Updated: June 23, 2019
In Linux, typically, when there's a solution to a problem, there are seven other solutions to the same problem. But not so when it comes to Linux gaming. Here, we only have several incomplete solutions to a rather big problem. Steam did massively improve the situation, and it looks like the most mature and likely technology slash software to bring parity to the Linux gaming scene. Still, it's not a perfect fix.
There are many Linux games that don't quite fit the Steam category [sic]. You have old games, indie games with their distribution channels, Windows games that need WINE, and so forth. If you want to have all these under a single umbrella, there isn't really a solution. Well. Maybe. A challenger appears: Lutris. Let's have a review.
The hunt for the red unicorn
I've been playing and testing Linux games for well over a decade. Now and then along this journey, I've come across some rather interesting concepts and ideas. For example, djl and GameStore were such a great promise ten years ago, and then FreeMGP a couple of summers later. DOSBox was and still is your one-stop shop to the 80s and 90s nostalgia. Then, when the much anticipated and desired-for SteamOS finally came out, there was much rejoicing.
I did a through review, and overall, I was really happy. This was the beginning of a true revolution. To make things even more interesting, Valve also announced Steam Play via Proton support for Windows games, which should allow numerous Windows titles to run in Linux, using a modified translation layer much like WINE. But my early experience with this proved to be somewhat less than perfect. But that's fine, because things should and will improve from there.
While Steam did steal most of the spotlight, I continued dabbling in game compilation platforms, mostly but not just because of games. For instance, PlayOnLinux sounds like a great idea. It takes the rough edges off the WINE framework, and makes the Windows software more accessible to ordinary users, who do not feel like dabbling in command-line hacks, hunting for this or that runtime or DLL. But for me, this platform never really delivered, making me somewhat skeptical of similar endeavors.
Cue Lutris. This open-source gaming platform is designed to be the answer to all my woes. In a nutshell, it's supposed to be a go-to tool for playing Linux games. What Lutris does is manage multiple engines in the backend, so you have a single, unified interface through which you can launch and play your games. Lutris supports Steam, GOG, DOSBox, WINE, RetroArch, ScummVM, MESS, and several others. Onwards.
Installation & first steps
The start was a little awkward, like most other projects of this nature. After the installation, I had a prompt warning me that I was missing Vulkan support. In general, I hate buzzwords, and this is one of those. If you think about it, there are way too many technological concepts, and having to read on GitHub what Vulkan is, and which generations of Intel processors are supported doesn't make it any more fun. Such obstacles need to be solved seamlessly. I don't care about kernel versions or driver versions or anything.
Then, I learned that you can't really install games through Lutris - you actually need to go online, to the official site, use the site's search, and then, once you've found what you like, click on the relevant Install button. This will invoke Lutris, and the game ought to install, plus any dependencies. This is the important bit. Lutris promises to solve all the nerdy bits on its own, be it Steam, WINE, DOSBox, or else.
All right. So I started looking for nice titles. The really cool thing about Lutris is that it will "import" your Steam games, too. In other words, you can also setup payware games, so this isn't just indie fest, although you can filter, based on various categories. Free is always useful if you want to test technology.
But the search still leaves a lot to be desired - and the descriptions are even worse. Pure nerdonics. For example, for League of Legends, there were three different versions: PBE, DXVK+dgvoodoo2 and the latest, which also happened to be broken and had language choice dependencies. I have no idea what the other two are, and why I'd need to tinker with wrappers. Not a promising start.
Slowly, I managed to filter out the noise. Most games are indeed available from Steam, so if you click the Install button (WINE or not), this will start Steam, and you will need to authenticate. Once the installation is done through Steam, the game will also be registered in the Lutris interface.
Making more progress
I started with SimuTrans, which came from a non-Steam location. Next, I tried TrackMania Nations Forever, and finally also installed Fallout Shelter, which I tried when testing Steam Play, so this was a good opportunity to baseline my success. Back then, the game would not run for me, and left me disappointed. In fact, looking at the game's page on Lutris, it still does not look that encouraging. To make things even more confusing, I had the option to install either Windows or Linux Steam versions, and I wondered, well, how the former would work?
Does it work?
SimuTrans, no sweat. TMNF launched fine. It couldn't find my graphics card, but after probing the system, everything was fine. Both these games ran without any problems, but then, they always have, and I even had some nice little statistics of my gameplay time. That plus some fancy-ish graphics, I was feeling like there might be a store-like experience here.
Next I tried Fallout Shelter and didn't have much luck. I got an error window telling me that DirectX 11 wasn't installed. Odd. And this is with all them Vulkan thingies, and Steam properly configured. Not sure what had gone wrong, but I thought Lutris wasn't going to give me anything more than I already could do.
Before quitting, I decided to try the Windows version. Lutris started this installation by grabbing and configuring Steam for Windows via WINE first. I actually had to authenticate and provide the Steam code thingie for a new device, and after that, Fallout Shelter installation started and ran. This felt a convoluted way of doing things, but I let it run. Only this time, success! Fallout Shelter was running beautifully through the Windows version of Steam installed via WINE via Lutris. And I didn't have to do any manual tweaks!
I was actually having fun! Blimey O'Me.
Runners & other stuff
As I continued exploring Lutris, I got to appreciate its versatility more and more. Sure, more of the good stuff is hidden behind an unnecessary layer of classic Linux nerdiness, which will be the biggest obstacle to ordinary folks, but it did work and behave rather well. Lutris supports numerous runners, which you can install and configure separate from any game. Or if you install a game that requires it, it will be set up at that time. As I mentioned earlier, the various runners let you sample DOS, Amiga, Atari, GOG, Steam, and more.
There were a few small annoyances. Once, Lutris crashed, for seemingly no good reason. When installing things, you may end up supposedly starting two instances of Steam, which you can't really do. Not a biggie, just something to remember. Lastly, you can do a lot of manual tweaks and overrides, and also filter your games based on type, like pure native Linux, Steam, WINE, etc.
Among the many different Linux gaming platforms, aggregators, launchers, and frontends, Lutris is the one that has given me the highest success rates so far, by a nice margin. I was most pleasantly surprised that it can support both the Linux and Windows versions of Steam side by side, and that you don't need too much technical expertise to install games. The runners do all the black magic for you. Very cool.
This is a most auspicious start yet, and I'm really happy. That said, Lutris needs some big ergonomic improvements. Game installations should be an integral part of the application interface, and there's no reason to send people to a site to do a search when this could easily be done through the main window. Fewer warnings and errors would be welcome, too. And the interface flow needs to be simpler. At the most, this is still a tool for experienced nerds, who know their way around. But this is good. Very good. Finally, a platform that delivers on its ambitious promise. If you like the notion of gaming on Linux, and you'd like to do some rigorous experimenting, Lutris seems like the least painful way to explore. You don't lose your expensive Steam titles, and you only get even more compatibility and abstraction. I like.