Linux Gaming: How to get started

Whether you’re tired of buggy Windows updates, Microsoft’s forced telemetry, or are just looking to try something new, you might have thought about ditching Windows and switching to Linux, one of the world’s most popular free and open-source operating systems. But the one thing holding many users back from making the switch was its lack of support for games. However, that’s no longer the case – gaming on Linux has never been easier or more accessible. Even if you’ve never touched a Linux machine in your life, you too can be playing all your favorite games in a matter of hours, with minimal hassle.

This guide is meant as a brief overview to Linux newbies – I’m going to be simplifying and skipping a lot of the complexities that aren’t relevant. One of the coolest things about Linux is that it allows you to customize everything, down to the very fundamentals of the operating system. That being said, you accept the sensible defaults and get down to playing some games.

Distro

If you’ve even so much as dipped your toe in the Linux waters, you’ve undoubtedly come across people arguing about which Linux distribution you should install. There are thousands of different distros out there, but if you’re new to Linux and want a distro that makes it as easy as possible to start playing games, stick with either Ubuntu, Pop! OS, or Manjaro. Ubuntu is the most popular distro, but for my money, Pop! OS and Manjaro are better tailored toward gaming, with Manjaro as my personal favorite. Whereas Pop! OS uses GNOME as its default desktop environment, Manjaro’s default desktop environment of XFCE looks and feels more like Windows, helping you ease the transition. Manjaro also comes with Steam preinstalled, as a bonus. If your eyes are starting to glaze over with all this talk about desktop environments, don’t worry. Just pick the one you think looks the best.


My (slightly) customized Manjaro XFCE desktop

 


A stock Pop! OS desktop

GPU

One more thing: things are slightly different depending on whether you have an AMD or Nvidia GPU. If you’ve got an AMD card, great news! The driver is built right into the Linux kernel, so there’s nothing to download and nothing to install. Make sure to thank AMD for helping Linux gamers by providing an open-source driver.

Things get slightly more complicated for Team Green, as you’re going to need to install the driver yourself. While there’s an open-source driver created by the community called nouveau, it’s not up to snuff to handle high-end gaming. For the best performance, you’ll want the closed-source proprietary driver from Nvidia. Installing this is simple on Manjaro – on the initial boot screen, move the arrow keys down to the “driver” menu, hit Enter, and select “nonfree,” then hit Enter again.

You can also install the driver anytime after the initial install using Manjaro’s hardware configuration tool, Mhwd. Just open it, click the obviously-named “Auto Install Proprietary Driver,” reboot, and you’re good to go.

Pop! OS is even easier. When you go to download the ISO, you can pick between the AMD/Intel graphics or Nvidia version. Install the Nvidia version and the proprietary Nvidia driver will install automatically, no user input required.


The download page for Pop! OS

Install

Whatever distro you choose, installing Linux could not be simpler. You download the ISO, burn it to a USB thumb drive (I like Balena Etcher), reboot the computer, and follow the prompts on screen to select your keyboard layout, repartition your disk, set up a user account, and all the other standard OS install options you’ve seen on Windows.

Getting Your Games

You’ve got Linux up and running – now it’s time to get your games. For most gamers these days, that means Steam. If you bought a significant chunk of your library on Steam, you’ll be relieved to hear that there’s not only a native Steam client, but thousands of native Linux ports of your favorite titles, like Celeste, Dead Cells, Slay The Spire, and Rocket League. There’s no need to re-purchase anything, either – Steam will automatically detect you’re running Linux and install the correct version.

If you need to install Steam (or anything else), Linux works a little differently than Windows. Instead of downloading programs from their websites, you’ll use the distro’s repositories. Think of it like Apple’s App Store – a central hub where you can download and update all your applications. Pop! OS calls their repo the Pop! Shop.


The Pop! OS Pop Shop

Software in Manjaro can be installed with their package manager, Pamac.


Pamac, Manjaro’s package manager

Some games, however, don’t have Linux ports. Enter Proton, Valve’s collection of tools designed to get Windows games working on Linux. While it’s only been around for a year, Proton has been a godsend for Linux gaming. Tons of games work flawlessly, and even more work with a few quick tweaks. You can check the status of your favorite title over at protondb.com.


ProtonDB

Outside of Steam, you can get Linux games from places like GOG.com and Itch.io. You can organize your collection using Lutris. Lutris is a game manager and launcher that works a lot like your Steam library, allowing you to view, run, and tweak the settings of all your games from across the many different stores out there. You can add new games by going to https://lutris.net and searching the game. You can then download an install script, which, assuming you’ve already purchased the game, will help you install and configure it on your system. You can do some pretty clever things with Lutris, too. Let’s say I want to buy Untitled Goose Game from the Epic Games Store. Too bad the Epic Games Store is Windows-only, right? Wrong. I just go to lutris.net and search the Epic Games Store. I download and run the install script, get the Epic Games Store up and running, and I’m honking my little heart out.

Gaming on Linux has come a long way in a short period of time, and it’s only looking to get better. Here’s hoping to see even more native Linux games in 2020, and let us know if you want to see more Linux-related content in the future.