Gaming on a sub-$200 Intel 6-core CPU, monitors with 144-Hz refresh rate, slim gaming laptops, eSports, and battle royale game genre are some of the popular topics right now about PC gaming. PC gamers are probably familiar with them or may have at least heard of them through social media or well-known online publications about PC gaming. Even popular YouTube channels that features PC gaming content would have videos covering those topics. But despite the continuous growth of PC gaming, there are no recent articles discussing the available options for the OS (operating system) that can be used for gaming. The last time the OS is a hot topic on PC gaming was 2 years ago when Windows 10 was still new and being touted as the OS that would finally put Windows 7 to rest.
Very few know that there is another OS that has also been in use for gaming since the 1990’s. Popular games of id Software at that time such as Doom and Quake were made available on Linux . Loki Software was founded in 1998 and became the game developer that heavily promoted the use of Linux for playing PC games. Unreal Tournament, Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, and Heroes of Might and Magic III are some of the 19 games Loki Software brought to Linux . Unfortunately, the rise of Linux as a gaming platform lost momentum when Loki Software filed for bankruptcy in 2001 . The situation worsened with id Software stopping support for Linux gaming in 2005 by making Quake 4 as their last game that supports Linux .
The absence of Loki Software and the withdrawal of id Software really slowed down the progression of Linux as a gaming platform. AAA games on Linux were non-existent at that time and gamers had no other choice but to use Windows if they want to play the latest PC games. Valve Corporation released Steam on Linux in February 14, 2013 and that was the time when AAA games started re-emerging on Linux .
Misconceptions about Linux Gaming
Ask a friend or a colleague if they use Linux for playing the latest PC games and you’ll probably get a confused look on the face. Many people still think that PC gaming is limited to Windows.
Few games on Linux
The most popular argument against using Linux for gaming is there are few games to play on Linux. Go to online forums and you would usually see the “only about 20% of the Steam game library has Linux support” argument. As of October 10, 2017, only 3,742 out of the 16,862 (22.19%) games at Steam have Linux support . That is relatively small but people forget to consider that Steam was released in 2003 and only started supporting Linux in 2013. It means 10 years passed wherein all games being released on Steam are games that only support Windows. From a businessman’s point of view, making Linux ports of very old games does not make sense.
Also, the number of games with Linux support will never catch up because every new game being released with Linux support is also a game that supports Windows. Steam only has 500 Linux games 3 years ago and the trend of increase is impressive .
There are popular game franchises that are still not on Linux but more high quality games are coming to Linux every year. Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War III, and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided prove that using Linux for playing the latest PC games is becoming more viable. Those games were made available on Linux in less than 4 months after they were released on Windows. A gap that short is impressive because past AAA games such as Borderlands 2 and BioShock Infinite took about 2 years before they were made available on Linux.
The SteamOS 2.0 vs Windows 10 article of Ars Technica in November 2015 is a popular reference used by some when convincing people to stay away from Linux for gaming purposes. In that article, Linux was shown to be 21 – 58% slower than Windows in terms of average frame rate. Though Ars Technica was fair enough to explain that it’s not the fault of Linux, that article is outdated already and lacks better benchmarks. To better explain the issue of Linux game performance, let’s check game benchmarks from the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1080 Ti Windows vs. Linux performance review of Phoronix.
Based on the benchmarks shown above, Linux was slower than Windows by 34% and 22% in Deus Ex: Mankind Divided and Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, respectively. Without additional benchmarks, newbies to Linux gaming might really think Linux is a bad choice for gaming.
Unigine Superposition runs at the same performance on Linux (OpenGL 4.5) and on Windows (DirectX 11), so Linux is not the one to blame on why some games run poorly on Linux. Game performance on Linux depends on how the developer optimized.
The API is also major factor that affects game performance. Vulkan, the API born out of AMD’s Mantle, shows Linux has the potential to have performance parity with Windows. In The Talos Principle, Linux (Vulkan) is only 13% slower than Windows (DirectX 11). The implementation of Vulkan in most of the games today are still in experimental stage so we can expect more performance gains once Vulkan matures and game developers get more experienced in using Vulkan.
There are so many Linux distributions and some of them are hard to use. For long-time users of Windows who want to switch to Linux, we strongly recommend Ubuntu MATE due to its newbie-friendly user interface. Steam officially supports only Ubuntu but its user interface might turn off newbies which are used to Windows. Ubuntu MATE 17.04 is the Linux distribution we used for reviewing Hollow Knight, Ballistic Overkill, and Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War III and have found it to be very stable for gaming.
Linux has a tiny market share
Last April 25, 2016, Valve Corporation reported that there are over 125 million users of Steam . Assuming the Linux market share really is just 1%, that translates to 1,250,000 users of Steam on Linux. Size is relative and it depends on what the data will be used for.
Now, let’s discuss the Steam Survey which is usually referenced in discussions about Linux market share. According to that survey, the Linux market share has a declining trend. Some would use the survey results to make claims that the number of Linux users is decreasing. Usage and market share are different things and the sample figures below shows it’s possible the Linux usage is increasing while the Linux market share is decreasing. The decreasing Linux market share maybe caused by a surge of players of a very popular game that is only available on Windows. An example of it is PLAYERYUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS . Linux gamers who dual-boot with Windows for games like PLAYERYUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS can heavily skew the results of the survey.
Number of Steam Users
Jul 1, 2017
Aug 1, 2017
Sep 1, 2017
Valve Corporation does not disclose the complete details on how they arrived with the survey results. We hope they would be more transparent and improve presentation of data in the future.
Game developers won’t invest in a tiny market share
Market share is not the only factor game developers consider when deciding if a game will be ported to Linux. The amount of costs involved in porting a game to Linux will be largely affected by the amount and complexity of work needed to do the port. If the game was designed from the start without consideration of a Linux port (like using DirectX instead of Vulkan), it will probably be harder and more costly to do. Linux ports of AAA games being done in-house are seldom. If the original developer does not have the appropriate resources which is usually the case with many AAA games, the Linux port is outsourced.