Linux finally pulled off what used to be an impossible task: catching up with Windows gaming. Or, at least, it seems that way, largely thanks to Valve’s Linux-running Steam Deck console. But is it true? Can you finally leave Windows behind and make the jump to Linux as a gamer?
Well, not so fast. There are still some caveats, so let’s explore why the answer is not so clear-cut.
Valve’s Gaming Revolution on Linux
It all started back when Valve felt threatened by the Microsoft Store. That’s when it came up with the idea of creating an alternative platform. It would be as easy to use as a gaming console but based on widely available PC hardware and running an “open” OS, not controlled by Microsoft.
Valve’s solution, deemed “Steam Machines”, wouldn’t rely on custom hardware, unlike consoles before the latest PlayStations and Xboxes. Any third-party vendor could create their own “Steam Machine” however they saw fit. The only common point between all Steam Machines would be Valve’s own custom Linux-based OS, SteamOS.
The project failed for various reasons we won’t touch on in this article. Thankfully, Valve didn’t give up.
The Steam Deck is the culmination of Valve’s efforts in creating its own hardware and software “platform” for gaming.
Steam Deck’s haptic touchpads carry DNA from Valve’s Steam Controller. Its OS is a newer version of SteamOS. Check out our article on everything you need to know about Valve’s Steam Deck to learn more about it.
How Valve Brought Games to Linux
Valve realized it had an unmatched collection of thousands of titles, making other platforms pale by comparison. But although it had “the library”, it didn’t have the most essential thing: the “platform” itself.
That’s why it began backing the WINE and Proton projects, paying programmers to work on them to speed up their development. Find out how they achieve their magic on our article on what is Steam Proton and how it runs Windows Games on Steam Deck.
Thanks to those two projects, the Steam Deck, running a modified version of Arch Linux, is now compatible with a sizeable chunk of the Steam Store’s library instead of another failed “Steam Machine”.
Thankfully, it goes both ways, and it’s for the same reason that Linux can now play many games designed for Windows with similar performance and minimal issues. We explained how this “trickle-down effect” works in our article on what is Proton GE and how it improves game compatibility on SteamOS and Linux.
But there’s a catch: not all games work. Many games glitch and even more don’t work at all. Still, as we saw in the past, depending on the apps and games you’re using, it might be possible to seamlessly switch to Linux from Windows.
Is Linux Now Better for Gaming Than Windows? Here’s Why It Isn’t
So, is swapping to Linux now the way forward for gaming? Not quite. There are still a few problems that you won’t encounter when using a Windows machine to play Steam games.
1. Restrictive DRM Doesn’t Like Linux
DRM and its sibling, anti-cheat, are an inconvenience to gamers and have been proven to impose a toll on performance. That’s the primary reason many people dislike the most popular anti-tamper solution, as we explained in our article what is Denuvo and why everyone hates it.
Still, such solutions are also considered necessary for triple-A gaming. An “uncrackable” protection can grant a game producer a safe initial window of guaranteed sales.
Anti-cheat solutions, implemented similarly to DRM, can ensure a fair gaming experience for everyone by preventing cheating. But they can also be a nuisance.
Valve has either collaborated with DRM/anti-cheat companies and game creators to render the most popular titles compatible with the Steam Deck (and, by extension, Linux), or implemented its own workarounds to ensure compatibility with the most prominent “game protection” solutions.
Still, you might run into the occasional title that refuses to work on Linux, not because the title itself, but because its DRM or anti-cheat is incompatible with Tux’s OS.
2. Third-Party Launcher Woes on Linux
If you recently purchased a triple-A game on Steam, it probably came with an extra launcher. Most such launchers work on Linux, but one or two don’t. At least, not always (hello, Rockstar Games Launcher). And Linux isn’t on their creators’ priority list.
But let’s say you did purchase a title from the Steam Store or another digital store whose launcher does work on Linux, thanks to its creators’ or the community’s efforts. Did you check beforehand if the game comes with its own custom launcher? That might be a problem, too.
The game-specific launcher could “bork” as it’s confused by the unexpected environment it found itself running on (AKA: Linux-pretending-to-be-Windows). A solution might be available (like directly launching the game’s executable, or using some custom extra flags). But it’s not a given.
3. Linux Emulator Support Is a Little Lacking
Isn’t it great that your Windows PC allows you to enjoy titles made for other platforms through the magic of emulation? The experience can be even better on Linux, thanks to lower OS overhead, better hardware drivers, and more competent memory management.
Except if you want also to play Xbox 360 games.
Xenia, the best (and only fully working) emulator for Xbox 360, which we saw in our guide on how to play Xbox 360 games on PC with Xenia on Windows, is, as our guide’s title states, only available on Windows.
Did you also want to experiment with the new fpPS4, which looks promising in emulating the PlayStation 4 on PC hardware? Yeah, that one, too, is only available on Windows—at least, for now.
4. Linux Sports Fewer Third-Party Tools
Nowadays, we can play the classics that took advantage of 3dfx’s Voodoo “graphic accelerators” through custom “wrappers”. Those apps add a layer of compatibility over our modern GPUs that can run classic DOS or Windows 9x 3D-accelerated titles in modern OSes. If those “modern OSes” are called “Windows”.
Do you remember playing F.E.A.R., or any other old favorite title, using Creative’s EAX impressive multichannel positional 3D audio? Microsoft’s Windows Vista “broke” compatibility with EAX, but Creative issued a fix in the form of its Creative ALchemy app. For Windows only, of course.
You can try an “open” alternative, OpenAL Soft, but it might not perform as well. However, it’s better in that, unlike Creative’s solution, it’s “hardware agnostic”, and you can use it with any modern audio system.
At least, you can improve your games’ visuals like on Windows with Reshade. You only have to use vkBasalt, manually import Reshade’s shaders, ensure the ones you want to use work, and customize them without a GUI. If all that sounds like a chore instead of “fun”, maybe Linux gaming isn’t the best option for you.
5. Windows Gives You the Latest and Greatest, Day One
Seasoned gamers know it’s best to avoid preordering games. A new title’s trailers might make it look like the best thing since sliced bread. And yet, it might end up being “one of those bad PC ports”, missing half of its promised features, or “running” like a snail on your hardware.
Plus, if you’re on Linux, there’s no point in preordering it to play it from day one: the praise-worthy community might have to work on it until day seventy-six to ensure it actually runs as it should.
Similarly, don’t expect the latest gaming-related features on the newest hardware to work on Linux from day one. At least, not without the occasional glitch here and there. RTX effects? Upscaling? Physics? Tux Racer doesn’t need all that fluff.
Don’t Count Out Linux Just Yet
As bad as we make gaming on Linux sound, we’ve only been covering the issues you’ll have to face when gaming on the operating system. Thanks to the Steam Deck, WINE, and Proton, many Windows games are now playable on Linux—especially the most popular ones.
Most emulators offer native Linux versions, and for every third-party utility you may use on Windows (like Cheat Engine), you can usually find even better alternatives.
Linux is great because it allows you to tinker with it, customize it, and make it your own. But it might also not be for you for the same reasons: sometimes, you have to tinker with it and spend hours researching how to tweak a game’s settings or mess with its files to make it work as you’d like (if at all).
Gaming on Linux: Not the Best, but Not Far Off
With Steam Deck sporting a Linux OS, you’d be forgiven for wondering if gaming on Linux is better on Windows now. If you prefer “the console experience” to the “complexity” of gaming on Windows PCs, trying to game on Linux will seem like a far more convoluted endeavor.
If, though, you like diving into your favorite game config files to optimize them for your hardware, and hunting down unofficial tools in forgotten forums that can make your favorite retro title look its best, dive in, for you may love it.