I spoke with Ryan C. Gordon, a renowned Linux developer for the past 22 years, today over a text chat to get his thoughts on the Steam Deck and native Linux ports in the light of Valve’s call for developers not to port games to Linux and instead rely on their Proton fork of WINE and other tools.
I’ve been writing with skepticism on the subject of Windows API compatibility layers for about 19 of those years. Originally I wrote about WINE and it’s successors on the precursor to this site, and then professionally for LinuxGames.com.
Gordon is also a personal friend, and we’ve worked together on open-source projects like ioquake3 so take that as a caveat though our views differ strongly on the outcomes of Windows API compatibility layers in terms of how they help or hurt Linux as a desktop operating system.
The new handheld Steam Deck computer runs Valve’s SteamOS 3.0 when it ships later this year, and is backordered already into 2022. Rumored reservation figures for the first hours of the Steam Deck’s sales are a little above 100,000, not including numbers for the cheapest 64GB model, but that’s before users are asked for more than the refundable $5 and before a wider swath of new users had access to pre-order the device yesterday. Please note that Gordon had not seen these rumored sales figures when we had this conversation.
Here’s Gordon’s response to my question about the situation with Valve asking developers not to port games to Linux, names and my follow-up questions are in bold. The italic emphasis are Gordon’s except for where I’ve italicized product names.
Ryan Gordon: I get why Valve did this; their biggest strength is the massive Steam catalog and millions of users that have accumulated a big personal library, so it would be silly to launch a device that can’t access it.
But this can be a positive thing.
We are no longer talking about people running Linux as their primary desktop to compete here. We are no longer talking about how many people found a machine to install SteamOS on.
We’re now talking about concrete sales numbers for a game console.
And maybe someday down the road, if this is wildly successful, we tell people that it’s a no-brainer to target 18 bazillion Linux users that aren’t Linux users so much as customers reliably running a Linux-based game console. The end result for you and me—clicking “install” in our desktop Steam client—is the same, even if it took millions of unaware and uninterested other people to get us there.
In that sense, it’s a better outcome than Nintendo building their next thing on Linux but requiring you to play on a Switch 2, or whatever.
Not to mention the thing encourages side loading. You want your itch.io games on the hardware. Easy. You want to emulate other consoles? Cool. You want to plug in a keyboard and write a Linux game? Do it! A wildly-popular Steam Deck opens up more Linux gaming options even if everything Valve supplies runs on Proton.
Even in the short term, one can always make the argument: okay, sure, your Windows game runs here, but you want more performance, more control, and no worries that Proton didn’t quite paper over some Windows thing weirdly? Then stop letting Valve treat your game like some RetroPie target and do a real Linux port. That choice is available to you now, almost six months before anyone will hold a Steam Deck.
I don’t know what the future holds, but this is the time to hustle more at this potential opportunity, not have a funeral for Linux gaming.
Jack Slater: I feel like we had this enthusiasm before for console-like Steam Machines and our hopes were dashed but we don’t know exactly what the failure was there. OEMs got burned in the end, and Valve has completely given up on those Debian-based foundations of SteamOS and moved to Arch Linux. Their game library is portable by Proton and even native games are unlikely to need any help to run on the new SteamOS 3.0 (excepting any new features both Valve and the developers want to support save syncing is one example here) so the move doesn’t really seem to affect game developers. Do you believe that we won’t see a repeat of Valve’s failures here with the Steam Machines and the other now discontinued hardware products (Controller, Link…)?
Gordon: These are good questions that I don’t know the answer to.
The optimistic view is that obviously Valve couldn’t wave a magic wand and make everyone ship Linux games no matter how much we wanted it to work that way, but it’s possible we look back at this history and see they chipped away at the resistance to the market over time.
First the Steam client, then SteamOS and Steam Machines, then the Steam Deck, over time it just might become an inevitability.
But also maybe not. I really don’t know.
That was the end of our discussion about the situation for now.
I am personally still very disturbed by the idea of Proton keeping Linux as a weird layer in a chain that doesn’t really matter to the end user at all. It’s not as bad to me as Streaming platforms like Stadia that “run Linux” but the end-user would never know. The Steam Deck at least lets users access the Linux desktop and do what they want at that point.
To be fair, I’m not sure most people playing games on Windows care about Windows except to get annoyed when something changes or breaks. More and more work for fun or for pay is also being done on mobile devices. There are people who do all of that on an iPad and then only use a computer running Windows to play games and I’m not sure they would care very much if the operating system underneath were running Linux except if it caused them any hassle. Clearly I’m in the same camp, at the end of the day. As I’m another person who put down $5 on a Steam Deck even though the entire process of gaming on it will involve the Windows layer I think ruins Linux. I pre-ordered because it does something I want in playing these games portably, the device is also perfect for emulating older game consoles and cheaper than its competitors (The Ava Neo, One XPlayer, GPD Win, etc).
Gordon’s pitch here is that there still will be a use for native Linux games, and that is also his work. Gordon is typically contracted by game developers and publishers and platforms to port games to Linux. Gordon’s resume most likely has the most years in porting games to Linux and now he also runs a successful Patreon crowdfunding campaign.