Of valve Steam Deck Handheld PC caused quite a stir among PC gaming fanatics, but the biggest shake-up may not be its form factor similar to Nintendo Switch. The software running inside is the real treat. Why is Steam Deck running Linux? Windows’ fault.
The Steam Deck and the software within it are the culmination of a “hedging strategyundertaken by Valve chief Gabe Newell and company many moons ago as Microsoft sought to exert more control over developers with Windows 8.
But it’s also the next phase of Valve’s escape plan.
Editor’s note: With the Asus ROG Ally looks like a potential true competitor to Steam Deck and escapes of a “Windows handheld mode“going the rounds, we wanted to repeat this analysis of how Valve laid the long-term foundation for Steam Deck. Original story continues below; was released on August 6, 2021, before Steam Deck launched, hence the stats and comments on Proton specific edges may no longer apply. (SteamOS now supports Easy Anti-Cheat software and BattlEyeFor example.)
Windows 10 ironed out the worst sins of Windows 8so you may not remember how different it is… or “a catastrophe”, to use Newell’s words, that operating system was when it was launched in 2012.
Windows 8 went out of its way to make the mobile UI a priority, relegating the desktop to the status of “just another app” in a screen full of colored tiles. More ominously, the Windows Store launched alongside the operating system, with strict requirements on the types of software it allows and a hefty fee similar to what Apple and Google charge for inclusion in their app stores. Developers feared that Microsoft would become increasingly draconian in its rules. Their concerns were heightened by the simultaneous launch of Windows RT, an Arm-based version of Windows that restricted user usage only software sanctioned by the Windows Store. (RT quickly faded away.)
Devoted PC game developers felt especially anxious. Newell called it “a giant sadness.” Blizzard Executive Vice President Rob Pardo tweeted that Windows 8 is “not great for Blizzard eitherin the wake of Newell’s ‘catastrophe’ comment. Minecraft creator Markus “Notch” Persson told Microsoft to “stop trying to screw up pc as an open platform” when asked to certify the game for Windows 8.
While Notch ironically sold Minecraft to Microsoft for $2.5 billion just a couple of years later, Newell and Valve reacted to “catastrophe” as most sane people would: prepare for disaster, so that we aren’t caught off guard if Microsoft decides to ball its fist around the open PC ecosystem.
The SteamOS Escape
Windows 8 was launched on August 1, 2012. As of December 2013, Valve introduced SteamOS to the masses.
Well, not really. The beta version of the Steam-centric OS required arcane technical knowledge to install, and Valve itself warned that “unless you’re already an intrepid Linux hacker, you’ll want to wait until late 2014 to give it a try. ” The OS certainly had a lot of rough edges out of the gate – it worked only with Nvidia GPUs, for example, but Valve has worked diligently to perfect them. By October 2015, Launch of Valve’s steam engines.
It has failed. Difficult.
THE The Steam Machine venture was doomed from the start, and explained why they would do it even before launch. There were several reasons: delays, poor communication from Valve, a new unorthodox Steam Controller required to use PCs, the simultaneous launch of the More versatile Steam Linkand a “good, better, better” branding strategy for steam engine makers that has sown further confusion. But in retrospect the biggest problem was SteamOS itself.
SteamOS could only run Linux games, you see. And gaming on Linux was bad in 2015. I used to maintain a list of the best Linux games why so few developers have bothered to port Linux. Getting the games to work often required exotic workarounds and third-party tools, and even then, working games at all he often ran in jerks. Again: Unsurprisingly, Steam Machine failed.
Valve has learned its lesson. You don’t stop planning for a disaster just because you hit speed bumps. After the death of the Steam Machines, something far more important and key to the Steam Deck’s existence rose from their ashes.
Proton: Linux Lessons Learned
If developers didn’t make games for Linux, Valve decided they would invest in making them windows instead the games run on Linux. In 2018, Valve introduced Proton, a fork of the popular WINE compatibility layer that allows Linux PCs to play Windows games. (If you’re not familiar with WINE, consider yourself lucky.)
“There’s always been this classic chicken-and-egg problem with the Steam Machine,” said Valve designer Scott Dalton ign. “That led us down this path of Proton, where now there are all these games that actually work.”
Proton was truly a game changer. Where before Linux gaming was an almost arid desert, Proton was the water it desperately needed. Thousands and thousands of Windows games could do this just be played on Linux PCs now, some tweaking is sometimes needed, natch. Over the past few years, Valve (with help from the WINE experts at CodeWeavers) has been working hard to fix the most glaring issues. In 2018, our curated list of the best Linux games topped the 35 titles. Right now, the community is managed ProtonDB website is tracking nearly 19,000 Proton-compatible games, and over 15,000 of them run flawlessly on Linux.
The technology still isn’t Enough perfect, as our look at how Proton will make or break the Steam Deck details in more detail. Most popular multiplayer shooters don’t work on Linux because BattlEye and Easy Anti-Cheat are not compatible with Proton. Valve says it’s working with those studios to get support for the technology ahead of Steam Deck’s launch. If the past is any indication, Valve will eventually get it right. (Update: He did it.)
The Steam Deck is a Trojan horse
Valve isn’t just pushing a portable gaming PC. Gabe Newell and company are still preparing for a potential catastrophe. While you can look at Steam Deck as the culmination of nearly a decade of work for Valve, you can also look at it in the other direction. If Steam Deck is successful, it will force developers to pay more attention to Linux, or at least consider Proton compatibility when coding. With every game that runs well on the Steam Deck, Valve’s escape hatch opens a few inches wider.
“We’re trying to make sure Linux thrives,” Newell said Adventure joke shortly before the launch of Windows 8 in 2012. “…We will continue to work with the Linux distribution guys, distributing Steam, distributing our games, and making it as easy as possible for everyone who engages with us, by putting their games on Steam and get those to work on Linux as well.
The Steam Deck—and Proton before that, and Steam Machines before that, and SteamOS before that That— take home that Valve still has its eye on the prize… and potential disaster. Without Windows 8, the Steam Deck as we know it would never exist, and Linux games would be nowhere near as vibrant as they are today.
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