click moves the cursor while a double click will select some portion of the entered text.  The double click rules are basically:

  1. Select the word the cursor is over (if it is a word).
  2. Otherwise, select the surrounding word(s) (if over a space).

But there’s also the triple click here.  Triple clicking will select the entire paragraph.

How would you determine these behaviors, other than having been told or experimented?  Unlike a checkbox, which has some kind of indication that clicking it does something like erase or add a check to it, text gives no such indication.

There are regular threads across the internet where people discover that shift and middle click both have myriad uses in Firefox.  Having an about: URL that gave the full list might be useful, but even that wouldn’t be too discoverable.  And the sidekick of discoverability is remindability.  If the user reads a long list once, they won’t necessarily remember for the next time they could use that action.

Certain UNIX text editors have extensive tutorials to help people learn their commands and behavior.  And the evidence is compelling that once you learn them it makes you more productive.  But, learning them is still a fairly big hurdle, even with tutorials.  This is purely a discovery issue.

One of the best possible solutions I can imagine would be to create video games with the UI for these applications.  If you had to kill space aliens (no offense to any space aliens reading this) while playing a game version of vi, you would learn the commands much faster.  Same goes for killing zombie tabs and zombie bookmarks in Firefox.

Valve’s Left4Dead: DirectX Curse

Valve has dropped DirectX 8 support for new games. My wallet is now closed. Go in peace.

Valve Software has released their latest game, Left4Dead.  This is a zombie thriller game and I’d like to give it a try.  I love Valve games and I love zombies, so this should be my favorite game of the year, right?

Well I won’t find out, possibly for years to come.  I play Valve’s games under  Linux (unsupported) via WINE.  WINE’s DirectX support is pretty solid through DirectX 8 and I can play Team Fortress 2, Portal, Counter-Strike: Source, HL2 + Episodes, etc.  They run just fine on my system and I have fun.

As of Left4Dead, Valve has dropped DirectX 8 support.  I look at the game on the WINE AppDB and the word is it runs fine, but slow as a dog.  So I don’t buy it.

This is an example of sales prevention.  Valve already chooses not to support Linux as a gaming platform; their choice.  But now they are cutting off the ability to play their new games via WINE.  Also their choice, but a choice which means that I won’t be giving them my money until I read on the WINE AppDB that things have improved.

And for the record I’ve bought pretty much every Valve game since Half-Life.  I would love to continue to do so.