Distributing a game on Linux can be a little intimidating, and there are definitely pitfalls. The main problem is making sure your game runs on all of your users' machines, and outside of hardware and drivers, the root of the problem is usually one of two things:

  1. You make an assumption about what libraries are present on the system.
  2. You make an assumption about what version of a library is present on the system.

This is very easy to accidentally do, as adding -lSDL2 to the linker’s command line might work perfectly fine on your machine, but you forgot that you installed SDL2 by hand 4 months ago. Another cause could be that while your Linux distribution came with SDL2 preinstalled, another distribution (that your users use) might not. Finally, maybe your distribution came with v2 of some library, but your users only have v1.

The best way to avoid this is to make your game distribution “hermetic,” meaning that it contains all of its own dependencies. There are two main ways to achieve this:

  1. Statically linking with all of your dependencies.
  2. Dynamically linking with all of your dependencies, and pointing the system’s runtime loader at a copy of the libraries you bundle with your game.

Statically linking comes with its own set of problems, so this post talks about solving the problem with dynamic linking.

Introducing the steam-runtime

It turns out that Valve has already solved this problem in Steam with something called the steam-runtime. Contrary to what its name indicates, it has no direct dependency on Steam nor does it even assume that it is installed. It is merely a controlled set of open source libraries (with some patches) and associated tools to use those libraries - to make your game build hermetic.

If your game is running under Steam, you don’t need to do much. Build your game with the steam-runtime SDK, make sure all of your dependencies exist inside of the runtime, and ship the game binaries to Steam. On the receiving end, Steam will make sure that your users have the latest version of the steam-runtime, and execute your game inside of it.

If you, like many others, also distribute your game outside of Steam, you’ll need to find another solution. The obvious solution is to build on their work - it’s an open source project that solves the problem perfectly!

(Update: If you want to cut directly to the proposed solution, read my follow-up post on the details of using the steam-runtime without depending on Steam.)

Workings of the steam-runtime

When I say that your game is executed “inside” of the runtime when launched through Steam, I specifically mean that:

This way, your game suddenly prefers the runtime versions of libraries rather than your own. It’s worth noting that if your game depends on a library that is not present in the runtime, but the user has it installed on their system, your game will run without error. This is something to be wary of, since you don’t know what version of the library you’re getting, and it’ll fail to execute on some users' systems.

The runtime SDK is just a set of tools that have been told to look for libraries and headers inside the SDK rather than in the system directories, so that the linker and compiler knows about the right version of the libraries.

Contents of the runtime

Since the steam-runtime doesn’t require Steam, let’s take a look at what the runtime contains, and see if there’s a way to use this in our non-Steam distributions.

You can find the runtime binaries hosted on the Steam CDN as a tar archive: http://media.steampowered.com/client/runtime/steam-runtime-release_latest.tar.xz

I’ve provided a script on GitHub that you can use to make sure you have the latest runtime downloaded to the current directory. The helper script is update_runtime.sh.

The runtime tar archive contains some helper scripts, and the various files needed for each library, as well as the libraries themselves. For each library, there’s a 32bit version (in the i386 directory) and a 64bit version (in the amd64 directory.)

Surprisingly enough, the runtime also contains (as of 2014-05-26) the documentation needed for each library, which takes up almost half of the space required by an extracted version of the runtime. To strip out the documentation, and extract just the architecture you care about, I’ve written another little helper script called extract_runtime.sh.

With this script, you’ll be left with about ~100MB of libraries per architecture. You can probably tailor the set of libraries for your title to reduce the size even further, but that’s left as an exercise for the reader.


The Steam runtime is a useful collection of libraries that helps solve the important problem of operating system fragmentation (different Linux distributions, different versions). It has a lot of value outside of Steam as well, and should be trivially re-usable for your non-Steam distribution.

Update: In the follow-up post, I cover the details of distributing a game that relies on the steam-runtime to hermetically seal its environment, without depending on Steam.