Valve is apparently trying to increase the appeal and usability of Linux PC gaming, but that won’t require installing SteamOS or investing in a new kind of steam engine. The approach this the weather is more reasonable and frankly exciting. I have now spent a month exclusively using Ubuntu as my daily driver, and for all the love I have given to this excellent replacement for Windows 10, it and all other Linux distros are still missing in one. key area: games.
That’s not to say that playing on Linux is a headache. No, native the game is child’s play. Install GOG or Steam for Linux, download your favorite available games and enjoy. But Linux has a fraction of the playable library that is available to Windows users, and this is where any argument for convincing those users to switch to Linux tends to fall flat.
You can play a lot of Windows-only games like Monster hunter world, Monitoring and even Fortnite, but it involves varying degrees of complexity and even some command line tweaking. It is not impossible, but it is far from simple.
However, big improvements have been made over the past couple of years to get the large number of Windows games to run on Linux using a few different tools. Firstly there is WINE, a compatibility layer which, while effective, is obtuse to use alone and does not guarantee full compatibility. In a nutshell, WINE translates Windows API calls on the fly to allow games and software to run on MacOS or Linux. When installing a Windows game or application with WINE, the game thinks it still works on Windows.
More recently, a free service called Lutris came up with. Lutris has a web and desktop interface that lets you distill all of these complex steps into a single install script. It’s not flawless, but it’s light years away from using WINE on its own.
On top of that, there is a WINE tool called DXVK (DirectX to Vulkan) which in non-technical terms is really great despite its infancy. Basically it converts DirectX 11 calls to Vulkan. You can recognize Vulkan from games like the newest Wolfenstein Where LOSS. And Vulkan works exceptionally well on Linux. So, with all of these tools in your toolbox, you can play Windows based DX11 games with just a minor impact on performance.
But, like consoles, the whole appeal of Windows – and by extension Steam – is its ease of use. So let’s talk about what Valve seems to be working on.
The easy button?
Someone at the Linux subreddit Point coded in Steam UI files which refer to “Compatibility Tools” for Steam play. This code includes a descriptor which cannot be anything other than WINE support: “Steam Play will automatically install compatibility tools that will allow you to play games in your library that have been designed for other systems of operation. “
So we have Valve supporting WINE and probably adding their own improvements in the background and hopefully making the process as easy as installing a native Windows game. No google search, no command line headaches and no endless tweaks. Don’t underestimate the importance of this. Setting up these games on your own can be mind-boggling, with multiple versions of WINE, DXVK, install scripts, advanced switches, and .dll files. . . The list is lengthened increasingly.
It would be a breath of fresh air for Linux users, but game developers have a lot to gain from this too. Porting a game to another platform requires money, time, and resources that developers often cannot commit (especially for a much smaller audience). While Steam for Linux has around 5,000 native games (many of which are AAA titles), it falls far short of its Windows counterpart. If Valve does what it seems to do, the developers wouldn’t need to create a full port. Instead, they would simply adapt their versions of Windows to be compatible with the “compatibility layer,” and Valve would likely lend them the tools to do so.
After all, the Linux user base is growing and as accessible distributions like Ubuntu continue to mature and gain traction, that number is expected to continue to grow. Especially with recent features like Snap which make installing software easier than in Windows.
There is still a lot we don’t know about this, but despite the failure of Steam Machines, the Debian-based SteamOS is still in active development. Maybe Valve will sync this Steam feature to a version of SteamOS 3.0? Or maybe we sit down and accept Valve time.
Either way, it looks promising. What do you think?