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The Problems We Had With Windows Gaming On Linux

The Linux Effect

RPS chum James Carey has been losing himself in the land of Linux, and looking at the highs and lows of using a gaming OS that is not Windows. You can read part one of his adventures with getting the operating set up and running just here. This latest article looks at some of the problems he encountered. James is a veteran gamer, but - like many of us - only a Linux dabbler.

Last time I encouraged you all to try Linux for gaming. I firmly believe we're going to need it if the open and democratic PC gaming culture I grew up in is to exist in the future. But it's not an easy transition to make. There are huge expectations to mountaineer over, and the terrain is riddled with deep command line crevasses to fall into. But if you have the right stuff, there's quite a view. Come with me for a ramble.

I left you in high spirits, PlayOnLinux looked like offering me my existing Windows game library on Linux with minimum hassle, the Ubuntu desktop wasn't THAT hard to get used to. There were even some nice native Linux games like TeeWorlds to enjoy - games that I'd never have played if I hadn't tried a new OS. (Yes, there's a Windows version, but I only found out about the game through Ubuntu's Software Centre).

Predictably, though, things got less rosy pretty quickly.

The Wubi installer for Ubuntu was great in that it was a hassle-free install of Ubuntu to my second HDD right from inside Win7, but it had created a tiny partition for the new OS. I needed more space if I was going to install games. I decided to remove the existing Ubuntu installation entirely, opting instead for a straight up install of Ubuntu on the second drive, installing directly from a CD rather than the Wubi Windows installer. This apparently has the added benefit of improving speeds in Ubuntu, though I haven't been doing anything intensive enough to notice any radical boost since making the switch.

This second attempt at installing Linux was if anything even smoother than using Wubi, as I had the option of auto-downloading proprietary drivers (like nVidia) and updates during the install. Once it was all up and running I could get back to using PlayOnLinux to install some games.

I hadn't really been pushing things with the first attempt. Having installed Mount&Blade and the original AVP (a game which I can't get to work in Win7 but runs very happily in Ubuntu), I thought it was about time to push for a little more graphicsability. Medieval 2 Total War installed smoothly (another game I have trouble getting to work on Win7), but when I tried ArmA2 I hit the wall.

There wasn't a PlayOnLinux install script for this game, so getting it to run was down to my own fiddling, forum-scouring and guess-work. There hadn't been an install script for Medieval 2 or AVP either, but both those worked without any tweaking. A slightly more modern game like Arma2 obviously required more attention. Back to the forums. Back to messing around with settings, adding libraries randomly in the hope they were the missing element. Back, in short, to faffing around blindly in Linux just so I can play a game.

All my optimism about the ease of using Linux was evaporating. But more experiments were required to be sure that this was going to be the pain it seemed to be: I tried a DX10 game, nothing punishing, just Crysis 1. It was the same story. Eventually I did manage to get into both of these games, but neither is working properly yet, with missing textures and crashes being common to both.

I also thought it was about time to install some voice comms. Fortunately, I use Mumble for most of my gaming comms and there's a native install for Linux. But even this native software is problematic. Depressingly, installation required a command line. It was, of course, the easiest possible line you can imagine “sudo apt-get install mumble” is all you needed to type to get it installed, but so much for never having to use the terminal...

Comms woes were only just getting started though. Turning to the trusty Hero Squad RPS Mumble server I bothered some DOTA players for a mic check. No joy. Some hours going through audio settings wizards and sound manager settings got me nowhere, the root problem being that output sound was somehow being fed directly back to input in a horrible feedback loop. Nothing to do with the mic picking up the speakers mind you, some more fundamental gremlin. Cue more trips to the terminal, more managers installed and tweaked with, more failure. Balls to it. I've given up for now, but I'll get it working eventually.

I'd also got tired of having to change the boot order of my drives in bios to switch between booting Linux and Windows. Wubi's dual boot set up had automatically created a bootloader for the first attempt, but my fresh install onto the second drive had no such thing. I wasn't going to live with that. Plunging headfirst into terminal-love I actually attempted to manually edit the boot menu, pointing to the windows drive, the partition, even the sector, in code, creating my own menu entry for the Win7 installation. Somehow it worked. Somehow I'd done something slightly clever. Something Linuxy. As someone said in the comments last time, memories of editing HIMEM and CONFIG.SYS came back, this low level tinkering was somehow familiar. Not exactly pleasant, but doable. Achievable. Within my abilities. If push came to shove, I could do this...

This, then, is the rub: Forget the fantasy of using Linux for gaming without really having to try, or without problems. That's something that isn't going to happen until, perhaps, Valve officially add Steam to the OS, and even then you'll still only have access to certain games.

So where does this leave us in future? Where now for prospective Linux-using gamers? Well, with SOME Steam games you can play on Linux, but all the above difficulties I had for everything else. It's that or accept the route that MS want to take Windows and stick with them. Or just stick with Win7 for as long as that OS can last. But eventually Win7 will loose support and we'll have to hope that whatever MS replaces Win8 with takes a step back in terms of openness and interface.

That makes me glum. I feel like I have to make a choice: I have to choose whether to hope for a desktop-friendly, openness-supporting change of heart from MS, or to try and make a go of Linux in preparation. Maybe with Valve behind it and a bunch of new Unity driven games coming to it, there'll be a more general uptake of development for Linux and a real movement could begin, not limited to Steam games. Linux really could be the new and open home for PC gamers.

But even if that happens, not everyone will come along for the ride. I see the PC gaming culture I grew up in being squeezed out into fundamentalism. The Middle Class of PC Gamers (highly Windows-literate but not really that techy when you get right down to it), disappearing. You either go full blown tech-head and relearn computing in Linux, or you just accept the new locked down paradigms of Windows, Mac, and Steam.

I want to choose choice. Even with all the trouble I've had and the failures I've faced. I'm going to keep messing around in Linux and hope that I'm not too old to learn new tricks. I hope you'll all come with me.

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