Get better Steam and Proton gaming
Linux Format|October 2021
Michael Reed looks at what it takes to run a large variety of games under Steam, including those designed to run on Windows.
Michael Reed

THE STEAM INTERFACE

1 Main menu Easily overlooked, this is the menu bar. It’s mostly concerned with options to configure Steam itself.

2 Steam Sections The tabs that take you to different parts of Steam. Each entry is also a pulldown menu if you hover over it.

3 Game library controls Three filter icons to flick between: installed games, owned games and native Linux games.

4 Search The search box. If you need this, you may have too many games!

5 Game library The list of games in your library. Left-click to be taken to the game’s page. Right-click for the properties menu.

6 Run a game A button that changes between play, install and stream functions.

7 Guilt-o-meter Total play time. Keep this covered when your boss, partner or parents are present.

If you’re at all interested in gaming on PCs, you’ve probably come across Steam, Valve’s platform for distributing, updating and running games. Steam makes it possible to purchase a game, install it over the internet and then run it from the Steam interface.

Ah, but that brings us back to the age-old Linux gaming conundrum of support, as not every PC game is designed to run on anything other than Microsoft Windows. That said, there are plenty of Steam games that will run on Linux, and quite often, a Windows Steam game can be convinced to run on Linux even though some ‘fettling’ by the user may be required. This approach is officially supported by Steam using a system called Proton.

Getting all of these things running, and then possibly optimising the results, is what we’ll be looking at in this tutorial.

Steam powered

Steam itself is installed through a custom program called the Steam Installer. This makes sense because Steam updates itself and the games you install with it without relying on Linux’s own update systems. These days, the installer is in the official repositories of many Linux distributions such as Ubuntu and Fedora and their derivatives. As Steam is proprietary software you may have to enable a specific repository, such as ‘Multiverse’ for Ubuntu or ‘Nonfree’ on Fedora. Having done this, you can, for example, install Steam on Ubuntu as simply as typing sudo apt install steam-installer.

If you’re running a DEB-based distribution, but you can’t find the Steam installer in the official repositories, you can obtain the installer directly from the Steam website (steampowered.com) and install it with the usual dpkg -i [name of archive] as the super user.

There is also another, non-official, way of installing Steam that all Linux users might find interesting, and that is installation via the Flatpak system. This offers a few advantages of its own in terms of privacy and sandboxing, as Steam is a system unto itself once it’s on your system. A standard Steam installation is probably safe to use in the vast majority of cases, but if you are concerned (or if the other installation methods don’t work), give the Flatpak variant a look (search for ‘Steam’ on https://flathub.org).

Games in Steam

Let’s get started with an example that we can use to explore some of the features of Steam. Use the search feature at the top of the Store page to search for OpenTTD, a free management game, and click it to go to the product page for that game. Underneath the preview images and movies we find a bar with some pertinent information. The first point of interest is the price, which in this case is ‘Free’ (yay!). There are also three icons that indicate that the game is compatible with Microsoft Windows, macOS and Linux. Actually, that final icon, a piston arm over a wheel, indicates that the game has native support for typical desktop Linux distributions in addition to SteamOS, Valve’s custom, game-orientated Linux distribution. Valve sells specialised devices that run SteamOS, including the recently announced (and rather tasty-looking) Steam Deck hybrid console. Developments like these are good news for gaming on desktop Linux because it incentivises Valve to keep up the support.

It’s worth scrolling further down the product page to determine what the recommended specifications are and make sure that your machine meets them. In the case of OpenTTD, they’re fairly light.

Installation options

As the game’s free, we could begin the installation procedure, but there are a few points to make about installation options in advance. It’s quite common to end up with a system that has more than one hard drive installed, and for this reason, you might prefer to install games to a drive other than the system drive.

To begin to configure this, the option that you’re looking for is called Steam Library Folders, and it’s located in Steam > Library > Steam Library Folders. From here, you can add an alternative installation folder located anywhere in the Linux filesystem that you have permission to access. The great thing about doing this is that the default game installation location is still available as an option in the installation dialogue. So, you can make decisions about installation location based on available hard drive space and performance requirements, particularly useful if you’re rocking an SSD as the system drive. Note that you can install to other types of storage such as network drives or USB flash drives, but the performance tends to be poor in the case of most games.

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