For PC gamers there is a defacto operating system: Windows 10. It’s really pretty easy to build or buy a swanky gaming PC, hit Windows 10 on it, and have a coffee while Steam downloads your library. Then just charge it up and off you go.
It’s not that easy, but you get the picture. Hardware price isn’t the only reason Mac games aren’t a bigger deal. You can also install Linux on the PC, however, and lately, Linux gaming has also been heavily supported by Valve in addition to the thriving community.
I am able to learn Linux but also love to play. So how hard can it be to combine the two? Not nearly as bad as you might think.
Which Linux distribution should you choose?
Unlike Windows 10 and MacOS, you are spoiled for choice with Linux. The best Linux distributions have active communities, which makes it less daunting to freshen up as there is a huge resource to help you out when you inevitably need it.
For gamers in particular, there are some that are considered to be the best Linux distributions for gaming, with certain enhancements and software tools pre-installed to help PC gamers move forward much faster.
I don’t use Linux Mint for any reason other than when I started using it when I first got into Linux, and it’s what I’m comfortable with. It is based on Ubuntu and is very beginner-friendly.
Linux gaming hardware and drivers
This is the part that really surprised me when I first got seriously involved with using Linux to play games. Drivers are sometimes a problem enough on Windows 10, but surprisingly, the situation on Linux could be considered better.
Take my gaming PC, for example. Right now an AMD Radeon GPU is running and I don’t even need to install drivers. An open source driver, Mesa, is built into Linux Mint (and many other distributions) and works out of the box. There are newer drivers available, but updating to these is not 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 that can be used with these. If you’re trying Linux Mint on a gaming laptop with an Nvidia RTX 2060, imagine my delight when the built-in driver manager popped up on first startup with a choice between the latest versions. It just knew what I needed on that particular machine and made it easy to install.
What about PC game support on Linux?
When you look at the tiny percentage of Steam users who run Linux compared to Windows 10, the question arises as to why Valve is so behind the platform. But since Steam is the largest provider of PC games, the fact that they are behind it is great news for us.
There are plenty of games on Steam that are Linux native, perhaps a surprising number, but the real magic is Proton. This compatibility level allows gamers to play Windows titles on Linux, but with varying degrees of success. Steam has a whitelist of officially supported titles, but you can tell Proton to play anything in your library, and it will be.
However, there are limitations. As good as Proton is, there is still a solution. And some games will not run at all, in many cases due to the built-in anti-cheat software. Destiny 2, for example, won’t start due to its anti-cheat system, which is simply not supported on Linux. However, for most games, there is a third-party resource, ProtonDB, which is a must-have. Link it to your Steam library and you will learn what to expect.
Proton isn’t limited to one version either. Older versions can be used, and you can force certain games to run different versions. The ProtonDB community is fantastic at reporting issues and fixes, and sometimes the answer is just using an older version of Proton. Or if you’re in the mood, there’s a popular custom Proton called the Proton GE (GloriousEggroll, named for its creator) which in many cases is even better.
Outside of Steam, it’s entirely possible to play games from services like Epic Games, Ubisoft Connect, and EA Origin. The magic of WINE (Wine Is Not a Emulator) allows Windows programs to run on Linux, and it’s remarkable how good it is. I used a third party platform called Lutris to access Epic and Ubisoft and played games. It’s almost impossible to tell that I’m actually on Linux.
PC gaming is all about tinkering
One thing that most people think about PC gaming on Linux is that there will be a lot of necessary crafting involved. I thought too, but how much time do we all spend tinkering with games and settings and what not in order not to get that perfect performance at all? It is no different here.
Since many of the games played on Linux are not native, there is usually a performance difference from Windows. Going through compatibility levels is just not the same as running a game natively, so this is to be expected.
But Linux is Linux. There are some really incredible tools out there to improve your gaming experience. Lutris, as mentioned earlier, uses WINE at its core, but it can also be used to set other tools to work without using a terminal. Feral Gamemode is a popular mode that is built into some games that Feral ported to Linux, but can be used with any game to improve performance. In Steam, add a command to the game settings. Only one switch needs to be activated in Lutris. The same story applies to the ACO compiler. Vulkan works great on Linux, and for people who want to see detailed performance metrics, there are tools like MangoHud that can bring a full-featured overlay to the screen.
And with OBS, which was developed natively for Linux, streaming to Twitch is no problem either.
PC gaming on Linux is not difficult, it is a lot of fun
If you enjoy tinkering with things, you should try Linux. I’m not here to say you should drop Windows 10 right now, but I’m here to tell you not to be afraid to try. I wanted to learn how to use it, and while I’ve barely scratched the surface, I have an immense sense of satisfaction as I make tweaks and see the results. Right after the anger because as a beginner I broke something.
However, there are things that you need to be careful about. For example, since I used an NTFS formatted SSD to store my Steam library, none of the games that were not Linux native were loaded. When reformatting the drive to ext4, the preferred format for Linux, everything was fine.
There’s a lot to learn and easy to get lost in a rabbit hole. But there are tons of resources out there that make learning easy and fun, and the community knowledge is breathtaking. But it’s just as surprising that you don’t actually have to do any of this. Sure, if you want to use Epic or any other non-Steam platform, it takes a bit of work, but it’s hardly difficult.
If your library is mostly on Steam, all you have to do is check a few boxes and you’re gone. There’s nothing more difficult than with Windows 10, with the added bonus that an operating system update probably won’t completely ruin everything you’ve set up.