Steam Play, Proton - How be things in 2021?

Updated: June 7, 2021

Playing Windows games on Linux is a unicorn. Magical. Weird. But in recent years, it's sort of become a large-nosed horse. Maybe. Whatever the analogy or whatnot, the gaming parity between these operating systems remains one of the primary reasons why people, even if all other circumstances align just right, cannot use Linux as their everyday driver. Games!

For years, I've been exploring the different solutions and tools, which promise this or that level of support for Windows games. I tried pure WINE, I tried various WINE helper scripts. I fiddled with PlayOnLinux, and I also tried the early release of Proton, the Steam gaming compatibility framework, which is designed to bridge the gap between the two worlds. It was also the most reasonable solution so far. If you think about it, if there's chance to make Linux gaming truly happen, it's Steam. So I figured, let's do another Proton review.

Status Quo

When I last tried Steam Play, there were only a handful of officially blessed games, and even then, things weren't stellar. Since, Proton has matured quite some, and Proton DB lists roughly 13,000 games that work. Add to that all the other native Linux titles, which again happened largely because of Steam, and the numbers start looking promising. But the devil is in the detail.

So let's detail, shall we?

Failures: GTA: Vice City and Age of Empires III

The main reason why I took Proton for another spin is the fact I couldn't play GTA: Vice City in Windows 10. Remember my tutorial on how to get the Steam version of the game working? Well, that doesn't fly anymore. Which is super-annoying, because I wanted to listen to Emotion 98.3 and cruise around casually, enjoying my hard-earned gangsta cash. So I thought, well, let's try Linux.

Enable Proton

GTA, enable Proton

Nope, this didn't work. The game tried to launch and then didn't. Alas, same with Age of Empires III:

Age of Empires III attempt

Successes: SimCity 4 and Caesar III

More all-time favorites of mine. And both worked all right! But let's do the detaily detail. SimCity 4 works as it always had. Very cool. I was also able to grab my old region saves and put them into the game folder, and continue playing a setup from about 13 years ago. I tried my big 4.5-million-people region, before I had it finished, and everything was there.

Then, I also took my old mods and placed them in the Plugins folder, and 5 out of 6 actually worked! Again, we're talking precompiled Windows binaries, originally intended for Windows XP, running reasonably well a good 13 years later. Noice.

SimCity 4, region

SimCity 4, working

There are some quirks. Changing the in-game resolution makes no difference from what I can see. You're still stuck in the 4:3 aspect ratio. The game utilizes a single CPU core, which isn't the best use of resources nowadays, so I guess no internal logic was really modernized. If you Alt+Tab out of the game and back, the resolution gets all weird and scrunched. I tested in Kubuntu 18.04 on a laptop with Intel graphics.

With Caesar III, the results were also quite promising. The game runs fine, without problems. You are stuck with 1024x768px resolution as your best bet, and if you Alt+Tab or change to windowed mode, the colors get weird. Quiting the game makes Kwin give up, so that needs restarting. But then, I also discovered a nice little extra that lets you run Caesar III in blossoming HD, and we will talk about that very soon.

Caesar III

Conclusion

I believe Steam Play has made some significant progress in the last couple of years. While the whole Windows-on-Linux gaming is far from a complete success story, things are much better now. More choice, a wider repertoire of supported games, better overall game compatibility. There are problems and issues, but the fact you can run 15- and 20-year old Windows titles just fine - that's already a nice start.

There's more to be done, and I will try some newer games as well. But then, my choices today pose a really good blend of challenges - old Windows compatibility (which isn't guaranteed in modern Windows either), funky graphics stack, and being built for architectures that have long been superceded. Well, so far, we're up to 50% goodness. If we assume my test is pretty random, and we look at the available catalog of Linux-capable games, that sounds like there could be a solid 6,000-7,000 games that were previously unavailable to Linux folks. Me likey this very much. Anyway, I shall go back a-testin', and if you're pondering Steam Play, it could very well open a whole world of possibilites on your distro. I say, try it.

Cheers.

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