Steam Play and Proton are Great, but Still Beta.


So you all know that I am fairly positive about what Valve is doing with Steam Play and proton. I am already enjoying playing several games with it. And it’s been working well. For the most. The key point is “for the most”. I am well aware it is all still beta, so let’s see what is still not working as well as it should.

I started by installing Doom 2016. After a long download, hitting the launch button triggers a pretty long pre-launch process. After a while, I was greeted with a black screen. And that’s it. I had to reboot at that stage. Second trial worked as expected: the game launched fine, while the sound stuttered constantly for the first loading screens. OpenGL was selected by default instead of Vulkan, which is a curious setting nowadays on a game that has a native Vulkan renderer. Alas, my faithful Steam Controller was not recognized at all once in-game. Not even as a mouse. Nada! So much for better controller support! This annoys me a little since this is a Valve hardware product that should be recognized in an emulation layer developed and funded by Valve. Anyway. I had to get my Xbox360 pad out, again.

Overall the game works absolutely great. Beautiful, smooth like butter. Nothing to complain about. After being killed once too much I had the incongrous idea to reload a checkpoint manually. Big mistake! I was struck by an infinite loading loop. Another reboot needed.

This led me to check the github issue reports for Doom and no surprise, for I am not the only one facing such problems. For a white-listed title, labelled as working “perfectly”, I have to admit this is a little disappointing to say the least. Does white-listing means testing 5 minutes before giving it a green light? I sure have different expectations.

As most of you probably did, I tried some games not in the whitelist. Mortal Kombat trilogy, for laughs. It did not start. Similar outcome for SpeedBall 2 HD: it launched but was stuck on a black screen. I had some hopes for KOTOR since it should work in WINE. Bad luck, I faced strange glitches with only the upper part of the screen showing up. Unplayable. All right.

Then came Mirror’s Edge. This one was an interesting tale of success and failure at the same time. TDLR it works fine, but you need extra steps. The problem was with the installation process. I launched Mirror’s Edge right after the download was complete, in Big Picture mode and it appeared to be stuck in “running” mode. Yet I could see absolutely nothing on screen. No new window spawned. Strange! I had no idea why. After a quick reboot, I launched it once more, this time out of Big Picture Mode, and the issue revealed itself: the game install process required some additional user input before it could finish (license agreement or something). I am pretty sure there are quite a few titles like that, and Valve will have to automate/tweak the install process for about every game out there to handle automatically such user prompts, or at least make them visible in Big Picture Mode.

Before, installing a Steam game from WINE used to be a real pain in the ass. I don’t know if you remember such times, but you had to create WINE prefixes, install Steam with a bunch of winetrickery and additional scripts, and pray that everything would work as a charm. Rinse and repeat with new prefixes in case some setups were incompatible with your existing instance. Then the situation became a little better with Lutris, which pretty much automated the whole process for a bunch of games, thanks to community maintained scripts. Of course, we could mention PlayonLinux as well, but they fall in the same category and Lutris has become the clear winner in that area. PoL is pretty much dead. Still, Lutris had to create it own set of launchers, out of Steam, for you to launch games, which was not ideal if you wanted to use Steam as a hub. So Valve has now improved on it, and simplified things a lot further, with a solution that almost looks like a single click. We are 95% there - the 5% left, i.e. to take care of remaining bugs, inconsistencies, issues with WINE or other frameworks, is still going to take a lot of work. It’s feasible to be good, but very hard to be just perfect.

From the standpoint of Linux users, it’s probably never been as good as now: we have been used to living with pain. But now is not the time to communicate widely to folks coming from other platforms that “Linux can run Windows games like it’s native”, because the reality is far more nuanced. It is still a long, very long way from being a console-like experience, even for white-listed games at the moment.

Here’s to hoping for more rigorous testing so we can consider Proton almost as good as a tailored port for each white-listed game.

But let’s face it: it can only get better from there on!