Earlier, I was reading a post that struck me as so completely at odds with my view of reality that I felt I had to say something. Since I’m not allowed to make comments at that site (they have a ToS that infringes far too much on the basic right of free expression for my liking), I’ll do it here.
To start, the tone of the post goes beyond breathless, and is difficult to describe without resorting to sexual metaphors. The author is known to be a total Valve fanboy, yes, but this is overboard even for him. In my opinion, it’s the culmination of years of increasing worship of a certain corporation, and that’s honestly sad to see from someone who claims to be a supporter of Linux, an operating system whose very nature is to be free of corporate chains. (Sure, we don’t always live up to that. Gnome and systemd are perfect examples. But even they have their detractors, myself included.)
However, it’s not merely the open admiration of one of the most anti-consumer companies around that is the problem. No, my true concern is that gaming on Linux is dying everywhere. I fully expect 2022 not to be the Year of Linux Gaming, but the end of it, at least for me.
Going out of business
The biggest factor, as I see it, is that it is getting harder and harder to buy PC games at all. With the effective death of physical copies, our only recourse is downloads, and these come with a host of problems. Worst of all, choices for the Linux user have been narrowed to three, all of which are horrible.
GOG is a great storefront. I’ve used them for years, and my only complaint in terms of actually buying from them is that my credit union absolutely hates the idea that I’d spend my money on a Polish website using a payment processor based in Cyprus. If you want to actually buy a game, they’re still the best option by leaps and bounds, because they remain (mostly) committed to their pro-freedom stance of only selling DRM-free games. But that commitment doesn’t extend to supporting DRM-free operating systems, and GOG’s parent company is actively hostile to Linux as a gaming platform. With their expected downsizing later this year, it’s clear that the writing is on the wall.
Steam is the 800-lb gorilla of the PC gaming space, of course, and it’s hard to overstate their anti-consumer policies. They don’t sell games; you’re merely leasing them, and your ability to play what you’ve purchased always exists only at Valve’s whim. They’ve been successfully sued in multiple countries for violations of basic consumer rights. You have no option but to use their DRM-encrusted marketplace to get your games, even if a few of them graciously allow you to run them in “offline mode”, where your every movement isn’t tracked. Literally the only positive Steam has is its library, because they are in the same monopoly position for gaming that Windows occupied in the OS realm for two decades.
Itch.io is the third-party candidate…except for the part where they fit snugly into one of the major parties’ platforms. Don’t get me wrong. They have some great ideas, like adjustable revenue sharing and simple browser downloads. They’re genuinely more open than GOG or Steam. But their downfall, like so many otherwise decent platforms, comes from embracing woke ideology. Itch was very vocal in their disdain for Valve’s minor step towards free speech in 2020. Their biggest bundle to date raised money in support of a terrorist organization, and their biggest category for games is still half-finished visual novels intended for the alphabet soup crowd. As great as their innovations may be, Itch will never be a place that deserves any right-thinking American’s business, and the next great game surely won’t come from there.
Of the minor players in this arena, there’s not much to say. Most are nothing more than Steam resellers. Even Humble Bundle, once a great source of interesting and fun games, has gone that route, adding a dose of Itch’s ideological idiocy on top of that. Epic’s store is anti-Linux, and partially owned by the CCP; while Microsoft’s only suffers from the first of those problems, it’s obviously a very big one. EA and Ubisoft aren’t worth your time even on consoles. The rest are niche options like DLsite, not general-purpose gaming storefronts.
The Steam Deck technically isn’t vaporware, I’ll admit. In reality, though, it’s hardly an option for most people. For one thing, nobody can even buy one at the moment. Even if you could, however, you have to do it through Steam. That should already be a no-go for anyone who actually cares about using Linux. Then, you add in the closed hardware—the controller only works if Steam is running, for example—and what are you left with? Not “the power of a PC in the palm of your hand” or whatever, but little more than a modern-day Game Gear that doesn’t need cartridges. (By the way, it runs Arch. Well, except that it doesn’t. It runs SteamOS 3.0, which just happens to use Arch underneath. You know, instead of something sensible and Debian-based.)
Despite all its flaws, this is our best option for a Linux gaming handheld, and purpose-built systems of any other kind don’t look much better. Android games are a disaster, as anyone who has looked at the Play Store’s trending lists can tell you. And it doesn’t get better as you go up in size. In 2022, Linux on laptops is still the same throw of the dice that it was in 2002. System76, the cream of the crop in Linux-using hardware, has a failure rate of 100% this year in my household; my brother has now been waiting a month for his warranty repair, and that’s after I needed almost three weeks for my replacement. The desktop is mostly safe, but video drivers offer you the choice of a rock or a hard place. Do you take Nvidia’s proprietary drivers that can drop support at a moment’s notice, or AMD’s open drivers that will never receive the same level of support from game devs?
The last hope
Now, there are still bright spots in the gaming landscape, although they’re few and far between. Open-source games are slowly getting better on the whole. (As one example, I’ve recently become engrossed in Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead.) Some of them are original, some are derivative. Some, like OpenTTD, are reimplementations of games so old that they’re from my childhood. One thing you can be sure of, no matter which one you’re playing, is that you’ll never have to worry about a faceless corporation telling you to stop.
Even if you can’t get the full source, there are still a few great games being made by developers who genuinely care about their fanbase, and are willing to do the selling themselves. Rimworld is a good example here; yes, you can buy it on Steam if you’re so inclined, but why not go straight to the maker? While it certainly would be better if these games were free and open, they’re far better than the DRM-filled dystopian alternative.
If all else fails, there’s always emulation. While we could argue about the “dangers of piracy” all you want (speaking as a content creator, it’s a net plus for everyone involved, except marketing and other middlemen), the simple fact is that every “retro” game is readily available, and readily playable on any remotely modern PC. These are the games we grew up with, the ones that trigger the strongest feelings of nostalgia in us, and they’re valuable for that alone. But then you add in the knowledge that you’ll never need a day-1 patch, never have to worry about being banned because you said a bad word, never have to listen to the devs crying about social justice and other make-believe nonsense, and you realize that gaming back then was just plain better, even if the games themselves usually weren’t.
As a Linux user, that’s really where I stand. I see 2022 as the beginning of the end for my preferred kind of gaming: single-player, offline, playing games that can’t be taken away from me, and that treat me like an adult instead of a toddler to be groomed. There aren’t a lot of those left, and it’s becoming harder and harder to find them.
If GOG stops supporting my operating system, I’ll still buy from them on occasion, but only after I’m absolutely certain that the games run under Wine or some similar emulator. Lutris, Bottles, and apps of that sort are helpful in this endeavor, and I believe all but the most hardcore Linux fans should have at least one of them ready to go.
If the last gaming holdout against the creeping plague of “you’ll own nothing and be happy” shuts down completely, on the other hand, I realize I don’t have a lot of options. I already don’t care about AAA titles, so the only ones who lose in that situation are the indies who will no longer have a chance to get my money.
I’ll still have old games, though. And I don’t just mean the SNES-era classics. I’m talking about games that are a few years old, but remain very much playable. Think Stardew Valley, for instance, or Sunless Skies. I bought those on GOG, so I know my downloaded copies will work as long as I keep them. While I know I can only speak for myself, I believe they’re enough to last me the rest of my life.
It didn’t have to be this way. But the Linux community made a deal with the devil, and doing that is only ever going to leave you burned. Alas, Steam is something akin to a cult, and its true believers will never realize the harm they’ve caused.