I’m a Linux user. Linux has, for several years, been my primary operating system on nearly every computer that I own – I have run openSUSE on my desktops since before it was called openSUSE, I run various versions of Ubuntu on my laptops, Raspbian on my two Raspberry Pis and I even have Debian derivatives running on my Wii and PlayStation 2.
I am also a PC gamer, something which really shouldn’t come as a surprise given my history of video game reviews. I have been playing PC games since the mid-1990s, starting with various MS-DOS games such as SimEarth and Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, proceeding to Windows 95 with Command & Conquer: Tiberian Dawn, Sid Meier’s Civilization II and SimCity 2000 and continuing to the present day with my most recent acquisitions including The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, the entire Tropico series and most recently, Arma 3.
Unfortunately for me, these two facts do not reconcile very well. While gaming of some variety has been possible on Linux since before I started, many of the games available have been open-source projects, ranging from casual puzzle or card games up to the likes of NetHack and Battle for Wesnoth. Most commercial video games on Linux have been from indie developers whose audiences are committed enough to their titles to deal with any hiccups they might experience when dealing with Linux, while a few older FPS titles come courtesy either of id Software’s policy of releasing their engines under open-source licences a few years after their release or by extensive reverse-engineering of the game engines to allow the games to run under Linux.
A lot of the games in question are very impressive in terms of gameplay and are to be lauded for that, but being a Linux user has often meant some sort of compromise in gaming terms. In order to experience the same games as the mainstream audience, one either has to run Windows as a secondary operating system, with the commensurate use of disc space on a separate partition, faff around with Windows emulation, which falls short on the most recent games and on several older titles or simply buy a console at significant expense. I have traditionally opted for the former but consider it to be somewhat irritating in the face of disadvantages of Windows that led me towards using Linux primarily in the first place.
Until recently, the highest-profile company whose games were available under Linux were id Software, largely because of John Carmack’s insistence on the open-source availability of their engines. That has changed of the last year or so, when Valve Software announced the release of SteamOS, a custom distribution of Linux designed for playing games. Valve Software have been one of the poster children for PC gaming for several years. After coming straight off the starting blocks with Half-Life in 1998, they have barely put a foot wrong since then. The highlight of this streak of strong titles has been the groundbreaking Half-Life 2 in 2004, a game which proved that Valve’s original title wasn’t just a flash in the pan.
What’s important to note here, though, is that Valve have also been a strong force for promoting independent game design. Steam, released in late 2003, has been the most notable example of a content delivery system done right. Among Steam’s features are the automated installation of patches, several community features allowing coordination of gameplay with friends and publication of screenshots and videos and a cloud storage system allowing save files and achievement progress to be distributed quickly to several different systems.
Valve are also known for their strong commercial and distribution advantages. The Steam store frequently has sales on various game titles, occasionally offering extensive discounts on games – my purchase of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim for €3.74 in June this year has been a particular highlight for me. They also promote independent game studios and offer a strong alternative to traditional publishers. Recent additions to Steam include the Steam Workshop and Greenlight, the former a way of quickly distributing user-created content, thus promoting one of the biggest advantages of PC gaming and the latter being a way for independent game developers to promote titles they may want to be made available on Steam. A number of “Early Access” titles in alpha or beta form are available through the Steam store as some forms of PC game development proceed towards a more audience-oriented method of bug-testing.
Valve have already done a great deal of work in promoting Linux as a gaming platform, having ported all of their own titles to Linux and selling or distributing hundreds more through the Steam store. Valve may well be the vanguard for making Linux gaming a viable alternative to Windows and offer the strong selection of their own titles along with the notable advantages of Steam as a game distribution platform. The proof in the pudding, however, will be when more mainstream developers see fit to release Linux titles as a consequence of Valve’s own orientation towards the platform.
As for the statement posited in the title, I prefer Linux as an operating system environment. I prefer the way that, even with a hefty desktop environment like KDE, my computer will feel quicker and less prone to hiccups in utility software when running Linux versus Windows. I prefer the flexibility to change parts of Linux as one sees fit, running different desktop environments or window managers as desired. I prefer the free and open-source nature of Linux and while Steam won’t offer much in the way of software that is “free as in freedom”, most of my utility software will remain free for me to modify as necessary – or even as desired. I’ve also grown used to the idiosyncracies of a Unix-like environment, from the file system to the command line – I can use Windows perfectly fine, along with a host of other graphical user interfaces, but my growing experience with Unix-like systems gives me a sense of familiarity that I find more pleasing.
PC gaming has, by and large, required me to use Windows. I find Windows works perfectly fine when I run games on it – they run smoothly right up to the point where the graphics card or processor cries uncle. I don’t find that sort of smoothness with utility software. Mozilla Firefox hiccups and splutters, frequently lacking response. Windows Explorer isn’t much better and in any case lacks some neat features from Konqueror on KDE or even Thunar for XFCE, including tabbed browsing. These sorts of hiccups may be down to the fact that my installation of Windows 7 really needs reinstallation, but there are too many idiosyncratic solutions I’ve had to make to get modded games running for me to do that. Then there’s the fact that I have to pretty much install a Unix-like environment through Cygwin if I want to have a programming environment like I’m used to. None of this software has regular updates through a package manager like I’ve become accustomed to on Linux either.
As a consequence, having to switch between the two operating systems between playing games and running utility and programming software is awkward and in any case, running Windows feels like a chore. I’ve said in the past elsewhere and I’ll say it again: Find me a way to get my game library running on Linux without much more effort than it takes to run the games on Windows and it will be difficult to find a reason for me to use anything else.
To close this article, I’ve recently reinstalled Steam on Linux with the aim of experimenting on how well games actually work. Installing Steam wasn’t too difficult – I just had to find a separate package for openSUSE as the package on the Steam website is designed for Ubuntu, Debian and other Debian derivatives with an APT package manager. I tested the original Half-Life, which ran pretty much perfectly – not a surprise, as I already knew that Quake III worked properly. I then installed Half-Life 2: Deathmatch, the smallest Source engine game in my collection.
After a bit of searching on Google to find the workaround to a problem involving a certain proprietary bit of software known as S3TC – one of those patent-related exploits which is unpatentable under the superior European patent system – I was able to get the game running. While I shouldn’t have been surprised, given the age of the Source engine, I had almost top settings straight off the bat with reasonably smooth performance using open-source ATI drivers. This was a pleasant surprise as I had expected stuttering, even given that my Radeon HD 4890 is easily capable of running Half-Life 2. Valve have clearly put effort into making sure that their Linux ports work, which is good to see. If Valve can succeed with Linux and convince other mainstream game companies to follow in their wake, we could see a viable alternative to Windows in yet another way.