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What Carmack actually said about Linux

Homer's picture

id odd
First, here’s what he didn’t say:

Linux development is another story altogether. Even though Valve is now actively pursuing the Linux market, id has been there before, and just has not seen positive results. Remember how many past titles from id actually ran on Linux, and for how long these were supported? John says that Linux development simply does not pay the bills. It creates goodwill among the Linux crowd, but that is about it.

I watched Carmack’s keynote ... all three hours and thirty-six minutes of it. Twice. And took notes.

The first thing that needs to be said about the above quote is it’s actually by Josh Walrath, Managing Editor of PC Perspective, not Carmack. The only thing Carmack said about Linux was this:

Not nearly as many people are interested in paying for games on the platform.

That’s it. No mention of "goodwill", a lack of "positive results" or "paying the bills". The only mention of "past titles" was his reference to the fact that Linux "just hasn't carried its weight compared to the mac"... on Quake Live, which was actually an abysmal failure for reasons entirely unrelated to Linux. In other words Linux accounts for comparatively fewer sales of id's games. Fewer, not "none", not a total lack of "positive results", not Linux isn't "paying the bills", and not "we're going bankrupt because of Linux". That's just pure hyperbole. Moreover, at no point did Carmack explicitly state nor even imply that id were abandoning Linux, as many seem to have inferred from that article.

Walrath is also wrong about "how long these were supported", given that most id titles were never commercially released for Linux at all, and those that were had nothing whatsoever to do with id, they were ported and sold by a licensed third-party called Loki Entertainment Software (Quake III Arena and Heretic II). It wasn't until later, when the game code was released under the GPL, that most id titles could be played on Linux, but only once you bought the Windows version first, in order to get the (still proprietary) data files.

Now that these titles are licensed under the GPL, of course, they are in fact still supported by a very active community of developers. Certainly id have produced Linux binaries of all their games since then, but to this day they have yet to release even a single boxed commercial game for Linux, so Walrath talking about "support" is more than a little disingenuous. The only real support any Linux user has ever had for id games is from the community. Kudos to id for releasing those titles under the GPL, of course, but that's an entirely different matter to disingenuously expecting commercial support for non-existent commercial games.

Carmack's comments in his keynote were radically different to Walrath's cynical characterisation, which was basically just an anti-Linux smear-job. Watch it yourself if you don’t believe me. It’s quite an ordeal, though. Carmack somehow manages to talk non-stop for the full three and a half hours without so much as pausing for breath. He didn’t even move for the first hour and a half, when he eventually sat down, talked non-stop for another two hours, then took his first swig of water. If nothing else, you have to admire his sheer stamina. He had an iPad toy with him, but it seemed mainly for show, because he only glanced at it a couple of times near the end, during the Q&A session. Yes, he ad-libbed his way through the entire keynote, at high speed, and it wasn’t exactly Jobsian gibberish either, it was mostly pretty technical stuff. Impressive.

Near the beginning he talked about how he wants to open-source as much of the id Tech engine stuff as possible. Later he talked about how much he loves platforms, and how disappointed he was to be giving up mobile development. That’s when he made his single "paying for games" comment, but it rung hollow given the context, especially in view of the recent resignation of id's main Linux game developer, Timothee Bessett.

Note that point carefully: Bessett resigned, he wasn't laid-off. What could have precipitated that resignation, I wonder? Could it have been politically-motivated hostility toward the Linux platform, from certain newly-arrived management and executives (i.e. Bethesda, id’s new Dark Overlord)? I found it curious how Carmack made repeated reference to something called "Bethesda mode" or "the Bethesda way". It sounds more like one of the Linux-hostile bean-counters at Bethesda used Linux as a scapegoat for id’s failures, then spoon-fed this "Linux users won't pay" FUD to Carmack for lunch.

Meanwhile the true reasons for id's failures are clear. The fact is id hasn’t been relevant for a very long time. Doom 3 was a joke - it was like playing with the monitor switched off. Even Carmack admitted it was too dark, then elaborated that the reason was because adding another light source, in the form of a flashlight, would have "halved the framerate", which would have been pretty bad given that they were already "limping along on PCs".

Rage was a complete disaster. It was too short, buggy as hell, and had one of the worst single-player endings of any FPS in history. Again, Carmack openly admitted this, and blamed buggy AMD (proprietary Windows) drivers, whilst conceding he was currently also having problems with Nvidia’s (also proprietary Windows) drivers. Apparently this issue affected "almost half of customers", most of whom "didn't have the drivers they needed", and he concluded; "This is the two edged sword of the PC marketplace," meaning it has more potential power than the consoles, but that’s a moot point if nothing works. He desperately wanted to do a sequel, i.e. Rage: Fixed Edition, but Bethesda shelved it, probably because they realised that trying to "fix" anything on Windows is utterly futile, not to mention unprofitable.

And this is where Carmack started to clearly drift off-message. On the one hand he conceded the severe problems with the Windows platform, because it’s plagued with driver issues. He admitted that "the days of the monster GPU card being a significant portion of the user base are dwindling," and that "unified memory is going to win". He was relieved that Intel had an open driver model, because otherwise "working with GPUs is extremely unpleasant compared to CPUs". He sincerely apologised for a series of buggy games and an excruciatingly slow release cycle ("I have people saying, you know, I'd like to play more than one id game a decade"). He wished he could "go back and do Quake differently" because he "would not have required everyone to have high end systems".

But then, on the other hand, he talked about (Bethesda) abandoning mobile development, and everything else (presumably including Linux, although again I remind you that this was never explicitly stated), in order to aim for "blockbuster triple A titles" on ... a buggy, bloated, increasingly obsolete platform like Windows. He wasn’t even allowed to talk about console development at all, due to some mysterious and sinister thing called "NDA".

This just doesn’t add up. "Power gamers" with stupidly expensive graphics cards are a niche segment in what is increasingly becoming a niche market (Android alone now outsells Windows by a factor of 2:1, and Intel's somewhat underpowered graphics dominate about 60% of the PC market), and the way forward (not to mention the biggest demographic) is clearly lower resource, mobile systems running one form or another of "Linux". So what does id do? It abandons mobile, abandons Linux (presumably), abandons everything to concentrate on ... a dying platform.

And from Carmack’s other, conflicting messages it’s clear he’s really, really not happy about it.

But if we’re to believe Walrath’s cynical inferences, it’s all Linux’s fault. Honest. We Linux "freetards" refused to pay, and that’s what caused every id title on Windows over the past decade to suck balls. No, really. Bethesda, erm, I mean id Software is losing money hand over fist - not because in-game advertising in Quake Live was a really bad idea, which caused a user revolt and two advertising partners to go bankrupt; not because Doom 3 was like tennis for the blind; not because Rage crashed if you so much as breathed on it; and certainly not because id only releases a new game about once per millennium. No, it was because of Linux "freetards". They just won’t pay, you know. Oh the humanity!

Never mind the fact that id essentially buried their proprietary Linux releases in a dark hole, making about as much marketing effort as a paedophile priest, and never even tried to sell them commercially. Casually disregard every Humble Bundle release that proves Linux customers consistently pay more on average than their Windows counterparts. Blatantly ignore the hoards of unwashed Ubuntu fanboys who trip over themselves to buy proprietary Linux software from the Canonical Store. Wedge cheese in your ears and sing la-la-la to block out the sound of Valve’s Gabe Newell singing the praises of Linux and OpenGL, whilst he condemns Windows 8 as a "catastrophe". Shove your head in the sand as Google passes 400 million Android activations - one million per day. None of that matters, because Linux just "does not pay the bills", and that’s all you need to know. Period. So says Linux and marketing "expert" Josh Walrath, based on a single terse statement by Carmack.

Meanwhile, here’s a reality check. Any company that isn’t in mobile is toast. Any company that pretends this whole Windows 8 fiasco will just all work out somehow is living in a fantasy land. Any company that doesn’t recognise the dire urgency to support low resource, mobile, Linux (and iOS) based systems, as one of their primary targets, has all the business acumen of Enron. Any company that persists in clinging to the dying Wintel PC market, and in particular the fringes of the "hardcore gamer" segment, has basically just signed its own death certificate. What was once the "hobby" segment just went mainstream in a big way, and the PC "enthusiast" crowd is now little more than a niche. Wake up, brew some coffee, then take a good, long whiff.

But Bethesda’s corporate message, as slavishly relayed by Carmack, and then exaggerated beyond all recognition by Walrath, is that nothing pays except "blockbuster triple A titles" ... on ten-grand Windows gaming rigs (and that even smaller market segment, game consoles). No, but seriously, mobile platforms are a mere figment of your imagination, and Valve is now supporting desktop Linux because, as a business, it’s really important to waste money on losing propositions. Honest.

The problem is Bethesda’s little injection of anti-Linux propaganda just doesn’t fit Carmack’s other statements. Yes, he criticised OpenGL for being unwieldy compared to D3D, but then immediately contradicted himself by praising its extensibility - the very thing that makes it "unwieldy" in the first place, and which allowed id to get two extensions accepted into the spec recently - something that’s simply not possible at all with Microsoft’s locked-down, anti-interoperable D3D framework. But then, apparently Carmack hasn’t really "cared about Windows since XP", and he noted that "nobody used Vista" and there’s been "no real difference" made to Windows since then.

These are not exactly the ringing endorsements of Windows one expects from a company that just abandoned everything else to dedicate itself to that platform. Carmack also made repeated references to the fact that he considers gameplay more important than graphics, or at least more important than the futile pursuit of the Nth degree of graphic perfection, which is quite an extraordinary admission from a self-professed "graphics geek", especially one who’s just abandoned everything to pursue the Nth degree "hardcore gamers" niche.

Carmack's criticisms didn’t end at Windows, though. He thinks the current state of 3D and VR is a bad joke, complaining that "VR is like looking at the world through toilet tubes" and 3D is just too slow, mainly due to horrible displays with poor (sub-120Hz) refresh rates, and other latency issues caused by things like DRM. In passing, he also noted that the poor latency on Microsoft’s Kinect makes it "unusable". Then he revealed the astonishing fact that apparently it's faster to send a data packet across the Atlantic than the distance between the back of a PC and an HDMI display. "That's wrong and we should stop putting up with that," he said to an enormous applause. Yes, quite.

It’s probably not the most significant thing that’s wrong at the moment, though, especially inside id’s offices. I’m fairly willing to bet that Linux isn’t responsible, however. If Bethesda, id or whoever wants to make half-baked attempts to support Linux, then blame their failures on some fictional "freetard" stinginess, whilst ignoring the rapidly changing realities of the market around them, then I wish them good luck and bon voyage. It’ll be a very short journey.


Anony Mouse's picture

The World has gone mad

First Nokia drops everything for windows only and now id does the same. What virus is this that is infecting the CIO's of the tech world.

Anony Mouse's picture


It's id, not iD. Pronounced like the id in lid, not eye-dee.

Anony Mouse's picture

Oh, I get it... a shortened form of...

>>It's id, not iD. Pronounced like the id in lid, not eye-dee.

So the name is a shortened form, with the 'iot' dropped?

I stopped using Windows when it started taking too much free time to keep a current system limping along. That was despite games that I loved. Now, with Steam, I am a paying gamer again, although I will be glad to have a native client. Yes, Humble Bundle has proven that it is the Windows and Macintoy crowds that are stingier with gaming money, and I have absolutely no doubt that Valve's recent efforts are behind tapping that pool of customers that are ready to pay more/game than the traditional markets.


Homer's picture