Direct3D 10/11 coming to Linux … What about games?

No, April 1st is still more than 6 months away, and yes you heard me right — Direct3D versions 10 and 11 are indeed coming to Linux. How is this even possible?  Well it is possible, since nouveau moved on to Gallium 3D which allows Direct3D API (actually any API) to be exposed via a front end called a state tracker. Interestingly (, and there seems to be a lot of confusion going about on public forums) Direct3D will be a Native API under Gallium, much like OpenGL is currently. It won’t be a something that emulates Direct3D by using wrappers around OpenGL — meaning you will be able to write and compile Direct3D code directly on Linux or BSD based systems that support the nouveau driver. Initially I was a bit skeptical of such an approach since Direct3D API is integrated with Win32 API, but the author seems to have solved this by using Wine headers. I don’t know the pitfalls (if any) of such an approach, but it seems to have worked for him and would seem a logical path to take (instead of breaking API compatibility). He clearly outlines the motivation behind doing the Direct3D port, and kudos to him for doing something that was but inevitable given a no show of Longs Peak.

Naturally a native Direct3D implementation will allow game developers to write code that is cross-platform and even allow existing engines/games that use Direct3D versions 10 and higher to be ported across to platforms that have a Gallium driver. W00t! This is amazing, almost too good to be true isn’t it? But before we gamers jump in joy, there are still a few things that have to fall in place before things can get up and running with regards to Direct3D on Linux. First and foremost is support. Hardware vendors like Nvidia and AMD must support Gallium in their drivers, or OSS drivers must be written (and are being written) to take their place. This is paramount since without such an interface, no front end API (Direct3D or OpenGL) will be able to use hardware acceleration via Gallium. Second, and more importantly, the guys at Redmond must allow such an implementation of their Direct3D API. An API itself can’t be copyrighted. The author seems to have steered clear of any Microsoft code, so theoretically this shouldn’t be a problem. But then again I am no legal eagle, so I can’t really say anything w.r.t. this. There have been rumors that there are patents on sections of Direct3D. I am not sure what that means, or for that matter if it is even possible to patent sections of an API/Library. But, things could get potentially messy if Microsoft were to place a cease and desist on this new development. I doubt this would happen, but you never know.

I have to agree, having Direct3D as a native API via Gallium does open up a lot of possibilities for OSS platforms that have severely lacked games. Accelerated graphics on most systems apart from Windows have had little choice up until now with OpenGL being the only real option. But does this really mean that all of the games that are developed and are being developed will be ported to Linux and other OSS platforms? That’s an interesting question and the answer isn’t quite that simple. Lets look at the macro picture of the industry. For AAA games the PC platform isn’t a priority. Most (maybe all) AAA games are today made with consoles in mind. Yes there maybe a PC port, but it’s the consoles that are the main priority. Most (if not all) gamers that play AAA games on the PC do spend a bang on their systems and most of them already have Windows as their main OS. Some do have *NIX systems but even these few have a Windows partition that they keep around specifically for games. Porting any software to a new platform isn’t a trivial task. Even with the best coding practices and methods, it requires a lot of resources — which aren’t free. Everything from coding, testing, maintaining build setups, writing install scripts and many other things requires time and money. For  a AAA game, or for that matter for any game or software, a port to a new platform should show a robust ROI (return on investment). That’s where the crux of the problem lies. There aren’t that many *NIX gamers out there, and if there are, the big studios aren’t seeing them!

Then there are the casual games, which also is a big market for games. Casual games represent a very different kind of audience. A typical casual gamer is a non technical person who doesn’t even understand what a hardware driver is, let alone jargons like Gallium, Direct3D, OpenGL or for that matter Linux. Most casual gamers will have nothing but a moderately powerful laptop with on-board Intel graphics chips — which came with Windows pre-installed. This is the kind of player that expects the game to install and run with a single click. They don’t understand driver updates or DirectX versions. For them it matters little which API is better or worse or which platform supports which API and which doesn’t. Apart form these two broad segments, there are a whole lot of players who will play radical indie games and this is probably where Linux ports has found some success. This gamer is the tech savvy computer geek who runs Linux as his/her primary system and isn’t afraid to fire up the console now and then. I must say, some radical indie games have found success in this area. But, these games are far from cutting edge. They maybe very good games, but you don’t expect Crysis like graphics from them, and it matters little what API is used or if the underlying API runs 5% slower when your game is not going below the 30FPS barrier.

There have been lots of debates about OpenGL vs Direct3D. I refrain to go into that. However, having a choice of accelerated graphics API for platforms other than Windows is definitely good all around. Direct3D versions 10 and 11 are well designed APIs, closely tied to current generation hardware. But will all this translate into more ports of games to Linux and BSDs is still an open question. The community as always will play a vital role and only time will tell how things pan out.