Linux PC Gaming: How Difficult Can It Be?
For PC gamers, there is a de facto operating system: Windows 10. It’s pretty easy, really, you build or buy a fancy gaming PC, run Windows 10 on it, and go have coffee while Steam downloads. your library. Then you just load and go.
It’s not really that simple, but you see the picture. The price of the hardware isn’t the only reason Mac gaming isn’t a bigger issue. But on PC, you can also install Linux, and lately Linux games are getting strong support from Valve alongside the thriving community.
For me I am able to try to learn Linux but I also like games. So how difficult can it be to combine the two? Not as bad as you might think.
Which Linux distribution to choose?
Unlike Windows 10 and macOS, when it comes to Linux, you’re spoiled for choice. All of the best Linux distros have active communities, which makes new stuff less daunting as there is a huge resource to help you out when you inevitably need it.
For gamers in particular, some are considered the best Linux distros for gaming, with some tweaks and preloaded software tools to help PC gamers get started much faster.
I use Linux Mint, for no reason other than I started using it when I first started using Linux and that’s what I’m comfortable with. It is based on Ubuntu and is very beginner friendly.
Linux game hardware and drivers
This is the part that really surprised me the first time I started seriously considering using Linux for gaming. Drivers are sometimes a sufficient problem on Windows 10, but surprisingly the situation on Linux could be considered better.
Take my gaming PC, for example. Right now it’s running an AMD Radeon GPU, and I don’t even need to install any drivers. An open source driver, Mesa, is built into Linux Mint (and many other distributions) and it just works out of the box. There are newer drivers available, but updating to these isn’t difficult with access to a web browser and search engine.
Nvidia graphics cards are a little different, but there are both open source and proprietary drivers to use with these. Trying out Linux Mint on a gaming laptop with an Nvidia RTX 2060, imagine my joy when the built-in driver manager popped up on first boot with a choice between the latest versions of each. He just knew what I needed on that specific machine and made it easy to install.
What about support for PC games in Linux?
When you look at the small percentage of Steam users who are running Linux compared to Windows 10, you wonder why Valve is so behind the platform. But since Steam is the largest provider of PC games, the fact that they are behind is good news for us.
There are a lot of games on Steam that are native to Linux, perhaps a surprising number, but the real magic is Proton. This compatibility layer allows gamers to play Windows-only titles on Linux, with varying degrees of success. Steam has a whitelist of officially supported titles, but you can tell Proton to try playing anything in your library and it will.
However, there are limits. As good as Proton is, it’s still a fix. And some games just don’t work at all, in many cases because of built-in anti-cheat software. Destiny 2, for example, won’t boot fully due to its anti-cheat system which just isn’t supported on Linux. But, for most games, there is a third-party resource, ProtonDB, which is a must-have. Link it to your Steam library and it will tell you what to expect.
Proton is also not limited to a single version. Older versions can be used and you can force specific games to run different versions. The ProtonDB community is great at reporting issues and fixes, and sometimes just using an older version of Proton is the answer. Or if you’re in the mood, there’s a popular custom Proton called Proton GE (GloriousEggroll named after its creator) which in many cases is even better.
Away from Steam, it’s perfectly possible to play games from services like Epic Games, Ubisoft Connect, and EA Origin. Using the magic of WINE (Wine Is Not an Emulator) Windows only programs can run on Linux and it is remarkable how good it is. I used a third party platform called Lutris to access Epic and Ubisoft and play games, it’s almost impossible to tell I’m actually on Linux.
PC gaming is all about DIY
Most people may think of Linux PC gaming is that there will be a lot of tinkering involved. I was thinking that too, but then again, how much time do we all spend tinkering with games and settings and what not getting that perfect performance anyway? It is no different here.
Since many games played on Linux are not native, there will usually be a performance difference compared to Windows. Crossing the compatibility layers just isn’t the same as launching a game natively, so that’s to be expected.
But Linux being Linux, there are some really amazing tools to improve the game. Lutris, mentioned above, uses WINE at its core, but can also be used to configure other tools to work without using any terminal. Feral Game Mode is a popular game mode, built into some games that Feral has ported to Linux, but can be used with any game to try and improve performance. In Steam you add a command to the game settings, in Lutris you just need to activate a toggle. The same story goes for the ACO compiler. Vulkan works great on Linux, and for people who want to see granular performance data, there are tools like MangoHud to put a full overlay on the screen.
And with OBS designed natively for Linux, streaming on Twitch isn’t even a problem either.
Linux PC gaming is not difficult, it’s a lot of fun
If you like to tinker, you should give Linux a try. I’m not here to say you should ditch Windows 10 right away, but I’m here to tell you not to be afraid to give it a try. I wanted to learn how to use it, and although I barely scratched the surface, I get an immense sense of satisfaction making adjustments and seeing the results. Right after the rage because as a beginner I broke something.
However, there are some things you should be wary of. For example, because I was using an NTFS formatted SSD to store my Steam library, none of the games loaded were non-Linux native. Reformatting the drive to ext4, the preferred format for Linux, everything was fine.
There is a lot to learn and it’s easy to get lost in a rabbit hole. But there are a ton of resources out there that make learning it easy and fun, and the knowledge in the community is astounding. But it’s just as surprising that you don’t really need to do this. Of course, if you want to use Epic or another non-Steam platform, you have to do a bit of homework, but it’s not difficult.
If your library is primarily in Steam, you just have to tick a few boxes and you’re away. There’s nothing harder to live with than with Windows 10, with the added bonus that an operating system update isn’t likely to completely ruin everything you’ve set up.