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Steam Play and Gaming on Linux

Steam Play Proton

Throughout my years, I’ve experienced gaming in a variety of forms, from the good old C64 and Amiga platforms to various iterations of the PlayStation platform and most recently, PC gaming on both Windows and Ubuntu.

You see, I’ve been an Ubuntu user since version 7.04, or maybe 7.10. I can’t remember anymore. Either way, that doesn’t matter. The point being, I’m now on 18.04 and I’ve experienced pretty much every iteration since then.

Gaming and Linux really haven’t historically been that great of a match. The market just hasn’t been there for native conversions of the big titles like Battlefield, Call of Duty, Civilization and so on. In the last few years, that has started to change to the point where we’re now seeing some of the high profile titles also released on the Linux platform. Civ VI, F1, Dirt and a variety of other games have descended on the Linux platform, primarily through the work of Valve and the Steam distribution platform.

Some of you may recall that Valve tried to dive into gaming with the SteamOS box and operating system a few years back. That didn’t go far, as you may also recall. However, just a few days ago, they announced another initiative: the Proton “tool” as part of Steam Play.

So what the heck is Proton? What does it mean? Basically, the idea is that you can run a Windows game on Linux by simply clicking the button “Play” on Steam. Behind the scenes, Proton seems to be a custom version of Wine (you know, the app you use to run Windows apps on non-windows platforms) developed by Valve.

That’s where I’ll stop with the deep-dive into mechanics. With some things, like gaming, I don’t really care how it works or not. I play games to entertain myself, to experience a different world for a little bit. I don’t care about fiddling with settings and all that. Give me an experience that works and I’ll take it.

The question then is: does it work?

First of all, at its current state, Valve has only “certified” a few games to work well on this platform. Since I don’t own any of those games and have no interest in them, I figured I’ll just give a couple of the ones I do have a try and see where it goes, certified or not.

I picked four games on complete random to take for a spin: Robin Hood, a very old game at this point that reminds a bit of Commandos; Skyrim Enhanced Edition, Sid Meier’s Pirates, and The Solus Project.

Robin Hood and Pirates, in particular, are older games, games that I expected to work relatively well, simply because WINE as a compatibility layer has been refined so much since they were released that any incompatibilities would have been addressed long ago.  I picked Skyrim simply because it’s a game I’ve picked up again lately after I managed to transfer my PS3 save game that’s years old to my PC…thereby, I didn’t have to start all over again. The Solus Project is a recent game I started playing so it seemed like a good pick to see how a more recent game would fare with Proton.

Robin Hood started right up and I was able to get into the game without any issues. It is showing its age, mostly through the limited resolutions available, but otherwise, it seems to play pretty well. I didn’t go too far into it but far enough that I’ll be coming back to enjoy this game that I never really had a chance to when it was first released.

The story with Pirates is the same. It’s an older title so the available resolutions leave a thing or two to be desired but just as with Robin Hood, I click Play in Steam and it just works, just the way I would expect it to on a Windows installation.

Sid Meier's Pirates!
Sid Meier’s Pirates!

Skyrim: Enhanced Edition was one of these Windows games I expected to have some issues with. Not only is it a more recent game but I also had issues after installing it on Windows. I wanted to see if these same issues translated over to the Linux side.

Skyrim Enhanced Edition

I was pleasantly surprised to see it open right up, my saved games were right there and I was able to pick it right up. The graphics looked the same as they do on Windows  and it seemed to run as smoothly as on Windows. The only issue I discovered was that the NPC’s dialogue couldn’t be heard. A quick search of online resources revealed the solution to this problem in a Reddit thread and ten minutes later, that issue was fixed. I can’t even remember if this was the same issue I had on Windows or not.

Finally, the Solus Project. Here, I ran into trouble right away. The game logo appeared but then it crashed and burned with a fatal error. Initially, my Google searches revealed few clues so I reluctantly put the game aside. I figured that with Proton still being explored, one of these days, a solution will emerge. I felt pretty good about three out of four games working, even though two of those are games I expected to work.

Solus Project running in Windowed Mode on Ubuntu 18.04

This was all just a couple of days ago. Today, I took another look at the compatibility list maintained by the gaming community and, to my delight, I saw that the Solus Project is now marked as fully working and stable. Of course, I had to dig a bit more to understand how to actually get it to work. Eventually, I found the magic bullet in another Proton-related post. A few minutes later, I had the Solus Project running and I was once again standing on a distant shore on a far away planet.

So what is the implication of all of this? For me, personally, it’s huge. One of the main reasons I keep Windows around is for gaming. To be able to play the games previously only available on Windows on my Ubuntu install means that I can spend more time using the OS I prefer to use and less time with Windows. Although I still need to keep Windows for other reasons, I’ll need to use it quite a bit less than I used to.

For Linux gaming overall, I think you’ll see the same thing. Computer users tired of Windows but not quite able to cut the cord will find themselves spending less time with Windows, more time with the OS they prefer. In a way, Proton by Valve is liberating, cutting the chain that Windows sometimes can represent. I think that’s a good thing. At least, for me it is.  I can’t wait to see how the rest of my Steam library fares.

Are you a Linux user and a gamer? Have you seen the Steam Play news from Valve? What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear what you think.

I'm just one of those guys that like well as drawing, writing, reading, coding and a whole bunch of other things I rarely have time for.