Our good friend Jim Pezzetti of Unicorn Soup has been there, done that on the Linux gaming scene. He shares his thoughts on how to get in on it, and what SteamOS means for the future of the DIYers. This is the first entry in our State of the User series, exploring where gamers are now in terms of hardware, and where they plan to go this next generation.

Consoles offer a relatively worry-free solution to gaming; however, this ease of use comes with a cost. Indie games, mods, custom and fan-made maps, alternative distribution methods, backwards-compatibility and unusual or highly customized control schemes are all off the table, as well as reasonable pricing.

PC gaming has all of those things at the cost of requiring the user to learn how her system works (to a small degree), so that he can modify it to run a recalcitrant game. The less the user knows about tinkering under the hood, the more he will have to shell out to upgrade hardware to keep his frames flowing smoothly.

In the console world, you either have the console that will run the game, or you don’t. In the PC world, it’s a bit more of a continuum. Tweaks and tinkering can make a game run on a machine that doesn’t quite fit the recommended specs. Games can be run flawlessly, or run with some number of sacrifices at varying levels of quality, if the hardware or software is not exactly supported.

Linux gaming has the same spectrum as PC gaming, only with a greater number of titles that might require tinkering, because most AAA titles aren’t released for Linux. This doesn’t mean they’re off limits. It means you fire up Wine and emulate Windows. Users should also be a little more careful purchasing hardware for Linux machines – it’s not going to say on the box whether your new treasure will run smoothly with Linux. The vast majority of equipment out there will be fine – but not everything will run at peak performance in a non-Windows environment.

Won't you let this spunky little fellow onto your computer?

Won’t you let this spunky little fellow onto your computer?

Windows isn’t the only environment that can be emulated. I’ve recently been experimenting with running my old PS2 games on my Linux box, now that my console isn’t performing properly. NES, Super NES, Genesis – pretty much all the old consoles can be emulated in Linux, as well as older operating systems, MS-DOS included.

I switched to Linux years ago because I was sick of Windows breaking and bogging down constantly, and unwilling to continue upgrading hardware – not because the old component was broken, but because Windows considered it obsolete (in other words, Microsoft’s sloppy “one size fits all” approach was increasing their demands on hardware performance exponentially). Linux systems can be tailored to do exactly what you want them to, thus avoiding bloatware, with the result of hardware performing smoothly well beyond its Windows freshness date.

This doesn’t mean you have to become some sort of guru or power user to run Linux. If you’ve got an internet connection, all the help you need to make your game run is a Google search away. Linux sports several thriving communities dedicated to helping each other. Advice for solving your problems and making your next hardware or software purchase is also abundant online. There are several different interfaces that will help you install a Windows game and configure your emulator to run it smoothly, with different degrees of hand-holding.

With Valve’s recent announcements, it seems like all of this is only going to get easier. An operating system specifically designed to run games, a line of hardware designed to flawlessly work with that operating system, and the first significant innovation in control interfaces in years? All good news for those folks who are still afraid to get their feet wet. Of those announcements, I’m most interested in Valve’s hints that they’ve got tons of AAA titles lined up to actually support the OS; I’m already a Linux gamer, so it just means more time running Steam natively, rather than in a virtual machine for those Windows games that insist on Direct X.

So if you’re interested in learning how your toys work, are able to retain bowel control at the sight of a command-line interface, and capable of making a Google search, then Linux is a viable alternative for gaming, either in the desk chair or on the couch.  Download an ISO and make a live CD or bootable USB drive, and you can take the OS out for a spin without making any changes to your hard drive.

It ain’t rocket science, and it’s only gonna get easier.