A Quick Look at openSUSE For Gaming

I’ve been trying SUSE as my main distribution and that’s something that hasn’t happened in my life since 1996. Even worse, this distro impressed me, a hardcore Debian nerd, quite a lot.

But why go distro hopping at all? Because Canonical very boldly decided to drop support for using 32-bit executables (and libraries) in Ubuntu starting as early as October 2019. That means that potentially thousands of games will no longer work, and it prompted Valve to drop support for Ubuntu in Steam. Valve is arguably the most important contributor to Linux gaming, so this is a big deal and a good enough reason to look at distros other than Ubuntu.

I had only switched to Ubuntu four months ago, so now it might be time to switch again.

Why not go back to Debian?

Debian has robust multiarch support and no intentions of dropping it. But there is one big issue: If you run a FOSS graphics stack (which mostly means an AMD or Intel GPU), you will want the very latest Mesa. On Debian there is no easy way to get that.

You can compile it yourself, but then you have to also cross-compile for 32-bit, and I just can’t be arsed. I did it once and I’d rather just be a lazy bugger and leave this to some automated build system somewhere. That’s where SUSE’s OBS comes into play, but more on that later. OBS in this case stands for Open Build Service, not the Open Broadcaster Software you might know from OBS Studio.

Criteria for a gaming distro

These are purely subjective:

  • Easy access to the following:
    • Steam
    • Lutris
    • WINE (latest dev version)
    • Mesa (latest stable is enough)
  • Reasonably up to date KDE/Plasma
  • Newish kernel, 5.0+ at the time of writing
  • AMD GPU firmware at least up to Vega 64
  • Not too frequent updates to the base system, keeping things stable with few surprises

How openSUSE fares so far

There were two choices at the start: Leap or Tumbleweed. Leap is a more stable, older base using some sort of magical semi-fixed hybrid release cycle probably powered by unicorns. I’m not exactly sure how I would get up to date stuff on that and its Mesa seemed awfully old, so I went with Tumbleweed. Despite being a rolling release distro, they have a built-in QA process running on openQA. This should help prevent some regressions and general mayhem. There are other rolling-release distros that just shit out their packages as soon as they even manage to compile, so this difference was important to me.

I won’t bore you with too many installation details, but the openSUSE installer offers an extremely large variety of options including disk encryption, RAID setup, wireless LAN support, ability to customize every little detail of your fstab entries and much more. Some of this would even be hard when using the Debian installer, so kudos there. I can only think of a single option that is missing: disabling the GRUB2 graphical console mode. This mode fucks up some Intel GPUs mightily so I would have preferred to be able to go text-mode from the start. You can fix it after the first boot, though.

My desktop with Lutris, Steam and a bunch of games. I never do much tweaking, Plasma defaults are fine

What makes me immensely happy is that most of the building blocks for my perfect gaming machine are available right from the main repository. If I want to be bold, I can even use Mesa from experimental with just one click.

These experimental packages are semi-supported, as far as I understand, coming from the X11:Xorg project within openSUSE itself. There are also versions built by normal openSUSE users, and if you choose one of those you can go all the way up to the latest Mesa from git. The Ubuntu equivalent of that would be to use the padoka unstable PPA or oibaf.

Some leightweight repository juggling

An issue I stumbled upon was that H.264 video decoding is not included in the main repo for patent reasons. Software patents are an utterly ludicrous idea, and here this manifests again. I had to add the Packman Essentials repository and get ffmpeg, VLC etc. from there. Let’s hope one day all these patents at least get assigned to a licensing pool such as the Open Invention Network and none of this bullshit is necessary anymore.

That being said, I was surprised that adding a repo, trusting its GPG key and installing software from it is a simple one-handed activity on openSUSE. No fiddling with PPAs, no adding repos to your /etc/apt/sources.list.d. One click in the browser, one click to trust the repo key, one click to install. If the installation brings any consequences for other packages you already have installed, you will be presented with a very reasonable decision dialog not unlike what synaptic or aptitude might do on Debian.

A typical zypper decision dialog. Screenshot stolen from Dedoimedo

As an example, when I installed ffmpeg from Packman, the dialog asked me whether I want to also switch the vendor of some of the already installed (and dependent) packages away from openSUSE and towards Packman instead.

On Debian-based distros, getting multiple repositories integrated well can be hard and it can also break an openSUSE system when done wrong. But I appreciate the level at which the system informs the user: not too much, not too little. The user always has a choice and can take a step back and cancel out without breaking anything if something seems wrong.

I also saw that automatic snapshotting before and after upgrades is available. Theoretically you should always be able to save yourself even if you mess up completely. But since I use neither btrfs nor LVM, I couldn’t test this functionality.

Long-term experience

I don’t have any, I’m only two days into this. That’s why I asked around on IRC. On Freenode’s #gamingonlinux, Muvon53 has been using Tumbleweed for gaming for two months and so far no surprises. Packages are released quickly and upgrades went without problems. They would recommend it as an everyday distro for advanced users.

Over on #suse, meanwhile, they tell me that Tumbleweed’s quality is a well-guarded secret and that I’m not supposed to tell anyone about it. Consider that done, then.

In the GamingOnLinux (GOL) Discord there are a bunch of longtime openSUSE users, and since it’s a gaming community I would hazard a guess that they play games on openSUSE sometimes.

However, the GOL user statistics show a slight downward trend for openSUSE. Maybe Canonical just helped reverse this.

Summary

I am more pleased with openSUSE Tumbleweed for gaming than I expected going into this. All the components I need are there and I have the option to use a bleeding-edge Mesa if I so desire. I will give this more time and might put out an update to this article in a year or so.

Other gaming distros

By “gaming distro” I just mean one that fulfills the criteria above, or that at least has an up to date kernel/Mesa. I’ve seen people mention the following since Canonical’s 32-bitocalpyse:

Which all seem to fit the bill. I may try some of them specifically for gaming, and if I do I’ll put something up here.

I’ve tried Arch and Manjaro in the past and gaming is alright on them, but they simply aren’t my cup of tea. So it’ll be a race between Fedora, MX Linux and Solus.

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