This week I have been off work using up a bit of leave, but the weather has been rather autumnal, so it has been perfect conditions to stay in, take a break from work stuff and play some computer games. I thought it would be nice to explore a bit open source gaming on my Ubuntu powered Acer Aspire Revo nettop, not the most powerful machine, but it does feature the Nvidia ION chipset so should theoretically be capable of outputting some decent graphics. Putting open source and gaming together might seem an odd concept, after all modern computer games take vast teams and big budgets to produce, but there are some decent games out there. Additionally, for those interested in games development, open source games provide a unique opportunity to learn from existing code and adapt games to new uses.
Earlier this year I had the pleasure of attending the Games Based Learning conference, which brought home the message to me that computer gaming is changing, a wider age group and a more diverse audience is now getting involved. I noticed this week many daytime TV adverts for the Nintendo DS games console that were aimed squarely at an older audience. Additionally it is moving from being a solitary pursuit, to a more social one. I enjoy computer games, but I am not a hardcore gamer, so I thought I would highlight three games that might have a wide appeal, and above all are fun!
The first game I had a look at was one I thought might put the NVidia ION chipset through its paces: Yo Frankie! This is a spin off from the Blender project, a powerful open source “3D content creation suite”. The graphics on this game are fantastic and the gameplay centres around the antics of a fairly angry looking squirrel trying to find nuts. I found that it picked up my joypad without the need for any special configuration so this was the sort of thing you would find on a games console. I would imagine this would appeal to children and maybe some adults too. The Revo struggled a bit with the game I think, it is possible to turn the level of graphics complexity down to save the machine a bit of work, but loading up levels did take a little while so patience is required. The game is not available from the repositories, instead Ubuntu users should download it from here: http://www.getdeb.net/app/Yo+Frankie before you also need a copy of Blender, also on GetDeb at: http://www.getdeb.net/app/Blender. Download the deb files and double click first on Blender to install it then on Yo Frankie!
The next two games are very different from the sort of joypad-led gaming experience that Yo Frankie! offers. There have been lots of games released onto the market that are designed to be played when you have few people round, so in a party spirit, these games are musical. A very popular game at the moment is Guitar Hero where you get to play along to some tracks with a controller shaped like a guitar. This of course isn't the same as playing a real guitar, but you still have to stay in time! There is a game that is a similar idea available open source, it is Frets On Fire. A key difference with this game is that we don't have the special guitar controllers that ship with Guitar Hero, instead the team behind the game have devised a rather clever solution using a normal detachable keyboard: holding it upside down, using the function keys to hold down the strings, and the enter key to strum! After a while you get used to it, but it is one of the most novel pieces of user interface design I've ever come across! This game is available in the normal repositories, just install the fretsonfire package on Ubuntu.
I want to end this selection of games on a high note, possibly quite literally, with Performous. If you are familiar with SingStar you will know what Performous is about, if not the aim of the game is to sing into a microphone while a song is being played and be as close as possible to the note that is being shown on the screen. It is a kind of skill karaoke, in some ways a perfect party game as people often like a good sing-a-long after a few drinks. For some reason I couldn't get very close to the notes required, presumably a song card configuration error, not my singing voice.... The game needs some song files to work, and you can source some of these files on the site, or make files yourself for your own MP3s, it is a spin off from Ultrastar so they share a common format of song file and it is possible to obtain more on the Internet. So, if there is something that your particularly want to sing along to in your music collection, or maybe you really like a tune by an unsigned a local band, you can turn this music into a Singstar-like experience. It might also be handy for learning the words to songs too.
Getting Performous up and running on the Revo wasn't as straightforward as I'd hoped. The version in the repositories is broken in Jaunty (9.04) so you will need to grab a copy from their download page: http://performous.org/install.html and then install it using Gdebi by double clicking on the downloaded deb file. The first time you run it you will need to launch it from the command line and pass it some information about the Revo's hardware. It can use Singstar microphones apparently, but I don't own these so I just used a normal microphone plugged into the front of the Revo (make sure you have your sound preferences and volume levels set up for to use the microphone), so I passed this information too. Run it with:
performous --pdev alsa:hw:0,3 --mics channels=1
When the program starts you should go into the configuration screen, select any other display options you want and then press Ctrl+S, this saves the configuration you set up, so next time you can just run it by clicking on its icon.
As you can see occasionally installing this games is not straightforward, however a couple of initiatives exist that might help this. Firstly, Playdeb is a project that aims to make it easier to install the games found on GetDeb. It lists the games available and makes it possible to start off the install process with just one click. It also rather neatly has preview videos for many of the games on offer. The second is the Ubuntu Software Store which is due in the next release of Ubuntu (Karmic, due at the end of October 2009) which aims to deliver a software installation experience that is more integrated and streamlined. This is a really exciting development that should make using Ubuntu even easier, even for those with only basic computer skills.
There are many other games available, I haven't even touched on the multiplayer online games that are available or the desktop games. The selection of games on Linux isn't as wide as many other platforms, and maybe it isn't really an alternative to a games console, but there is still fun to be had and new gaming experiences to be enjoyed at no cost, plus the opportunity to personalise, modify and derive games and learn from the ways they are programmed and constructed.