Linux is now a viable OS for PC gamers, thanks to Steam's Proton initiative

Ubuntu 19.10
Ubuntu 19.10 (Image credit: Rich Edmonds / Windows Central)

Windows has always been viewed as the absolute best platform for gaming, allowing you to enjoy games on a budget system or as intended by developers on an enthusiast rig. OS X (or macOS, as Apple now calls its desktop OS) is firmly in second place, but there has always been a relatively minor thorn in Microsoft's side in the form of Linux. Traditionally, the open-source OS has been far behind Windows when it comes to gaming, but is that still the case in 2019?

Having been playing games on Windows for the better part of two decades, I've only really ventured into Linux gaming once or twice in the past, even though a few machines I own run distributions based on the OS. Installing a spare M.2 drive into my main desktop rig, it was time to see just how far Linux has come for those who may not be familiar with the terminal. Just how easy would it be to go from installation to smashing skulls?

Ubuntu is incredibly welcoming to newcomers

Source: Rich Edmonds / Windows CentralSteam running natively on Ubuntu 19.10. (Image credit: Source: Rich Edmonds / Windows Central)

Linux is intimidating. I recall the first time I was exposed to the OS on a server farm. It required me to grow accustomed to the differences quickly. Still, once you've played around with the OS — and bricked numerous installs — you overcome those initial fears of not knowing what's going on, and it becomes just as (if not more) user-friendly than other desktop-class operating systems.

Ubuntu is a distribution of Linux and remains to this day as the most popular destination for not only Linux veterans, but also newcomers to the platform. If you're looking for a single distribution (or 'distro') to try out for the first time, give Ubuntu a go. It has an incredibly active support community that's more than happy to lend a hand to get you settled in. It's also the OS I'm using to test and type up this piece.

To put Linux to the test in comparison to Windows 10, I'm going to be installing Ubuntu on a speedy Seagate FireCuda M.2 NVMe SSD, which is sat on an X470 ASUS motherboard with a 12-core AMD Ryzen 9 3900X CPU, 32GB of RAM, and a GTX 1070 GPU for good measure. You could build your own gaming PC for less than $800. It's not the most capable machine we could put together, but it's one I feel should lead to some interesting results with more mature driver support from NVIDIA.

Source: Rich Edmonds / Windows CentralYou can install top apps like Discord, Slack, Steam, and more on Ubuntu. (Image credit: Source: Rich Edmonds / Windows Central)

Installing Ubuntu is a breeze. You can boot and even use the OS from nothing more than a flash drive, allowing you to get a taste of what Linux can offer. This isn't a perfect experience, since you're using a USB drive, but it can provide a hint as to just how smooth (or not so) your Linux computing will be on that hardware configuration. After installing the OS, I booted into a smart-looking desktop with everything aside from the Logitech C920 webcam working.

To make getting apps installed easier for those who don't enjoy using the terminal, GNOME (the UI suite Ubuntu uses) has a handy app store that has some hits including Slack, Steam, Discord, Chrome, Firefox, Thunderbird, GIMP, Spotify, Handbrake, among many more. Software not listed on this app store can still be installed manually — many using a .deb installation file that acts very much like an .exe installer on Windows.

Ubuntu is as easy as Windows at setting up and running top apps from the included app store.

NVIDIA proprietary drivers are already installed by Ubuntu through the OS installation after detecting the GTX 1070. Still, while the drivers themselves are pretty good, the configuration panel for saving G-Sync, resolutions, panel settings, and other options is a little clunky in that your settings may not save for the next system cycle. If this is the case, you'll need to head to the dreaded terminal and fire up the NVIDIA software as root (or admin) by running "sudo nvidia-settings". You'll need to enter your password when attempting to run a command as root (the 'sudo' part).

After messing around with NVIDIA to get G-Sync active with a 150Hz refresh rate on the main panel and a 60Hz refresh rate with no G-Sync on the secondary monitor, I was good to go. All of this so far (including setting up and updating the OS, as well as installing Steam, Discord, and a bunch of other apps) took around an hour. Not bad and pretty much on par with Windows. So as an OS, Ubuntu (and Linux) have certainly made strides in perfecting the UX, but let's talk gaming.

How to install Linux within Windows 10

Gaming with the penguin is more a hit than miss

Source: Rich Edmonds / Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Rich Edmonds / Windows Central)

Performance in games was only slightly behind on Linux compared to Windows, but it was actual compatibility and support that genuinely dealt blows to the open-source community. That's all changed with Steam's notable push into Linux with Steam Play. Valve is actively participating in the development of Proton, a new tool that has been integrated into the Steam backend and makes it easier to play Windows-only games on Linux.

Proton and other open-source tools work together to make the whole process of downloading, installing, and playing Windows games on Linux as straightforward as Microsoft's OS. Proton works with WINE and DXVK, among others and everything are handled by the Steam client, no longer requiring you to hunt down and install/manage these tools separately.

Steam Play lets you hit play on Windows games for a near-native experience on Linux.

Proton hasn't been around for long, and Valve continues to work with the community on enhancing support for its vast catalog of games. Still, we already see the benefits of this endeavor. Games can even be sorted within Steam to show Linux-supported titles only. The first game I attempted to install and play was Terraria. I hit play in Steam, the game downloaded alongside some additional software, and I was in. Terraria is supported on Linux natively, but I found using Proton to work better. Performance was crisp and as good as Windows with some minor input lag that was fixed with a simple launch option command.

Terraria is a great game, but it's not the most demanding of titles to try out, so next up was Path of Exile. This was even easier since it required absolutely no input from me to get the game to run. Hitting play, waiting for the lengthy download and update for the latest league, and I was in. Not only was I enjoying yet another playthrough as an exile, but I also teamed up with a few friends who were on Windows using Discord. You'd have to look twice to realize you weren't using Windows too.

The only issue with Path of Exile was installing a loot filter, which because the game using WINE as a compatability layer, you needed to hunt down the correct location on your Linux filesystem. I also experience some severe performance issues when visiting crowded areas, but this was simply down to the game placing me on U.S.-based servers for some reason. After that, yet another green tick for Linux.

Which Steam games work on Linux?


Source: ProtonDB (Image credit: Source: ProtonDB)

Steam is the most popular distribution platform for PC gaming on Windows and beyond. To see what games work well on Linux using Valve's Proton toolset, there's a handy resource called ProtonDB that compiles reports submitted by players who wish to share experiences and tips.

Check what PC games work on Linux

My colleague was playing through Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition for his review — which you should totally check out — and needed to test out the multiplayer performance. I thought it would be humorous if I could get Microsoft's latest game working on Ubuntu... and sure enough, we were competing against extreme AI on different operating systems. What's more, performance (even online matchmaking) was butter-smooth. Again, no tricks or terminal entries required.

It's not all good news for Linux, however, even with Steam's Proton. PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds (PUBG) simply refuses to work due to BattleEye anti-cheat software not playing ball. Grand Theft Auto V and other AAA games can sometimes break unofficially established support through updates, while other games simply refuse to launch at all. ProtonDB is a great resource to see just how games perform on Linux, including your favorites.

Still early days, but Microsoft should be concerned

Microsoft Loves Linux

Source: Microsoft (Image credit: Source: Microsoft)

Linux has always been in the shadow of Microsoft, and that won't change anytime soon. I don't really see Linux making much more of an impact than it has already for some time to come. That said, Steam really is starting to be generated for the hype train, and Valve's continued support for the platform paints a promising future for Linux.

It's no secret that Microsoft still doesn't quite know how to approach PC gaming. After what happened with Windows Live and the still mediocre Microsoft Store, Steam and other distribution platforms are where gamers flock to. If an OS that's available at no additional cost comes around with support as good as Windows for the latest games released on PC, it would be interesting to see just how many make the switch.

Times are changing with the likes of Vulkan on the block, and I see more natively supported games be released or better still, open-source solutions like Proton and WINE filling in the gap. Should performance continue to improve with further backing of more giants within the industry, 2020 and beyond should be a good year for Linux.

It'll be interesting to see how Microsoft approaches support for Linux (hello, Edge) as the company progresses along its cloud and services roadmap. Linux isn't for everyone, but I urge you to give it a try if you're on the fence. Ubuntu is one of the best distros to try if you're new to the platform, and it has everything you need to play top games through Steam. It's not perfect, and there's a long way to go, but there are certainly sparks flying out of this small fire.

Rich Edmonds
Senior Editor, PC Build

Rich Edmonds is Senior Editor of PC hardware at Windows Central, covering everything related to PC components and NAS. He's been involved in technology for more than a decade and knows a thing or two about the magic inside a PC chassis. You can follow him over on Twitter at @RichEdmonds.

  • Nope. Microsoft need not be concerned. Name me one "AAA" PC title that has shipped in the last year that runs NATIVELY on Linux.
    Right. There are none.
    You can't run Halo: Reach on it, nor Red Dead Redepmtion, etc. In fact, just about ANYTHING with any kind of DRM won't work on a Linux OS. The BETTER way is to set up your PC with Windows 10 Pro and run Linux under the WSL (Windows Subsystem for Linux). That way you get the native Windows features, games, etc. and a full Linux CMD shell when you want it (BASH and all.)
    If you (for some reason) want the full Linux GUI experience, just install it in a Windows Hyper-V VM (only available on W10 Pro, Enterprise, or Education. Not available on W10 Home, in which case you can use VirtualBox or the free VMware Player to host the Linux VM.)
  • Google Stadia supposedly require their games to be native linux games. There are not many of them yet though. You also have Valve games that are native.
  • Quite a few, Shadow Of The Tomb Raider, Total War Three Kingdoms etc.. Halo Reach also works fine, I played through the entire campaign several times already, On Linux. Only the Easy Anti Cheat doesn't work meaning no competitive multiplayer but the rest of the game works fine. Most forms of DRM work fine. It's only the more extreme intrusive DRM which doesn't work. Most implementations of DRM such as Denuvo work fine for example. You are clearly not very knowledgeable about Linux, or your Linux knowledge is from 1 decade ago. Most games run fine. So don't make these incorrect statements. WSL is aimed at developers who need a *nix (Unix, GNU/Linux, OSX) environment to run or test software. It's pretty useless for everything else. The reason most developers need a *nix environment is because almost everything runs a *nix OS except for the desktop PC of the average user. And you will still be stuck with the pretty horrible workflow of Windows when using WSL also, which is another major reason people switch. Instead of running Linux a VM on a Windows host it would be a better to run Linux on bare metal and then use a Type 1 hypervisor like QEMU/KVM for Windows, the pass a GPU through to it and voila, native Windows game performance in a VM.
  • @Dennis ten Hoove: He specifically said in the last year, Shadow Of The Tomb Raider is from over 1 year ago, so it is not from the last year. Btw, definitely agree on WSL not being very useful. WSL is nice to have, but it absolutely does not replace a full desktop installation of Linux. Also, dual-booting is much better than VMs.
  • Shadow Of the Tomb Raider released less then 2 months ago on Linux and MAC. Yes, the game has been on Windows and consoles for longer. Dual booting is nice, but not recommended at all for new users. Stuff loves to break when either one of the OSs updates and then you need to fix it.
  • "Stuff loves to break when either one of the OSs updates"
    That's a funny way of saying "windows will sometimes eat your bootloader for absolutely no good reason"
  • Dennis is right. First of all, if the difference in performance is a couple of frames per second on Windows versus Linux, it doesn't matter if it's not running natively. If you wanna talk about big-name games from just the last year or so that run just great on Linux, there's:
    Star Wars: Jedi - Fallen Order, which I play every day
    Battlefield V, which I play almost every day
    Resident Evil 2 Remake, which I play almost every day
    Metro Exodus
    Borderlands 3
    Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
    Mortal Kombat 11
    Halo Master Chief Collection campaign
    World War Z
    The Witcher 3
    the list goes on... As far as just big-name games in general?
    All 3 Tomb Raider Games run natively
    Counter-Strike: Global Offensive runs natively
    Dota 2 runs natively
    League of Legends works
    Titanfall 2 which is probably my favorite game, works.
    GTA V
    Resident Evil 7
    all the Dark Souls games
    Mortal Kombat X
    Dying Light
    Borderlands 1 and 2 have native versions
    The Witcher 1 and 2 have native versions
    Doom 2016 runs at native performance when using Vulkan, and it runs just fine with OpenGL
    Star Wars Battlefront I and II work. Pretty much every big indie game of the last decade has a native version, the rest work with native performance through wine or Proton.
    Hollow Knight
    Dead Cells
    Super Meat Boy
    Limbo, etc. Dennis is right, your knowledge of Linux is truly garbage. That would be fine, most people's knowledge of Windows is garbage, but it would probably be better to do any sort of actual research before running to a comment section on a Linux gaming article just to spread ignorant nonsense.
  • Well its not like windows is perfect either, I had trouble updating my graphics drivers now since I wanted to play borderlands 3 and it does not work great on linux so I thought I would give windows a shot. Took me ages before I coudl update my graphics drivers. Then when I finally did I found out I could not run more then 30hz at 2k but I could run 60hz at 4k and 1080 so its really wierd, and my computer is to slow for running borderlands 3 at 4k, so I gave up went back to linux where I can atleast run every other game in 2k 60hz flawless.
  • Greetings, Khaaaan. As a programmer, I am afraid I must disagree with some of your assertions. I'm not trying to debate you, it is just simply that you are incorrect. "In fact, just about ANYTHING with any kind of DRM won't work on a Linux OS." Windows DRM (from third parties) may or may not work under Proton (or WINE). It's entirely situational. Valve's Steam DRM certainly DOES work, and flawlessly. "The BETTER way is to set up your PC with Windows 10 Pro and run Linux under the WSL (Windows Subsystem for Linux)" This is not correct either. WSL lacks support for a very significant portion of the Linux API. You are at the whims of Microsoft for continued support. They have been known to depreciate programmer features, such as the UNIX Subsystem before. Depending on WSL or WSL2 is not a good solution. As for Hyper-V, it is hit or miss at best on desktop machines. On desktops, it does not have a proper passthrough solution for GPUs. Plus it is quite buggy on Windows 10. VMware Player cannot be used for commercial tasks, and VirtualBox has always had terrible driver support. The two best solutions that I have used are either dual boot or a Linux KVM with Windows (which can dedicate a GPU for full DirectX support).
  • FYI - WSL 2 uses the full Linux kernel. But it would be stupid to run WSL2 to play games as that isn't what it's designed for. So much fud in these arguments. If you like linux gaming, stick with linux
    if you like windows gaming, stick with windows
  • You must be a non Linux user. Quite a few games have been shipped on Linux last year.
  • This notion has been getting regurgitated periodically for the last 10 years. Despite Valve's best efforts, I've never seen Linux even achieve 1% of usage in Steam's Hardware Usage. The 0.8% seem to complain a lot though.
  • Do you realize how big of an innovation Valve's Proton is? It has only been released in 2018. Hence the article's is >>NOW<< a viable alternative.
  • The headline was changed from the stupid one he had originally
  • Who cares what market-share says? Also, the steam hardware surveys aren't even reliable, as a lot of games run best through Wine using the WINDOWS version of Steam, as opposed to the Linux version of steam with Proton, in which case the system gets reported as Windows. Also, their methodology has long been criticized by many as having a ton of flaws. At any rate, it's irrelevant, because market share is an indicator of nothing except for the fact that the major OEM's exclusively pre-install Windows on all their machines they sell, and that's because Windows years ago paid them inordinate amounts of money to do so. Most people aren't even aware that you can install another operating system on your computer, some people don't even know there ARE any other operating systems. There are absolutely benefits to using Linux over Windows and the only benefit to using Windows over Linux, which is more big-name software support (things like Adobe), has nothing to do with the OS, those programs would run as good or better on Linux than on Windows if the companies actually made the software for Linux. There is literally nothing about the NT kernel and Windows as an OS inherently that makes it any good at all, to the contrary, there are multiple things inherent to the Linux Kernel, the ext4 and zfs file systems, and other things about the actual OS that make it superior to Windows. CPU scheduling/performance being one of them.
  • No ****, because most people won't ever try linux or when they do, they get mad it's not windows. Those same people will however cry their eyeballs out when a company siphons data from their PC or michaelsoft forces a broken update on them. Linux is a viable alternative, the only games that don't work are games with third party DRM (aka linux being deliberately kneecapped). It's hard to be a viable alternative when people constantly try to sabotage you.
  • I think you miss the point, Mythos13. Valve has no real interest in competing with Windows with SteamOS, Proton and its other efforts. What it is trying to do is ensure long term viability for itself by diversifying. I've worked as a programmer for over 30 years now. A single proprietary vendor will never dominate the market forever. Linux is opensource, so the software can be supported indefinitely. Microsoft has had its rise and fall. The consumer market no longer matters to them. Windows has been de-prioritized and most certainly will be abandoned eventually. Microsoft fired or reassigned most of their Windows Quality Assurance staff. There isn't even a Windows Division in the company anymore. Microsoft makes most of their income in the Azure cloud, and corporate sales. That is where they have shifted their efforts. They are even pushing their corporate customers to cloud managed desktops, instead of standalone Windows. Microsoft uses Windows 10 desktop users as unpaid beta-testers for Windows 10 Enterprise. In my opinion, you should be grateful for the work of Valve and the Linux community as their efforts constitute a form of insurance, that your games will be available in some way, no matter what Microsoft does.
  • My experience was very different. Many accessories were not working. Lot of lags, almost no support for big titles. Drivers are not updated that often which means no good support for latest games and so on. For gaming and entertainment, I'm actually very satisfied with Windows 10.
  • Certain hardware configurations require some attention to work properly. Older AMD hardware needs to be manually switched to the AMDGPU driver since the run on Radeon by default. Doing this will significantly improve performance and add Vulkan suport. On the Nvidia side you have to manually install the proprietary Nvidia drivers, by default Nvidia hardware will run on the Nouveau MESA driver which is horrible due to the fact that Nvidia doesn't provide any documentation on how their GPUs work unlike Intel and AMD. If you run something like Debian, yes the software will be years out of date. Some distros focus on stability like Debian, others like Arch Linux an Manjaro focus on being bleeding edge at the cost of stability. And then there are distributions like Fedora, Pop!_OS and Ubuntu which are in the middle, the do several major releases per year and selectively update certain packages like MESA and the proprietary Nvidia drivers. The open source AMD and Intel drivers are updates almost daily. You just have to manually compile them from source. Or wait for a new developement release (Bug fix releases will happen for older drivers while a new developement release is being worked on) which happens every couple of months or so. The last couple of years huge leaps have been made with tech such as DXVK, D9VK and WINE/Proton. Most games now performance about the same as they do on Windows. Sometimes they can indeed run a lot worse, but sometimes they run a lot better, this differs per game. From my experience almost everything runs solid now with a few rare exceptions. I am sure that if you learn Linux (Isn't easy, will take a lot of time) you will like a lot better then Windows. Due to the huge amount of freedom you get. Every software update will be like Christmas.