Testing of Steam's Wine fork Proton

Under Steam

© Lead Image © stokkete, 123RF.com

© Lead Image © stokkete, 123RF.com

Article from Issue 221/2019
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The Proton runtime environment, which is based on Wine, brings a new crop of Steam-powered games to Linux.

For many years, game developers didn't pay much attention to Linux. Native Linux versions of commercial games were very rare, but with a little luck, you could sometimes get the Windows version to run on your Linux system with the help of the the Wine runtime environment. But slipping a compatibility layer between a Windows game and a Linux OS never was a perfect solution. Wine was only reliable with older games, and getting it working often involved major research and tinkering.

Linux gaming has improved considerably since the early years. In 2013, Valve introduced the Steam client for Linux, which brought native Linux gaming to the most commercially successful gaming platform. However, the economies of the gaming industry ensure that many Windows games will probably never be ported to a native Linux version. Many game developers (and game users) still depend on the Wine environment to run Windows games on Linux.

Steam Play is a service introduced by Steam that lets the user run a purchased game under Windows, Mac OS X, or Linux (if available). More than 3,000 games now run on all common PC operating systems. In order to expand the pool, Steam announced a new version of Steam Play this past summer [1]. For Linux compatibility, Steam Play depends on a fork of the Wine environment called Steam Proton.

As of this writing, only the beta version of Steam Proton, which was presented in August last year, is available to users. The trial version can be activated via Steam | Settings | Account. After restarting, Proton should be listed as a Compatibility tool in the settings below Steam Play (Figure 1). Theoretically, you could also build Proton using the source code [2] hosted on GitHub. Steam Play requires a modern distribution with Python 3 and current graphics drivers.

Figure 1: For the current version of Steam Play with Proton, you have to activate the beta version of the Steam Client.

In its announcement, Steam mentions a number of officially compatible titles. These titles include older games, such as the point-and-click adventure game The Curse of Monkey Island, but also (more) recent games with higher demands on graphics performance, including the 2016 reboot of Doom or Tekken 7 from 2017.

Proton Hands-On

The Steam client does not yet display compatible games separately. It is thus a good idea to stick to the list of officially supported games or to look into compatibility with the help of projects like ProtonDB [3]. The ProtonDB database lists over 3,000 compatible games and provides information on compatibility, as well as hardware requirements and user experiences.

The Steam Play beta proved stable in our tests. We were able to download a Windows-only game purchased via the Steam client on Arch Linux and run it directly via the client as if it were native. In the library, the remark Runs on this computer via Steam Play indicates that this is not a native Linux game. When the game is launched, a pop-up window also notifies you that a compatibility layer is being used (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Steam alerts the user that the game will run using "a platform compatibility tool."

The games we tested with Steam Play on our Arch system impressed. The frame rates roughly resembled those when playing the games under Windows 10 on the same computer.

Conclusions

Steam Play arrives along with other advances in the Linux gaming realm, such as the the open source Vulkan API [4], which allows cross-platform hardware access to the GPU. All in all, Linux has never been in better shape when it comes to games.

Valve promises to continually add to the list of games supported by Steam Play, but don't expect every game to run on Linux. Games with complex DRM or anti-cheat systems will probably never be fully operational under Linux.

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