While desktop Linux may be a tempting platform, there’s one thing stopping a lot of people from making the plunge: PC gaming. Like it or not, Windows is the de facto platform for PC gaming. You can’t count on Linux supporting your favorite games, but you may be surprised: some Windows games work on Linux using the Wine compatability layer.
While gaming on Linux has been one of desktop Linux’s main weak spots, this appears to be changing. With Valve working on bringing the popular Steam gaming service to Linux and strongly criticizing Windows 8, we can expect a brighter future for gaming on Linux.
Native Linux Gaming
Most games are written for Windows. If you insert a Starcraft 2 disc into your Linux computer, it won’t work — it needs Windows. Game developers have to go out of their way to support Linux.
Unfortunately, few do. One organization that deserves props for supporting gaming on Linux is the famous Humble Indie Bundle, which insists that all games included as part of a bundle include Linux versions. If you’ve bought a few Humble Bundles, you likely have quite a few games that run on Linux already. If you haven’t purchased any bundles, you can still buy many of the games individually — the Ubuntu Software Center offers these some of games for sale. If you have purchased the bundles, you can even activate your games in the Ubuntu Software Center to easily download and install them. Some of the bundled games include Bastion, Limbo, World of Goo, Braid, Psychonauts, Machinarium, Trine, Super Meat Boy, and more.
Web browser-based games also work fine on Linux. Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, and all the other cool games from the Chrome Web Store run on Linux, just as they do on Windows and Mac. All the Flash games on websites like Kongregate work on Linux, too.
This being Linux, there are also quite a few open-source, free games you can install from the Ubuntu Software Center (or your Linux distribution‘s software repositories). You shouldn’t expect to find any games that can stand toe-to-toe with the latest and greatest commercial Windows games, but there are quite a few fun games to play. Check out Nexuiz (now known as “Classic Nexuiz”) or the Nexuiz-fork Xonotic if you’re looking for an old-school multiplayer FPS game. If you’re looking for something a bit slower and more tactical, try Battle for Wesnoth, a turn-based fantasy strategy game. We’ve also covered some great casual games for Linux and websites you can use to discover Linux games.
Many console emulators also work on Linux, so you can play console games that you own and have turned into ROMs. You can use DOSBox to play your old DOS games on Linux, too.
AAA Games & Steam on Linux
Popular, mainstream AAA games have become even less common on Linux than they were in the past. ID released Doom 3, Quake 4, and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars on Linux, but ID isn’t planning on releasing Rage and their future games on Linux. Epic Games released the original Unreal Tournament and Unreal Tournament 2004 on Linux, but games such as Gears of War never made it to Linux. While Epic promised Unreal Tournament 3 would include Linux support, they spent years promising support “soon” until finally announcing, years after launch, that UT3 would never support Linux.
This appears to be changing. With the release of Windows 8 and its integrated app store, and the possibility that Microsoft will one day close the Windows platform and prevent third-party software stores like Valve’s Steam from operating on Windows, Valve is porting Steam and many of their popular games to Linux. When Steam for Linux is released, games like Left 4 Dead 2 and Team Fortress 2 will be playable on Linux. If you own games that work on Linux, you’ll be able to easily install them. Valve may one day use Linux as the base to create their own console, a “Steam box.” This would result in many more games supporting Linux.
Another sign of the times is Electronic Arts launching games on Linux. EA added two games, Command & Conquer Tiberium Alliances and Lord of Ultima, to the Ubuntu Software Center. Unfortunately, these games are little more than bookmarks to web-based games that you play in your browser. However, EA is noticing Linux gamers exist and this may lead to native games in the future.
One important consideration when gaming on Linux is your graphics hardware. Most Linux distributions will use open-source graphics drivers by default. However, AMD (formerly ATI) and NVIDIA also provide closed-source graphics drivers for Linux.
These proprietary graphics drivers will generally provide much better 3D performance than the open-source ones. Historically speaking, NVIDIA’s 3D drivers have been much more stable and better-performing than AMD’s on Linux. To squeeze all the 3D performance you can out of Linux, an NVIDIA graphics card is the way to go.
Onboard Intel graphics also works on Linux, and Intel even helps develop the open-source drivers themselves. However, just like on Windows, Intel graphics isn’t anywhere near as powerful as an NVIDIA or AMD graphics card, although Intel graphics are definitely improving.
Playing Windows Games
The majority of the games you want to play are probably not available natively for Linux. However, you may still be able to play them using Wine. Wine is an open-source compatibility layer for Linux that attempts to implement the Windows APIs on Linux. In other words, it allows you to run Windows applications on Linux. However, it doesn’t work perfectly, so you can’t expect every game to work properly with it.
To easily install your favorite Windows games (and other supported Windows software), use PlayOnLinux. PlayOnLinux is an easy-to-use interface for automatically downloading, installing, and tweaking supported Windows games so that they’ll run properly in Wine. If a game is supported by PlayOnLinux and you have good enough graphics hardware, installing and playing it should be fairly easy.
To see if your favorite games and other Windows applications work on Linux, search the Wine AppDB. You’ll generally find that older, popular games work well — for example, World of Warcraft is very well supported. A newer game like Guild Wars 2 may work, but it has quite a few outstanding bugs and will require a lot of tweaking, according to the AppDB. If you want to play the latest games as soon as they come out, gaming on Linux is probably not for you — yet, at least. This is why many gamers dual-boot Linux and Windows, booting their computers into Windows to play games.
If you’re new to the OS, have you checked out the MUO guide to Linux? What has your experience with gaming on Linux been like? Do your favorite games work in Wine on Linux? Do you know any awesome Linux games you’d like to recommend? Leave a comment and join the discussion!