It's no secret that games developer and publisher Valve Software has been experimenting with Linux operating systems for some time.
It's perhaps even less of a secret that the company, which invented and owns Steam, the world's largest digital distribution service for PC games, is no fan of Windows 8. Indeed, Valve co-founder and chief executive has regularly voiced his fears about the direction of Microsoft's latest operating system, describing it as "a catastrophe for everyone in the PC space".
But Windows is by far the dominant operating system for PC gaming - only three per cent use Steam on a Mac. But with Valve now openly distancing itself from Windows, how can it coax users to the newly released Steam for Linux?
The answer? Free penguins. Really, it's a shrewd move, which probably needs some explaining.
Developed by Valve, Team Fortress 2 is a multiplayer first-person shooter, one of the most popular games on Steam and it's free-to-play, which means exactly what it says on the tin: the game can be downloaded for absolutely no cost. Players are able to customise their in-game characters with a variety of zany weapons, hats and other items, which are mostly acquired through random drops while playing or buying them in the in-game store. Some rare or special items can become very desirable to players.
And this is where the penguin comes in.
Valve is offering a free in-game item to everyone who plays Team Fortress 2 on Linux before March 1st - a limited edition virtual version of Linux mascot Tux that players can carry around on their in-game character. In Team Fortress 2, for some reason, items talk and this will guarantee that a significant number of players will install Ubuntu - the version of Linux Valve currently supports - and try out the open source OS.
Sure, some of them will play Team Fortress 2 on Linux just once in order to receive a fancy little penguin that they can carry around (or perhaps sell to another player), but a few - Valve will hope more than a few - will stick around with Linux in the knowledge that Valve is actively focusing its development on it. Also, Ubuntu can be easily installed to dual boot with Windows or run virtually from within Windows itself, making it a risk-free experiment.
It works the other way too. It was revealed recently that Valve's upcoming contender for the living room PC space, generally referred to as Steam Box (but not Gabe Cube) will run on Linux by default, although according to Valve CEO Gabe Newell, it won't be hard to switch to Windows 8 if the user desires.
"We'll come out with our own and we'll sell it to consumers by ourselves. That'll be a Linux box, [and] if you want to install Windows you can. We're not going to make it hard. This is not some locked box by any stretch of the imagination," he told The Verge earlier this year.
Getting a free Tux in Team Fortress 2 isn't the only incentive for Steam users to try out the Linux operating system. Valve is celebrating the arrival on Steam for Linux with a week-long sale, allowing players to download games, some of which are quite new, for a fraction of their usual price. A few cheap titles running on Ubuntu... and suddenly a gamer could be converted to Linux user!
Sure, a free virtual penguin and a few discounted games isn't going to convert every single Steam user to Linux right now, but it could encourage a significant number to experiment with the open source OS, which for now, is exactly want Valve wants. It can only be a positive thing for Linux, too.
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