January 31, 2013

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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