The Steam machine is now publicly on sale as of last week, but it’s not off to the best start. A couple of weeks ago, Ars Technica compared the performance of games when running on Valve’s Linux based SteamOS and Windows 10. Six Valve games were tested on a single machine and results showed a 21 to 58 percent frame rate drop when running on Linux. While only six games were tested out of an entire collection of around 1,800 available titles, the games used Valve’s own Source engine, which is designed for Linux and SteamOS. Valve had previously stated that Steam games run faster on Linux, so it was expected that any of Valve’s own Source engine games would run smoothly.
Under-performing Linux ports may be something players will have to deal with for a little while longer as porting is difficult and time consuming with not much of an expected payoff for developers. The issues aren’t completely the fault of game developers or Linux itself, but include a lack of outside support. Game engines, driver support, and APIs native to an operating system can determine the ease of porting. Engineers at Valve gave some warning about possible problems when they first began talking about the Steam Machines several years back, discussing limitations that come with Linux devices, operating system performance, porting its own source engine, and more at 2013’s Game Developers Conference.
There are a host of difficulties that need to be addressed. For example, most AAA developers use Direct 3D which is designed for Windows and Xbox, instead of the cross platform 2D and 3D graphics API, OpenGL. It’s not a matter one being superior to the other — they have similar functionality — but translations add complications to porting.
There is evidence that across different Linux systems and distributions results of game play may vary, with performance issues such as random loss of audio, poor and delayed rendering, lowered frame rates and more. But there is also evidence that games built specifically to utilize OpenGL and run on Linux might outperform their Windows counterparts. Back in August, Phoronix ran benchmarks comparing performance between Windows 10 and Ubuntu 15.04 on the open source Quake clone OpenArena, and found Linux coming out on top across a variety of graphics cards.
Another problem that’s plagued Linux games since the beginning is lack of driver support. Nvidia and AMD are the go-to graphics card providers and their drivers are deemed essential for high performance gaming. They are also closed source and generally not very open source friendly. It’s believed that we will see AMD deliver for Linux much sooner than others, thanks to the Vulkan API, a new game-centric OpenGL initiative based on AMD’s Mantle API, meant to compete with Microsoft’s DirectX12. Vulkan is based on AMD’s Mantle API.
As for NVIDIA: Games run well on Linux when using the company’s proprietary drivers, but that’s not always the case when using FOSS replacements. Developers for Noveau, the open source NVIDIA driver project, have been experiencing difficulty with the newest GTX 900 series graphics cards, as reported by Phoronix earlier this year in an article which quotes developer Ben Skeggs from a post on a developers’ site.
“Nvidia aren’t playing nice yet so there’s not much more that can be done at this point…,” Skeggs wrote. “…the ‘security’ restrictions…are excessive and go beyond what’d be necessary to protect the host from malicious firmware. This newer Nvidia hardware is VERY open-source unfriendly.”
The last and possibly greatest barrier stopping major companies from making successful ports is the belief that there still is no major Linux market. It was reported back in July that after the release of Windows 10 it took only one week for the number of Windows Steam users to overtake the number of Linux users. Steam’s Linux users — reportedly around one percent of its total base — are on the rise, but many developers don’t see enough potential growth to justify the expense of porting. Legendary game developer and Linux supporter John Carmack addressed this issue in 2013 when he tweeted, “Improving Wine for Linux gaming seems like a better plan than lobbying individual game developers for native ports.”
This doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world for Linux gaming. A rocky start for a new console is expected, with nearly every release of a new console launching with a few problems. Valve didn’t expect the Steam Machine to be an overnight success and is working to address issues. Linux games may not be immediately perfect, but they’re drastically improved from the early Doom ports of yesteryear. There are good open source Linux friendly graphics drivers in Intel graphics and Noveau, and the free but proprietary Unity game engine in August released an experimental version for Ubuntu, along with a platform-agnostic installer that works on most modern 64 bit Linux distros.
More games coming out for Linux shows there is a market for them, especially with the advent of the Steam Machine, which is certain to see rapid improvement. The Linux gaming community is eager for more playable AAA titles and a lot of effort is being made to increase the number of games available. According to the Linux Gaming Database, the number of titles currently available is 1,855, and within the next two months it’s expected to go above 2,000 out of a proposed 2,500.
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Hunter Banks has been a part of the Southern California Linux Expo (SCALE) Family for the past 13 years. When not writing about open source gaming, he’s working on creating his own games. Follow him on Twitter @SilvrChariot