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An In-depth Look at Steam for Linux

Date: February 1, 2013
Author(s): Rob Williams

Though still in beta, Valve’s Steam client for Linux is stable, fast, and from what we can tell, matches the feature-set of the Windows and OS X clients 1:1. That being the case, there felt like no better time than the present to dive in, give a tour and relay our experiences with both the client and a slew of games.



Introduction

As a long-time Linux user, I admit that I’m still in relative awe that Steam for Linux is, in fact, a reality. The state of gaming on Linux has never been ideal, with most gamers having to mess around with solutions like Wine or virtual machines – neither being ideal vs. a native client. In recent years though, things have been on the upswing. Take the Humble Bundle, for example, which insists that games sold are available for Linux (alright, most times). And now, with Steam for Linux – what more proof do you need that this is a viable gaming platform?

The best part about Steam on Linux, is that despite it still being in beta, it’s clear that the developers at Valve have put a lot of time and effort into making sure that this variant doesn’t lack in visual design, stability or features. On the surface, Steam for Linux looks identical to the client on competing platforms.

At the moment, Valve recommends using Ubuntu 12.04 LTS for the best experience, and in our quick testing across multiple distros, we’d agree. As mentioned last month, my experiences with Steam under Gentoo have been hit or miss, though all issues are related to the games, not the client itself. I’ve had better success with Linux Mint, though I’ve read success stories from those using Fedora and Arch as well. If you don’t run Ubuntu or any Ubuntu-based distro but want to give things a test on your own, we’d recommend heading to Google for a guide, because many exist for multiple distros.

Installation & Client

Installation of Steam under Ubuntu mimics the process for Windows. You must head on over to the official download page and grab the “steam.deb” installer file. If you’re already in Linux, this will be default; if not, you’ll have to click the Linux link under the big green button. Once downloaded, you can simply double-click it, which will bring up the Ubuntu Software Centre. You then click “Install”, type in your password, and within a minute, your client will be updating and readying itself for first load.

Steam Running Under Ubuntu Linux

As someone who’s run Steam through Wine many times before, it was refreshing to be greeted to a native login box that had crisp fonts and no visual¬†deformities. If you’ve ever run Steam through Wine, you know what I’m talking about.

Steam Running Under Ubuntu Linux

After logging in, you’ll be greeted to the main interface:

Steam Running Under Ubuntu Linux

Overall, it looks no different to the Windows client, with the exception of the fonts in both the game box and certain areas to the right being a tad larger for some reason. Aside from that, when compared to the Windows version of the same screen, we spotted no single difference.

In Windows, all of your installed games will be located inside of the program’s actual install folder (by default), whereas in Linux, Valve chose to store them inside the user’s home folder – the right choice for the sake of ease and prevention of permissions issues. In Gentoo, this folder was /home/username/.steam, whereas in Ubuntu, it was /home/username/.local/share/Steam. If you’re not exactly sure where yours is, simply trying to install a game will tell you:

Steam Running Under Ubuntu Linux

You’ll also notice that the option to install to other drives is presented. In order for this to work, the drive needs to be formatted using a Linux filesystem, as it will adhere to the execute permissions that are needed. Unfortunately, this means that an NTFS drive cannot be used for this purpose.

Once a game is downloading, you’ll be able to monitor its progress by clicking on the small menu under Library and switching it to Downloads:

Steam Running Under Ubuntu Linux

On the topic of that menu, an extra entry is included in the Linux client, “All Games”. This lists all of the games that you own through Steam, including those supported for Windows and Mac OS X. This does not mean that you can install and run them through Linux. Because you own the games, it makes sense to list them, but it sure is a tease.

Steam Running Under Ubuntu Linux

To give an idea of how the visual design of the Windows client carries over to the Linux one, have a look at the friend’s list:

Steam Running Under Ubuntu Linux

It looks just like it would under Windows. It may seem easy to port software over from one platform to another and retain simple visual aspects like this, but believe me, it isn’t. Valve is to be commended for its work here.

There’s been word floating around that Steam games have the potential to run smoother on light-weight desktop environments, but in quick testing using Serious Sam 3: BFE, we couldn’t find definitive changes between using Unity, KDE or Xfce. We plan to do more testing in the near-future, however, once we find a proper benchmarking solution (Dear Fraps: Come to Linux).

Where desktop environments are concerned, one I’ve never cared too much for is Unity, and a perfect example of why is illustrated in the shot below:

Steam Running Under Ubuntu Linux

Because Unity encapsulates all of the sub-windows within an application to a single icon in the Unity bar, navigating an app like this, which could have many different windows open at once, can be a chore. Instead of simply being able to click on the task bar for whichever element you need, you’ll have to instead click on the Steam button and then choose the appropriate window from among the rest in this “All View”.

As much as I hate this implementation, this isn’t meant to be a hit on Unity, because I’m well-aware that some may actually¬†prefer this sort of implementation. For Windows users familiar with Steam, this change might take some getting used to.

As we’ve known for a couple of months, Valve is planning to release a Linux-based game console in the near-future, so it’s of no surprise that Big Picture mode works beautifully with the current Linux beta. Overall, it looks identical to the Windows (and presumably Mac OS X) version, and doesn’t seem to forego any obvious functionality.

Steam Running Under Ubuntu Linux

I did however experience oddities with my gamepad of choice, the Xbox 360 controller. The mapping was way off, but thankfully it only took a minute of using the configurator to fix that problem. Once solved, Big Picture was a breeze to use. 

Steam Running Under Ubuntu Linux

The only issue I experienced with Big Picture also plagues the Windows version: games that have launchers. A good example is Trine 2. Instead of simply going into the game when I chose it, I first had to fiddle with the launcher to click “Start Trine 2“. Unfortunately, this required a mouse. As Big Picture matures, these issues should go on the decline. Without question, it’s something that developers should take into consideration.

As things stand right now, Steam for Linux is stable. Every feature I attempted to use worked just fine, and the only issues I encountered were rare, and easily remedied with a quick restart of the client. For example, there were a couple of occasions where I’d receive a “The selected filesystem does not allow executing files.” error when trying to install a new game, and also a “Steam is signed with insufficient credentials” which came out of nowhere. Again, restarting the client got rid of these errors, and I’d suspect they’ll be no more once the client comes out of beta.

With all of this talk of the client out of the way, let’s get into the fun stuff, shall we? The games!

Steam for Linux – Games

Being a beta, oddities are to be expected – so don’t plan on installing and running all games without issue. A common trait seen since Valve released the first beta is that some games will be listed under the “Linux Games” list that can’t actually be run. VVVVVV is a common example, with BIT.TRIP VOID, Defender’s Quest: Valley of the Forgotten and Multiwinia being other examples that I’ve discovered.

The fortunate thing with a problem like this is that most games available through the Steam client for Linux at the moment are fairly small in relation to the biggest Windows games. VVVVVV might not run, but all that’s sacrificed is about 60MB of bandwidth. That said, if you happen to be on a very fixed broadband connection, I’d recommend going to the Game Hub for a particular game on your list and making sure it’s actually working for other users. This way, you can avoid a pointless download.

Most games do work, and work quite well, both in windowed mode or full-screen. Every game I tested allowed me to choose my native resolution, and when full-screen, I had no problems alt-tabbing back and forth between the desktop and the game. Of all the games I could run, the total count is about 30, so I’ll spend a couple of minutes here relaying my experiences.

The game I wanted to run the most as soon as I got Steam up and running was Serious Sam 3: BFE. Oh, what a gorgeous, fast-paced and hilarious game this is.

Serious Sam III BFE Running Under Ubuntu Linux
Serious Sam III BFE

Of all the games currently available for Linux, this is the flagship where graphics are concerned. The game offers a billion options to tweak, should you not be happy with the presets. The best part? Maxed out, the game looks seemingly identical between Windows and Linux. You can see an example of this below, with Linux on the left, and Windows on the right.

Serious Sam III BFE Running Under Ubuntu Linux Serious Sam III BFE Running Under Ubuntu Linux
Serious Sam 3: BFE – Left: Linux, Right: Windows

I haven’t conducted performance-testing at this point, but for the most part the game ran great. There were some rare (once-per-hour) slow-downs that came out of nowhere, but they always went away fairly quickly.

While playing this game, I decided to do a quick test and see how difficult it’d be to get a gamepad to work with the game. Little did I realize, the installation of my Xbox 360 wireless controller under Ubuntu is much different than it is under Windows. The steps are as follows: A) Turn on the controller.

Yes – I’m trying to be funny here. Out-of-the-box, my Xbox 360 wireless controller worked perfectly. I didn’t need to install a driver, didn’t need to configure it – nothing. Once unpaused, I could play the game just like I could an Xbox 360 one. There is one caveat though: because there’s no official Xbox 360 controller driver for Linux, you will suffer the annoyance of the “Home” button blinking all the time. Could Microsoft at some point release a driver to fix this problem? Hey – we got Steam for Linux, let’s not push our luck.

Another game that looks just as great under Linux as it does under Windows is Trine 2. More than any other game I’ve ever seen, I believe the developer’s goals with this one was to implement as many colors as possible in each individual frame. It’s simply gorgeous, and it happens to run perfectly under Linux.

Trine 2 Running Under Ubuntu Linux
Trine 2

Yet another caveat, though: gamepad configuration required a little bit of tweaking. If you’re running a different gamepad than I am, you might not have to touch a thing, but in particular with the archer character, her aiming was reversed. A quick remap in the options fixed things quick.

Another game that looks and plays amazing under Linux is Team Fortress 2. I have no experience with the Windows version of this game, but it ran like a dream here – totally silky smooth. One of the world’s most popular free-to-play games available for Linux… what’s not to love?

Team Fortress 2 Running Under Ubuntu Linux
Team Fortress 2

Postal 2 Complete is an example of a game that gave me a bit of a hard time. For some reason, attempting to change the resolution inside of the game crashed it. The fix is to edit the proper configuration file, but rather than that be found under the Steam or game install folder, it’s actually stored in /home/username/.lgp (the file you’ll want is Default.ini). Once I edited in my resolution, the game loaded up with it just fine.

Postal 2 Complete Running Under Ubuntu Linux
Postal 2 Complete

Released just last week, Half-Life loads up and configures like a dream. I had issues with the game right at launch, but haven’t had any more since. The same can’t be said about Counter-Strike (1.6), where I’m still unable to join any server due to map errors.

Half-Life Running Under Ubuntu Linux
Half-Life

One of the most popular games for Linux at the moment is Killing Floor, and for good reason. It features zombies, great graphics and in my particular case, can scare the life out of you. This game ran great overall, with nary a complaint to speak of.

Killing Floor Running Under Ubuntu Linux
Killing Floor

Though I tried many other games, there’s really not too much to say as I didn’t encounter any issues with them. For those interested in seeing screenshots from 10 additional games I tested, you can turn to the next page.

Final Thoughts

As it stands, I’m truly impressed by just how stable Steam for Linux is. There have been a couple of hiccups – sure, but I expected far more. It’s clear that not only is Valve doing a great job patching up bugs and making the client even better, the community, rather than keep quiet, is actually contributing bugs and suggestions. Steam for Linux as the moment is almost as stable as the Windows version, it’s quite something.

So when can we expect that beta label to be lifted? That’s hard to say, as Valve likely isn’t in a major rush to get it out the door. If I had to guess, the company is actively testing the client on non-Ubuntu distros, so that when the launch does happen, gamers will have more of a choice. There’s also little doubt that the company would rather wait for the game collection to grow a bit more – essentially, waiting on the other developers. There are a fair number of games available at the moment (~45), but there are many more in the process of being ported over. If things keep up, the Linux Steam client may very-well launch with more games than the Mac OS X client did.

If you’re already a Linux user and don’t have Steam installed – what are you waiting for? I’d highly recommend installing it under your distro of choice, and if you encounter a bug, it’d be a great idea to submit it through the official forums. If you don’t run Linux yet, but are intrigued, we highly recommend you grab a copy of Ubuntu 12.04 LTS and test it out.

Could Steam for Linux finally be the gaming boon Linux fans have been waiting for? I sure think so. Without question, the future of Linux gaming is very bright.

Extra Screenshots

Crusader Kings II Running Under Ubuntu Linux
Crusader Kings II

Hacker Evolution Duality Running Under Ubuntu Linux
Hacker Evolution Duality

Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP Running Under Ubuntu Linux
Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP

The Book of Unwritten Tales: The Critter Chronicles Running Under Ubuntu Linux
The Book of Unwritten Tales: The Critter Chronicles

Spectraball Running Under Ubuntu Linux
Spectraball

Aquaria Running Under Ubuntu Linux
Aquaria

Cubemen Running Under Ubuntu Linux
Cubemen

And Yet It Moves Running Under Ubuntu Linux
And Yet It Moves

The Polynomial Running Under Ubuntu Linux
The Polynomial

X3: Reunion Running Under Ubuntu Linux
X3: Reunion

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