Getting Started Gaming on Linux

 TuxCart

TuxCart

Just seven years ago, being passionate about gaming and passionate about Linux were two vastly different hobbies.  To say you were a Linux gamer meant you once played relatively obscure indy releases, doom ports, or the penguin based Mario Cart racing clone Tuxcart.  Today, many big name studios are building for the open source operating system and releasing across platforms from day one.  For the end user, the result is an abundance of choice and control to run your own machine precisely how you want it.  Despite the daunting looking learning curve; getting into gaming on Linux has never been easier.

 

Why switch to gaming on Linux

Switching to Linux, even with the abundance of games now available, can feel a little like giving yourself a social time out.  Some of the highest trending titles simply can't or won't commit the resources to port their games in good time. Fortnite and PU: Battlegrounds, two of the highest trending games of the year aren't within a thousand miles of a Linux build.  Without at least a Windows install to fall back on; you'll be leaving your team behind. 

There is, however, an abundant pay-off for your self-imposed exclusion.  For one: the price-point is favorable, free, but only a very slim advantage over the competition when compared to the real point of an open operating system: you own the computer.

The big 2 operating systems no longer abide by the idea that user knows best.  Planning to put off updates for convenience? Shame.  Didn't want them at all? Too bad.  Time for an OS upgrade? Yes, it is.

The modern commercial OS is like a car built for everyone; designed to be a safe, reliable, runner that will keep ticking on without services, checks, oil, or even fuel stops.  Even the most oblivious user can maintain an up-to-date, safe, functioning system without needing to know their Ethernet from their dongle.

The system that I want as a gamer is entirely different.  I expect to do the servicing, tuning, customization, and far more.  Otherwise, I would run a games console.  A PC shouldn't wake up in the morning to half a completed rendering job and updates installed 'for your convenience'.  If something stinks in my own system I want the ability to change it, or simply switch to one that already has.

The philosophy behind open source is powerful and convincing, but the real driving forces that drove me to switch were the choices available for a better gaming machine.

 

Where to go

The first thing to consider when choosing your OS is which flavor of Linux distribution you choose to marry into.  Invest your time here downloading a few major 'brands' to play with before committing to an install.  By creating a live USB stick you can run each one on your own hardware without committing bits to hard drive.  It's an opportunity for a test drive, a way to discover the interface options and find out the state of hardware support for your own machine.

From the dozens of Linux versions available, three major options stand out for the first time user. 

Ubuntu Linux is the biggest distro on the market today.  It's well-supported, friendly, and its popularity makes it well tested and easy to troubleshoot. 

Linux Mint has an interface as friendly as its name.  Much of the underlying system is similar to Ubuntu, both are based from Debian Linux, meaning many products and solutions for one can be brought to the other.  Many newcomers choose and stick with Mint for its helpful interface and ease-of-use.

Fedora Linux is another fine choice with a smaller overall user base. With well over a million users and the work of software firm Red Hat,  there is a great level of support available.  RedHat Package Manager (RPM) based Fedora prides its philosophy on innovation and cutting-edge features.  Though a little more intimidating than the other options mentioned, Fedora is a wonderful system to use and learn even if the curve is just a little bit steeper.

 

One small step

For many, a single leap of faith into the world of Linux is entirely out of the question. Apprehension strikes and many times there's at least one unsupported package where the open source alternative doesn't quite cut it.  For this reason, the first foray into a Linux computer is almost always dual-booting.

Much like dual-wielding contrasting weapons in an FPS, dual-booting gives you the best options from both systems to minimize the drawbacks of each.  Creating a dual-boot is as simple as selecting an option in the installer.  Installing alongside windows from your live USB will allow you to choose a hard drive size that will become your Linux partition.

 

License to learn

There are certain points you must adhere to now that you've chosen to create a Linux system.  Firstly, give yourself permission to screw up a little, then, give yourself permission to screw up a lot.  It shouldn't need to be said but back up well before you start even thinking about tinkering with your own machine. Just because you're installing alongside Windows doesn't mean your data is safe.  Partition tables, BIOS settings, and fresh installs are almost as dirty as software gets.  You're going to break something somewhere at least once.

Break, Google, fix.  There is no finer, or more efficient, tried and tested cycle to learn computing.  Repeat until presented with the Linux login screen.  By the time you make it there, you've already come further than more than 90% of gamers have been before.

 

To the victor go the spoils

A common misconception about Linux is that you absolutely must learn the command line for day-to-day use. Not true. Undeniable, however, is that it's remarkably satisfying, surprisingly fun, and easy.

Simply by typing "sudo apt install steam" at the terminal (Debian based distros), before entering your password, you can watch as the package manager fetches, downloads, and installs the base steam client without a further peep.

 

Get the most from your gaming machine

Another common misconception to open source systems is software should from then on out be open all the way.  Many great open solutions exist; Blender, VLC, Audacity, and office.  But excellent proprietary solutions, even on Linux, are alive and well too.

Graphics cards are a notable case and a consistent sticking point of Linux for many years previous.  The open source drivers available for most cards just don't quite make the cut yet.  Today, switching to the closed source, proprietary drivers are just a mouse click in the 'software & updates' menu.  This is a must and will unlock the true performance of your graphics card under Linux. 

Since Valve announced their support for the platform and creation of the Steam-box years ago, many organizations followed suit.  Today Linux games can be found from Steam, GOG, and feature regularly within Humble Bundles.  Odds are that games already in your Steam library have full support, ready to be played.  

Two of the most major game engines: Unity and Unreal have been practicing and improving on their Linux support since earlier than 2014.  The result of which is even low-budget indy developers have managed to create ports with quick and simple tools.

It's an old trope in Linux that upcoming new year is always the "year of the Linux desktop".  Realistically, support is now so good and so widespread, and the competition system so poor, I'm amazed that-amongst tech-savvy gamers at least - every year isn't more of a landmark slide towards more Linux gaming.