The Steam Deck handheld gaming computer from Valve is finally shipping to users who pre-ordered it last year, and final reviews are going up.
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.