Valve looking to OpenGL means Microsoft should be worried

Written by Alex Watson

March 15, 2010 // 10:09 a.m.

Tags: #apple #directx #opengl #os-x #source #valve

Valve has been on a bit of a roll recently, with its beautifully executed Portal mystery and smart re-working of Apple adverts to announce Steam coming to Mac OS X.

The approachable, inclusive nature of Valve’s marketing – and the thoughtfulness of features such as SteamCloud, where you won’t need to repurchase games – means gamers love the company, but we shouldn’t be blind to the interesting political movements that Valve’s recent actions hint at.
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While most of the press focussed on saying it was Steam that was coming to the Mac (and rightly, that’s what consumers care about), Valve was careful to point out that both Steam and the Source game engine were headed to OS X.

Valve is able to do this because it has incorporated OpenGL into Steam – making it perhaps the biggest game engine at the moment that’s not solely DirectX. Valve’s move will be – or should be – extremely interesting to Microsoft, because it represents the first serious challenge to DirectX in years.
John Carmack and id software might talk a good game about how keen they are on OpenGL, but the slow pace of releases from id, lack of licensing wins and lack of multiplayer success means that it’s not really a concern to DirectX’s dominance. Source however, while it’s not widely licensed, is in regular use by millions of gamers and by incorporating OpenGL into it, Valve is enabling millions of gamers to imagine gaming on a PC that’s not running Windows.

You can argue that no serious gamer would want to buy a Mac – the graphics cards on offer in the Macs that any indivudual would be buying (ie not the Mac Pro) run the gamut from terrible to depressing to deeply average – but Source isn’t demanding in terms of hardware, and many people will find their Mac does just fine, especially if they’re occasional gamers.

Valve looking to OpenGL means Microsoft should be worried Valve looking to OpenGL means Microsoft be worried

What should be really worrying for Microsoft is that Source doesn’t yet incorporate any DirectX 10 or 11 features – and Valve has shown little interest in doing so. The addition of OpenGL means they’ve now got another option about pushing the engine forward, especially as the recently announced OpenGL 4.0 includes DX11 comparable features such as Compute Shaders and Tesselation.

In addition to this, adding OpenGL means Valve can now extend support to Linux – whether they’ll do this officially, or whether enterprising Linux users will just manage to hack the OpenGL libraries inside Source, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Valve games running well on Ubuntu et al within a few months of the Mac launch.

Why Valve is doing this is an interesting question and it comes down to whether they’ve added OpenGL in so that they can go after the Mac market – or, more intriguingly, perhaps the Mac market is a natural benefit of them deciding to explore OpenGL more fully. This latter scenario would imply Valve being dissatisfied with being tied solely to DirectX. Either way, the disappointing rate of adoption of DX10 and 11 looks set to continue, and there are likely some stormy seas ahead for DirectX.
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