The people working on Valve’s Steam Deck had a lot of complicated hardware and software hurdles to overcome in order for it to just be a functional handheld gaming computer. My guess is that the biggest hurdle after everything else is probably Valve’s WINE-fork, Proton. Fortunately, Valve can continue to update Proton after the Steam Deck was released. Unfortunately, I don’t think they will undo the damage they’ve caused to the people who were porting games to Linux natively for two decades. Windows compatibility layers like Proton will also never provide perfectly accurate Windows operating system compatibility and it’s gotten to the point where Bungie is threatening to ban users who try to play Destiny 2 through Proton. That’s not entirely unreasonable from their perspective running a multiplayer game, but it stinks for Destiny 2 players.
Aperture Desk Job reimagines the been-there-done-that genre of walking simulators and puts them in the lightning-spanked, endorphin-gorged world of sitting still behind things.
You play as an entry-level nobody on their first day at work — your heart full of hope and your legs full of dreams, eager to climb that corporate ladder. But life’s got other plans, and they all involve chairs.
Designed as a free playable short for Valve’s new Steam Deck, Desk Job walks you through the handheld’s controls and features, while not being nearly as boring as that sounds.
If Aperture Desk Job is a native Linux game, great, if it’s running in Proton this will be a bad harbinger for what’s to come in terms of Valve supporting Linux.
That magic comes with caveats: the (hot) fan runs loudly and constantly, even when idling; the battery life is all over the place and rarely lasts more than a few hours on games that are modestly taxing to the hardware; it’s large and awkward to hold. But time and time again, it accomplished a simple but complicated task: play games wherever I want, whenever I want. It suggests a world that broadens the definition of a “PC gamer,” making it less about how much you overspent on a GPU and more about PC gaming’s other biggest benefit: freedom.
I think that freedom is a great way to think about it, a handheld gaming computer that ships with Linux, starts at $400 and isn’t locked to just running Valve’s software is potentially very freeing compared to what people are used to from consoles and it’s a great option for beleaguered people who are interested in computer gaming but can’t buy the parts because they’re too expensive and unavailable.
What’s harder to predict is how quickly Valve will expand its selection of ‘Verified’ games that it has tested and declared to be ‘Great on Deck.’ Out of the 540 games in my Steam library, the number of Verified games has crawled from 40 to 59 since I got the Deck. SteamDB notes that fewer than 500 of Steam’s nearly 65,000 games have earned the badge. Another 350+ games have been marked as Unsupported. There’s simply no way the Deck comes anywhere close to Valve’s goal of playing every game on Steam in the near future.
Still, Valve will let you install any game in your library and give it a shot—you can even choose to boot a game with a specific older version of Proton (the software that makes Windows games work on SteamOS) if you’re the type to read through bug forums and think Dragon’s Dogma will run better on Proton 5.13-6, for example. Of the dozens of games I’ve tried that Valve has yet to verify, almost all of them have worked just fine.
I still believe that any game working with a Windows compatibility layer is a coincidence and that seems to still be true given these reviews. A user shouldn’t need to roll back to an earlier version of Proton or even know what Proton is, and I’m concerned that Valve may still be pushing game developers towards Proton instead of native Linux game ports. That puts developers like Ethan Lee out of a job, which is absolutely horrible to think about. It is also not great for Linux as a platform and the Steam Deck overall because game compatibility will continue to get worse over time as games that were once Deck Verified could become broken due to Proton changing.
Games that were ported natively to Linux also break over time, but I believe that’s a slower process and less likely to happen without underlying hardware changes like the move from 32 to 64bit architectures. I doubt many of Loki’s software from 1999 and 2000 runs smoothly today without some work, but that’s also true of some games from that era on Windows natively. It would be curious to test games from that era in Proton. Stuff like Heavy Gear 2, and especially something like Quake 3 that has a native port of that era, a Windows version, and later became open source. It’s wild that game console emulators are a more stable platform than Windows compatibility layers like Proton and they also run great on the Steam Deck according to Fenlon:
I ran into a few other issues here and there that were simply quirks of emulation and not unique to the Steam Deck, but on the whole it’s been as smooth as I could’ve hoped. The one emulator I didn’t test is Yuzu, simply because I don’t have any Switch games ripped (guess I have some jailbreaking to do). But I now have Super Nintendo, PS1, PS2, PSP, GameCube and Wii games on a portable device with the power to play (almost) all of them, and this is before emulator developers have a chance to test the Steam Deck themselves. It’s a damn good start.
I hope to check in with Ethan Lee and other developers again soon. If you’re a game developer with thoughts about the Steam Deck and Linux, or someone who is on the fence about keeping their pre-order for the Steam Deck due to Proton, please get in touch. I don’t have a Steam Deck yet so I can’t speak from personal experience with the hardware and software combination, but I’ve been writing about Linux for over 20 years now.
Valve published this video to YouTube today demonstrating how to open up a pre-production Steam Deck, replace the custom analog stick modules, as well as the SSD, and very much warning against doing so:
I’m not sure how I feel about the warnings. In the past I’ve definitely felt bad about breaking or inadequately modifying things that I’m working on but that is also a necessary part of learning how to modify, fix, and build electronics. The parts in modern electronics are delicate and often made to be unserviceable by the companies who design them, this is “for our protection” as users but it is also clearly for their benefit. The longer things are usable and repairable, the less money these companies make on new sales.
That also doesn’t mean the executives at these companies want users to have a bad experience. I can’t be sure of this, but from my experiences my understanding is that these decision makers want users to have a great experience and be motivated to upgrade by new features as well as repairs that are so expensive they make recycling broken hardware a better option.
Valve is also not in a great position with regard to supporting the users of their hardware but may be getting better. It’s one thing for a huge company like Apple who has physical retail stores to lock users out of repairs, there is an argument there that I disagree with from Apple that Apple can provide the best support. Valve has none of that retail presence to repair, replace, and even just troubleshoot hardware near their users. I think that’s why they made this video, essentially arming the more experienced hardware repair technicians to have access to repair these devices when they start breaking down. Valve even makes a promise in the video about upcoming Steam Deck part availability for people doing repairs.
As an example, according to a friend in Australia all Valve hardware sales and returns are done through the local EB Games chain. Apple does the same thing. In several countries where Apple does not have a physical retail presence they train third parties in how to service iPhones, iPads, and Macs. I once started but did not complete that training before my life took me elsewhere.
There are also still criticisms I have about Valve’s attitude regarding Linux porting which, to the best of my knowledge, is still putting people who are in the business of porting games to Linux natively out of work as well as advising developers not to port games natively and instead relay on Valve’s Proton Windows API compatibility layer/emulation to make games run under Linux.
The one “bright spot” in the Steam Deck’s software support is that Epic’s Easy Anti-Cheat middleware is promising Linux support. Previously, anti-cheat middleware locked out some Linux users running games under any Windows API Compatibility layer/emulation like Valve’s Proton and simply wasn’t available for native ports. Now, Epic has promised that Easy Anti-Cheat is available for both Native Linux and Mac game ports, including the Linux-based Steam Deck, and will be supported in WINE and Valve’s Proton. Unfortunately the decision to allow WINE and Proton to run these games is still only in the hands of developers and publishers who may not be interested in providing any support to Linux and macOS, quoting Epic:
To make it easy for developers to ship their games across PC platforms, support for the Wine and Proton compatibility layers on Linux is included. Starting with the latest SDK release, developers can activate anti-cheat support for Linux via Wine or Proton with just a few clicks in the Epic Online Services Developer Portal.
This makes it more likely that games using Easy Anti-Cheat will be able to support WINE or Proton, assuming business interests about support costs and other middleware doesn’t get in the way, but when those games get that support the compatibility is a coincidence that can disappear with any future updates.
Valve is still the wrong company to be making hardware and software decisions that affect the rest of the game industry. Valve are presumably, by majority of their income, a store for third parties. The people running stores have different motivations from places that exclusively make and sell hardware products and what software decisions are best for developers. Although I think the people who work at Valve clearly are trying to make the Steam Deck as open as possible and often do make the best decisions for developers and users, the motivations of people running a store are to sell things, maximize their own profit, and not to make good products for the overall health of an industry of developers who are still overworked, abused, not organized, and ruined by the success of the wealthy who are making decisions for the rest.
There is nothing the workers at Valve can do to change that unless they are organized to reject the false non-hierarchical model of Valve’s workplace, gain equal decision making abilities, and their independence from the store business.
The first Steam Decks are still supposedly shipping before the end of the year. Valve has never responded to any of my requests for comment. If you’re a game developer who is interested in commenting on this story please feel free to comment below or get in touch over E-Mail. My address is email@example.com.