What Does Linux Get Out of SteamOS?

Liam Dawe on the lack of good news coming out of Valve regarding their Linux-based Steam Machines in the past year, compared to the overall state of health for Linux as a gaming platform:

We haven’t had developers like Aspyr Media and Feral Interactive support us for very long, and with their commitment to our platform with their current catalogue and teased future games, we still have a lot of higher-budget games to look forward to. For the short time they have supported our platform we have already gained some massive games, and they haven’t even been supporting us for a year yet. Both of their first Linux games came to us last summer, so that’s a bit premature to call Linux/SteamOS gaming dead or dying when in the last part of 2014 we gained some huge releases.

Who could honestly say at the start of last year they would think Linux would see a same-day release for a game like Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel? No one, Linux gaming improves month after month with not just the number, but the quality of games we are seeing.

We are a small platform, and no one should think that pumping out a Linux version is suddenly going to make them rich. It’s all about understanding the market, we pay well for good-quality games that are fun to play. We are still starving for certain game genre’s like MMORPG’s or more realistic shooters, to which we have hardly any. Porting games to Linux can also help to make your code cleaner, and help the overall portability of it to other platforms.

About a year ago I was at Valve’s Steam Dev Days conference. Some people gave talks on how Valve was monetizing teens, others spoke about cool VR stuff. My personal interest was in the talks on Linux.

In order to convince developers to bring their games to Linux and specifically Valve’s SteamOS Linux distribution, about 11 of the 27 talks given at the conference were directly or indirectly discussing SteamOS, Linux, OpenGL, SDL (the portability layer that is behind most cross-platform PC games), or Steam Machines in general.

Valve also gave every Steam Dev Days attendee a Gigabyte brix Steam Machine, it is a pre-release product that included a USB stick loaded with the beta installer of SteamOS. The brix is a petite thing about the size of a few books stacked up. It’s built-in cooling system sounds like a VTOL jet taking off whenever it’s rendering anything using the pint-sized intel graphics accelerator.

A few times every month I fire my brix up my so that it can get whatever updates Valve releases for their still-in-beta SteamOS distro and see what games have been brought over. Some of those games work fine, some don’t quite get along with those intel graphics on this particular Steam Machine. When the real Machines eventually ship, they’ll have different hardware and presumably a non-beta Steam OS.

That commitment from Valve, a company built by former Microsoft employees, was a huge payoff for spending about 15 years involved with free software and Linux gaming. At dev days I definitely got my hopes up about the Steam Machines’ potential for revitalizing what had been, up until Valve got involved, a mostly quiet period for games being released on Linux after Loki and Linux Game Publishing had both kicked the bucket.

Liam points out in his article which you should read in full, we’ve seen Feral and Aspyr step up along with the developers of over 900 other games and decide to bring their games to Linux.

Despite the conference, and the 900+ games, there still hasn’t been a landslide of developer interest and any official Steam machine release seemed to be dead in the water until Valve posted this website that indicates they’ll have more news at GDC next month. Those 900+ game releases are more like a steady stream from the few developers who had their “come to jesus” moment like with Gearbox and Borderlands.

Here’s what I’m wondering though, what happens when those Steam Machines actually ship and supposing Valve convinces a landslide of developers to release their games for Steam OS: will it benefit desktop Linux use? Or is this another Android where Linux desktop  users don’t see any benefit?

SteamOS uses the Linux kernel and Debian’s APT packaging and distribution for the basic functionality until  it merrily skips the desktop and launches directly into Steam’s big picture mode. There is an exit-to-desktop option in SteamOS, but like installing apps outside of the Google Play store in Android, it isn’t obvious how to get there and once you are on the desktop installing programs is currently a pain in the ass.

The real benefit to desktop Linux could be a side-effect. There’s no distinction, as far as Steam’s distribution is concerned, between SteamOS and Steam installed on Linux desktops. When a game is released for one it is available on the other. A side benefit is to new game developers who could get their start by moving the Steam Machine from the living room to a desk and install free game development tools like Blender and the best first person shooter engine ever. It would be tremendously valuable to Linux if people end up doing that and even better if Valve supports new game developers to do the one thing they can’t with any console, making games on the system that plays them.

I hope that Steam Machines do come to market and offer people a genuine alternative to Windows for gaming, but unless Valve makes it easier to go to the desktop Liam will still be right:

SteamOS and Steam Machines are complementary to Linux Gaming, but they aren’t Linux Gaming.

Author: Jack Slater

A Philadelphian exiled to Hawaii. You can follow or contact me on Twitter where I’m @TimeDoctor, via the contact page, or via e-mail to zjs AT zacharyjackslater dot com

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One thought on “What Does Linux Get Out of SteamOS?”

  1. You summarized it up pretty succinctly. This is the exact issue I worry about. Meanwhile, it’s kind of fun and scary watching yet another industry wrap its tentacles into every layer of our beloved OS.

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