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The Uncertain Age of Steam on Linux

 Linux has not received much attention from the major gaming houses, even though it seems a natural fit as a robust gaming platform, so the announcement of the Steam for Linux beta last December generated a lot of interest.

A Linux game port can be done in one of two ways. The first way is to use the operating system's own resources and to make allowance for a variety of versions and functinally equivalent applications. The second way is to recreate the norms of another operating system and require specific applications and versions. Despite the client being available as a .DEB package, Valve's Steam beta for Linux generally opts for the second approach, making it less promising than it might have been.

Steam is a multi-platform software distribution tool that includes social features such as friends lists and chat, both in-game and out. Although Steam has recently started carrying other software, its main emphasis is games and related items, particularly ones written by smaller development houses. As you might expect, much of the software it carries, as well as the Steamwork API for game development, includes so-called Digital Rights Management, activation, and other forms of copyright restriction -- elements to which many Linux users are philosophically opposed, and which can require extra steps if you want to transfer a Steam game to another computer, or even to log in to the web page from another computer.

Half-LifeThe popular Half-Life is available on Steam for Linux

Instructions for running Steam under WINE have been available for some time. However, being a native app, the beta has been widely greeted as a sign that Linux is finally being taken seriously by gaming companies, and that a long-standing defficiency in Linux is about to be corrected. Apparently, gamers can only be content so long with Pingus and Battle of Wesnoth.

The challenges of installation

To use Steam, you must install the Steam client to your machine. Officially, the client works on Ubuntu 12.04 and 12.10 only, but, some clues for installing on other distributions have been provided by the Valve developer community.

If you search the Internet or the Steam discussion forums, you can also find additional suggestions about how to install the client on other distributions, including Debian, Fedora, and Linux Mint. Similarly, you may need to search for how to install the 32bit client on a 64bit system. Be sure, too, to have your distro's latest release.

If you are merely curious, better that you stick with Ubuntu, which has provided detailed instructions. But even that is not enough. You need a video driver with hardware acceleration, not just for most of the games, but --strangely -- simply to run the client. You also need the latest version of Flash from Adobe to view content on the Steam site -- an earlier version or Gnash won't do, although nothing warns you of the fact.

Yet another unmentioned specification is that the client won't run on Kubuntu, even though KDE generally runs GNOME-based applications without difficulty. For some reason, the client will run on Xubuntu, but the indications are that it is designed for a very limited set of standard software, with few allowances for any substitutions.

Once you have the necessary system configuration, installation of the client and logging into Steam is straightforward. However, both the client and the site itself include the usual proprietary end-user license agreements that limit both the company's liability and your rights to privacy, although you may be comforted by the promise that your personal information will only be "used internally" by Valve, and not passed on to third parties.

A site tour

Steam's site is reminiscent of the Ubuntu Software Centre. In fact, if you're looking at both at the same time you may have a moment's trouble telling one from another.

Like the Ubuntu Software Centre, the main part of the site is a listing of available games, varying in price from a couple of dollars to something close to the sticker price in the store. Most games have Flash trailers or at least screen shots, as well as a short description, with links to community groups and news about the game. Advertising is heavy, with users logging in to the Featured Items page of sales and discounts. Payment is thorough a typical digital shopping cart that supports the standard credit cards and payment sites.

However, with the possible exception of some free Flash games, Linux users can ignore most of the site. No doubt because the client is in beta, Linux games are confined to a single page. As I write, sixty-four are available -- over twice the number listed a few days before Christmas 2012. Most are adventure games, with an emphasis on fantasy and war, and are available for multiple platforms. So far, none are Linux only, as you might expect considering the small size of the platform's gaming market.

Other features are available from the top menu: account management -- including Steam badges for unlocked achievements for the games you are playing -- backup to a cloud, and tools for finding other players and befriending them. Linux users are limited only by the games they can play, and can access all these tools freely,

Is it Worth It?

If you are a dedicated gamer, Steam for Linux is probably what you have been waiting for. It has the potential to encourage more porting of games to Linux, and to put Linux gamers on something closer to an equal footing than they have enjoyed up until now.

However, such promise comes at a price. While the beta may become more flexible later in its development, right now it is obtrusively non-Linux in its rigid requirements. Couldn't Valve have hired developers with more experience of the intricacies of Linux to ensure that the beta was in keeping with users' expectations?

Even more importantly, at least some users may balk at the idea of a separate management system primarily for games, let alone a return to the proprietary universe of end-user agreements and copyright restrictions that many escaped from. For these users, the price for using Steam to grow the Linux games market might well be one that they decline to pay.



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  • Danilo Pianini Said:

    I'm running Steam on Sabayon KDE flawlessly. The package is available in the official repo, and the installation is painless. I'm very happy Valve ported Steam on Linux. Games are the only software for which I still need a Windows partition.

  • dallaswv Said:

    You also need to be sure that you have a graphics card that supports shaders 3.0 or better. Mine only supports v2 shaders and therefore I am locked out of most games, even games that I used to run just fine will no longer run with the latest patches.

  • Jason Said:

    Yes, but this isn't a linux and/or steam limitation. Get new hardware.

  • Jeff Hoogland Said:

    I think the stance you take in the closing paragraphs is ignorant and one of the reasons I believe Linux has had trouble gaining ground in some areas (including as a gaming platform). Acting like closed source software is some great evil that can be eradicated is foolish. Don't be little Steam/Valve for trying to make it easy to install commercial games on Linux just because it doesn't do it in a way you like. Yes, it would be preferred if everything worked in some fantasy land where all software was FOSS and integrated fully with the system's package manager. But here on planet earth I'd be happy with simply being able to play all the PC games my friends play without having to load up Wine or rebooting into a different operating system.

  • Jeff Hoogland Said:

    Steam is also in the Bodhi Linux repos: sudo apt-get install steam

  • Pgrytdal Said:

    I believe the Bodhi OS uses the same command line as Ubuntu. I am not cirtain of this, as I am not a user of Bodhi, but I believe I have heard this from someone.

  • Israel Said:

    Bodhi is based off of Ubuntu/Debian... so, Bodhi uses Ubuntu Repos, just like many others (including Linux Mint... minus the Debian Edition of Mint).

  • azLinuxGamer Said:

    Completely agree with Jeff, I didn't dump windows because it's closed source or I had to pay for it, I dumped it because it was bad software. I chose Linux because I feel very agile and productive with it, not because it's free and open source. It's probably just very agile and productive *because* it's open source and I think most people who are switching to linux nowadays would agree with Jeff. I will gladly pay Valve for games on Linux if they are good games. End user agreements and copyright restrictions are a very reasonable price to pay for awesome games and I am grateful to Valve for putting in the work and taking notice of Linux.

  • Fewt Said:

    You forgot to mention that Fuduntu ships Steam in our repository and we have permission from Valve to do so. It's as simple as 'sudo yum install steam' for our users.

  • elizia Said:

    Wow, really? I need to hop on the Fuduntu train then.

  • jetole Said:

    "The popular Half-Life is available on Steam for Linux" --Bruce Byfield (Author). No it's not. I just checked. There is no Half-Life or any mod, version, derivative, etc on Steam for Linux. I really want to play Half-Life 2 for Linux if and when it becomes available but you're mistaken. Nothing Half-Life related is available on Steam for Linux

  • Brian Said:

    I have half-life on steam linux for a couple days now. You might need to update for it to be in your games list assuming you already bought the game.

  • sjpuas Said:

    here a screenshot

  • sjpuas Said:

    yes, Half-Life is available in beta and Counter Strike too. You must have bought these games to access the beta

  • Nate Said:

    I looked too for the Mac, but I only saw a windows version. I'm pretty sure buying the windows version will unlock the Linux version.

  • BobWya Said:

    Very cheeky to link to the Valve Community page and then not link to the WineHQ AppDB page for Steam (which I help maintain)!! I had a quite look at the Valve page and it is rather out of date - with dead links. Also bind mounting steamapps folder to a Windows NTFS partition will work. Most folks will go to WineHQ for help with Wine issues - not the Valve website. I've had a lot of issues with Valve games on Wine. They don't make a good target for Wine - the Source engine gets constant updates pushed through Steam - making them a bit of a moving target for Wine. Wine is best for older games (e.g. STALKER) that are no longer receiving official updates... Bob

  • Adam Said:

    A better question might be why this articles instructions for installing the native Linux version of Steam link to WINE instructions to begin with. The whole point of this is that it's a native Linux client that doesn't require WINE.

  • caudata Said:

    I am running the steam client on 12.04 Kubuntu on a laptop with nvidia optimus technology, Kubuntu is not a steam client limitation.

  • sjpuas Said:

    I am running the steam client on Linux Mint 14

  • Mike Frett Said:

    Hold on there, did you say that Xubuntu is somehow limited in what can be installed?. My apologies if you did not, but I use Xubuntu exclusively and have yet to find anything that can't be used with ease. Xubuntu, Kubuntu, Lubuntu etc are all official distros (Yes with the awesome Software Center) of Ubuntu without Unity, just because Canonical goes to great lengths to hide that fact, doesn't mean it's false. One problem, drivers in the 'Additional Drivers' on the 12.04 *Buntus are out of date, at least for me they are, and I think if someone at Steam is reading this, you should take note and try to get some updated drivers pushed through; at least for ATI/AMD Cards. Because Steam tells me there is a new driver, but I am not interested in losing all my data by installing an unofficial driver that may render my system unusable. For new users, installing that driver Steam is informing about, they may find themselves staring at a black screen upon reboot. Not a pretty sight.

  • Heimen Stoffels Said:

    Maybe you need to check your facts before posting because Kubuntu is NOT an official distro anymore since it's now developed by Blue Systems instead of Canonical.

  • thegtproject Said:

    Steam running just fine on latest Arch Linux w/ xfce. This article casts a negative light on a great thing and I'm not sure why anyone would do that. Attacking shortfalls in a (CLOSED mind you) beta is really dumb too. Using defined standards such as Ubuntu is only a way to let the Valve developer's focus on pushing forward until they need worry about extending to other distro's and that's fine. Obviously the various other Linux communities will figure out how to get it working in the meantime.

  • powerlord Said:

    While I'd love for Steam to available as a repository, most of the stuff on Steam is non-free and they want payment first. Valve also has its own Content Delivery Network it uses based on the area you select in the Steam client. Two CDNs actually, they're currently in the middle of transitioning from the old one to the newer "SteamPipe" system. A large number of Valve's own games are multiplayer titles that must remain in sync with servers. To this end, the game clients need to be updated immediately after an update is released or players will be locked out as servers are taken offline and updated. This is the most visible with Team Fortress 2 which has had an average of an update every 5 or so days for the last 5.25 years.

  • Barlo Said:

    Wait, are you saying you think games that are ported to Steam Linux should be free?

  • Mike Frett Said:

    He/She is one of the Old Hats that keep Linux from moving forward because they all want everything for free or not at all. It's ridiculous and they're going to have to grow up.

  • DavidD Said:

    @Mike Actually, no he/she is not ridiculous and the one that should grow up is you. You are free to your opinion as powerlord is free to free to his/hers. Free software monetized by support and other means is a proven business model so it is quite feasible for user/consumers to want to see it that way. Your erroneous assumptions: A) The author makes no money in free software B) Users want *everything* for free because they like FOSS C) Linux is not moving forward because of FOSS D) Other should *grow up* because you have a lack of knowledge of how FOSS works is staggeringly simple and naive. Red Hat is a billion dollar (and quickly growing) corporation and Red Hat is a free operating system... maybe they should grow up too lol.

  • Eric Said:

    Where are the profitable FOSS game developers, then? How do you sell support for a video game?

  • DavidD Said:

    @Eric: So your argument is "I haven't seen one, so it does not exist"? You sell support for a game just like any appliation, and I would suspect there are better ways to monetize a game like merchandising. In fact these models do exist already. Also, there are plenty free to play games that have paid premium content. The world is not contained inside your tiny view of it... so some research.

  • m0deth Said:

    Sorry DavidD, Thinking you can monetize a game for 'support' when it should need none upon release is the naive mentality here. No, the work was done, it's up for sale, if you don't like it, don't play it. Nothing is simpler than that. Does it mean it's evil? No What's evil, is forcing everyone to accept the same ideology regardless of it's application in reality. That is the real problem with FOSS hardcore advocates, none of their arguments are ever grounded in reality. And please stop quoting how badass RedHat is...Frankly, their bottom line is pathetic compared to some of the real players in their own segment. Don't believe me, go check the S&P500? Yes they are an example of how this monetization strategy can work, but then, if their software worked perfectly...that strategy would fall apart as well, wouldn't it? Who pays for support they don't need right? So you have to assume it's so broken or user unfriendly, that they make a billion in support revenue. This, to most people, is not winning. No tiger blood, just B.S. marketed to the willing.

  • darkmachine Said:

    Running Arch 64bit. Installed Steam from pkgbuild in AUR. Had some xorg and driver issues but no problems at all since the 13.1 catalyst. Serious Sam BFE runs flawlessly, as well as halflife. Now we just need Portal and Portal 2.

  • sjpuas Said:

    Portal and Portal 2. please Valve!! :D

  • Tim Said:

    Give me Dota 2 native on Linux and I'll really be happy. Supposedly it works great in WINE, but only for those with nvidia cards, so I'm SOL there and have to boot Windows to play it.

  • Mr ME Said:

    i ran it just fine i kubuntu 12.10 :) no issues at all and installation went fine

  • term Said:

    I too was able to run it perfectly on kubuntu 12.10.

  • Steven Starr Said:

    Me three runs just fine on Kubuntu 12.10

  • Liam Dawe Said:

    If you want up to date news on Steam for Linux has you covered :)

  • gerddie Said:

    Actually, I think the way steam handles installing games and its own updates is quite nice - it doesn't require you to sudo. For production level software I'm quite a FLOSS zealot, for games it's a different story - if they run that I don't care that much about the source code - it would be nice to have it available, but it's not necessary. In addition, since in steam the games are installed and run with the user account rights, if you worry about the security of your other data you could even separate the account for gaming easily from the account for doing serious things. Switching users is still way easier than rebooting into another OS. PS1: Steam runs fine on Gentoo amd64. PS2: When citing the number of availble packages on Steam one should not forget that there are many packages that are only add-ons to a game. Which means the number 64 (now 79) has not much to do with the number of actual games available.Crusado Kings II alone accounts for about 20 titles "available".

  • Adam Said:

    It's worth noting that many games are at least partially opensourced. An example might be Natural-Selection 2, where the engine is closed-source, but the entire game source (written in Lua) ships with the game, under a license that permits redistribution, which is necessary to distribute mods to users (since you have to ship your modified lua files with your mod). This provides many of the freedoms desired from free software, in that the user is generally free to modify the game however they like, and to distribute those modifications. Of course, some games compile game source in such a manner that distributed mods can't be themselves modified, but even then those games ship most or all of their non-engine source to customers and permit some level of distribution of that source. Sadly, Natural-Selection 2 isn't available for Linux, due to the developer being a tiny indy studio without the resources to work on any other platforms so close to launch (the focus being bugfixing and feature enhancement at this point), but they have said that OS X is in the pipeline, and that a Linux port may be possible after that since it's much easier to go from OS X to Linux than from Windows to OS X (since then you're already on OpenGL and *nix).

  • Jaco G Said:

    Sorry Bruce - games to me are more or less in the same category as music and movies... I don't want any of it integrated into my system I want to load them up, play them, and remove them without hassle. The way Desura and now Steam handles it is perfectly fine to me. Self-contained, away from all things system.

  • Jeffrey Nonken Said:

    FTR, I've got this working on Mint 14 x64 Cinnamon with minimal work. Mostly I needed to install version 310 of the Nvidia drivers myself (if you install on Ubuntu, the installer starts that process for you, which helped clue me in). I played Killing Floor for an hour or so last night, will be trying TF2 and possibly others today. It's Not FOSS & other flaws: don't get caught up in the Nirvana Fallacy. It will bring new users to migrate to Linux that might not have; indeed, I've heard many times variations on "if only my games would work under Linux, I'd have no reason to run Windows." Certainly there are those who will reject Steam because it's closed and commercial, but I'd think a major gaming platform like Steam bringing in converts could only help the cause in the long run. This seems to be written from the POV of a Linux user contemplating the issue of Linux users adopting Steam. You seem to have missed the reverse: Steam users adopting Linux. There are LOTS of Steam users, and many of them either use Linux now, or are interested in Linux, or could be made interested in Linux. I'm be one of those; I've been dabbling in various *nixes for over a decade now, but all my games, all my job's development tools, and all my favorite applications and utilities run under Windows. Now that my games are being ported, Linux looks more attractive; and I should be able to find decent replacement apps and utilities -- it just hasn't been worth it before. The work stuff? Not much I can do without changing jobs, but you never know. Certainly it's an incomplete solution right now, but you'll never finish by not starting. "One step at a time I can walk around the world. Watch me." - Aral Vorkosigan

  • Simon Said:

    What do you mean. Steam works fine on kubuntu. Just instal and launch.

  • juzer Said:

    Arch linux on intel i5 cpu, and tiling window manager i3 (1mb) yaourt -S steam, run steam, play game. Have problems? Nothing tops this -

  • om Said:

    I was able to successfully install and run Serious Sam BFE using the Linux version of Steam (Half Life 2 has recently appeared in mySteam Library, but I haven't tried it yet), and with the exception of graphic speed issues, it seems fine. Now, I should mention that the graphic issues are due to my using the Open Source AMD driver rather than the ppretary one. I have a recent, but not latest-and-greatest, AMD video card that AMD has stopped supporting in Linux. Please note that the card *is* supported by their current Windows driver! So for now, I'll use the Windows version of Steam to play my games until the Linux version is out of beta. Then I'll go shopping for a new video card -- from NVIDIA this time. I'm aeady a heavy Steam user, and once I can play everything in Linux, I'll be buying even more. But AMD, not so much

  • Janhouse Said:

    3d acceleration for the client is required because of the "Big picture mode".

  • niagr Said:

    Sure DRM is bad and all that jazz but do we really have a viable alternative to tackle piracy? Expecting everything to be free like GNU/Linux isn't going to work out. That attitude is fine as far as hobby projects are concerned but that doesn't work for everything in a profit-driven economy.

  • DavidD Said:

    @niagr Really!? Hobby Projects? Not profit-driven companies huh? Not like the billion dollar Red Hat corporation. You know the one that makes the OS on a very large majority of all the mission critical, revenue or production servers in the world. Nope free could never work like that... lol. Wake up.

  • Ivan Said:

    "even though it seems a natural fit as a robust gaming platform" Develop a game for Linux, support it for two years, then revisit this statement, Bruce, or just try to install one of the loki games on a modern distribution, pick your poison. Both will end in the same hair pulling result.

  • sylas Said:

    In my opinion this is why Linux has not taken off as a worthy opponent to Windows or OSX. Seems everybody just wants to make their own version instead of sticking to one OS. Nobody can optimize ANYTHING for them all because there's some variable difference somewhere in the shells and in the code, and commands are different, and to me it seems rididulous. There's an open source media program called XBMC and it is extremely well done because you don't have every single designer wanting to make his own variation....They work together through online collaboration and it's working for the app and for everybody who uses it. I'm taking a beginner Linux class this semester, and I will admit that I don't know Jack about it. All I can really say right now is that it seems to be the most Non-User friendly O.S that I've ever played with and I have to learn commands for 6 different varieties. I'm doubting how much I'll understand when it's over. If there had been one system that evolved from the very first...I don't even know what to call it,..Distro? Then that ONE system could have been streamlined and optimized and grew a loyal user base, and Software designers could feel confident that they weren't wasting their time on a hobby OS. Am I wrong here? Is there something I'm not seeing?

  • asdfjkl Said:

    Having an app/software/package supported for all Linux distributions (distros) is not as difficult as you put it to be. The various distros major difference would be their package management system, so that you have distros that support .deb "installers", .rpm, etc. And you may be right in asking why can't we have just one? Well, go a step higher from the various distros and you will find what we call "upstream" in Linux. This is where all the apps/software/packages "source" come from. That's where all of Linux converge (or diverge from, if you will). Say you create an app. You provide the source code upstream, and the various distros' developers will "compile" that source into binaries/packages that will become "installers" for their own distros. It will become available to all Linux distributions. What I'm trying to say is we do have an upstream and the various distros are not as isolated/segregated as you think.

  • sylas Said:

    Hey you know what man? That's actually some really good information that I wouldn't have found on my own. I'll Google some of the stuff you mentioned like "upstream" and see where that takes me. I hope to gain a better understanding of the whole thing because I really don't want to get less than an "A" in my class. More important than that is I want to like Linux, but so far it's been hard to grasp. Thanks for the info!

  • Pete Said:

    Linux from Scratch is what you should look into if you want to learn more about Linux (linux is just the kernel after all) based operating system at the source code level. I would not recomend anyone use it as their desktop operating system but it does give very in-depth knowledge of what each piece of the system does.

  • dashesy Said:

    It is greatly appreciated that Valve DOES support Linux (yes of course proprietary because they want to make money), and yes the most *popular* distro, it makes sense from business perspective and resource allocation. Even though I do not run Ubuntu, it is not very difficult to just install one, also once containers become more mature any one should be able to run an Ubuntu container and run Valve in it with full performance. Also please consider the good it brings, more users, a great company with nice software, and possibly future open source contributions from a vast community and possibly through Valve itself. Vendors should be encouraged, it takes some time and their board of directors will feel more comfortable hopefully.

  • Pete Said:

    @DavidD - RHEL (Redhat Enterprise Linux) is NOT freely downloadable and the support you pay for it costs more than the equal level of support for a Windows server product. This is a terrible example, even comparing the business model of a whole operating system vs that of a singular application is ridiculous and does not prove your point no matter how often you say it. There are 3 main business models that work for games, purchase then play, free to play supported by in-app purchases or monthly subscription based. Steam allows for all 3 models to work successfully and does not force developers and/or publishers to all follow the same model which is exactly what you're suggesting.

  • Keflawique Said:

    Maybe this is an effective way of making the most popular distributions like Mint and Ubuntu more mainstream, and thus, increasing the number of user. If the number of users becomes higher, there is more motivation for improving compatibility. Moreover, some companies might be more interested in making their software and gadgets more compatible with the most popular Linux distributions (Mint & Ubuntu)... These are the main reasons why Steam on Linux is pretty much a win-win for everyone.

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