Linux has a few gaming stores now, and Steam is actually only the most recent. I attempt to take a quick look at which ones are better and which ones need improving.
Even though Steam has made quite a bit of noise since coming onto the Linux platform, believe it or not it isn’t actually the first platform to grace the Linux ecosystem. Here, I’ll review a couple of the gaming “app store” style applications on Linux, and eke out their strengths and weaknesses.
Desura is perhaps the oldest of the gaming stores on Linux. If you look at the Ubuntu Software Center in its latest incarnation, Desura may predate even that. Desura are the same guys behind moddb, so they’re a great choice for games with a lot of mods, or even many indie games.
Functionally, Desura is a lot like a simpler version of Steam. If you remove the overlay, friends list, voice, and server browsers from Steam you’d be left with Desura. Desura is mostly web-based, and the client is basically a web browser wrapped in some stuff.
The games on Desura appear to stay updated, and it appears to do a fairly good job of actually handling the updates. It also has a bunch of free games to boot! On the downside, the UI can do some strange things sometimes. I’ve clicked “install” on some games, and they won’t install. I instead have to click “play”, which will go and install the games. Despite having a bunch of free games, Desura also doesn’t do the kind of crazy discounting that Steam does from time to time. These are minor issues though, and the store itself works well enough. At the very least, Desura is a must install on your Linux box, even though you may not game on it much.
Ubuntu Software Center (hereafter USC) sits on top of Ubuntu nee Debian’s excellent apt-get package management system. It’s a pity that, despite the generally excellent performance of apt-get itself, and the complete integration that it offers with an Ubuntu system, that USC could be as bad as it is.
The biggest misstep is that the apps are almost always out of date. Shank 2 has had several updates since the Humble Indie Bundle 7, where it first appeared on Linux. However, it’s still on the very first release in USC, where many gamepads didn’t work correctly. You can see all the review comments mention this, but there’s no update.
Next is the fact that packages aren’t broken up. This means that any small change to a game means the entire package needs to be downloaded again, which could be several gigabytes. Worse is the fact that if a game is larger than a particular size (which isn’t actually very large), USC simply won’t host it.
Finally, there’s the fact that it connects using the same channels you use for getting normal software. This should be a boon — all these updates happen consistently and transparently, similar to Microsoft’s “Patch Tuesday” style setup, and there’s no risk of incompatibilities. However, this actually turns out to be a liability. The way the USC works, each new game you buy makes the update take a lot longer, maybe an extra 5 seconds per game, and that’s not even getting the update itself. Unfortunately, even to start an upgrade, you need to know what’s changed, and 5 seconds for each purchase is a huge amount of time, especially considering you need to wait for it all to finish before you figure out that you need a large security update to the core operating system. Worse, if a game actually has updated, you have to wait for it to download its multi-gigabyte package before your security update is applied!
In short, I’d just plain old stay away from USC until it’s fixed. Just don’t buy anything from there. Even the free games, if they’re available on Desura, I’d get it from there instead. It’s a pity that something as advanced and capable as apt-get has been butchered like this.
Not exactly a gaming store, but it does work as a persistent repository of the games you buy. This is inconvenient on the one hand, especially for updates, since you have to manually download the entire package on every update. However, this works when the other stores don’t — e.g. Ubuntu App Store doesn’t store large files, but HIB will just give you torrent links. If a game isn’t available on Steam, or you don’t use Steam, HIB will give you a simple URL to download from.
The only downside is that HIB doesn’t always have updates, either. The method appears to be, look for a patch on HIB, or look for a patch on the developer website from the HIB version. However, this whole DRM-Free thing really shines here. The whole process hasn’t been made more difficult than it needs to be. Just go back to the URL from where you originally downloaded the games, and re-download them (or the new versions) from there.
The HIB “store” isn’t really a solution. However, it works in a pinch, and somehow still manages to be less of a pain than the USC.
We all know Steam, love it or loathe it (or both). It both receives the latest updates, and handles them the best. It has cloud sync for saved games, too, and will let you play the same game on Windows and Mac, and may even transition saved data appropriately.
The big downside is the DRM. This isn’t such a big problem for some, and it’s a little irritating for others. It is what it is. A smaller problem is one I encountered while trying to use big picture mode “exclusively” (i.e. without a desktop manager in the way): Steam tries to be a monolithic app, but you don’t really want it to be one. Sometimes you want Mumble or TS3 alongside your gaming, and Steam makes that difficult. Steam’s “extra cruft” can sometimes cause problems or screen corruption. Mostly it just gets in the way, but then sometimes it’s useful.
Still, for most of us, Steam will be the most practical solution to a gaming store on Linux.