What Valve isn't telling you about the Steam Deck. (Saying the quiet part out loud)

What Valve isn't telling you about the Steam Deck. (Saying the quiet part out loud)
Photo by Petar Vukobrat / Unsplash

Gabe Newell; one of the top 100 wealthiest people in America. A Harvard University drop out who joined up with a company he would work at for 13 years from 1983 to 1996. And one that would ultimately prove to be one of his biggest corporate rivals: Microsoft.

Gabe has repeatedly said that he learned more in his first three months at Microsoft than in the entire time he had spent at university. As a producer at Microsoft, Gabe shepherded the first three releases of Windows, and also assisted with the port of Doom to Windows 95. Which would lead to the birth of the Windows PC gaming scene.

Gabe later co-found the privately funded Valve Software along with Mike Harrington, another ex-Microsoft employee, in 1996. Mike was quoted as saying, "At Microsoft you always wonder, 'Is it me being successful or is it Microsoft?' But with Half-Life I knew Gabe and I had built that product and company from scratch."

In the intervening time, Gabe's comments have made it clear he had a strong distaste for Microsoft. Not only would he refer to developing for the Xbox 360 as "a train wreck," but he also called Windows 8 a "catastrophe."

Windows 8 brought with it the Microsoft Store and with ultimate and not-so-secret strategy being to lock software developers and end users into a MS owned-and-operated walled garden. Thus ripping a page out of Apple's App Store playbook. Gabe rightfully saw this as a threat to Steam sales. But rather than sulk in despair and cede the market, Valve took action.

Faster Zombies

It all started with porting Left 4 Dead 2 to Linux. Valve wrote their first Linux-related blog post in July of 2012 right alongside their announcement of the Steam for Linux client. Their goal was "to have L4D2 performing under Linux as well as it performs under Windows." Just a few weeks later, after a successful attempt at making the Source engine work on Linux, they actually saw the Linux version of L4D2 running faster on OpenGL rather than on Windows' Direct3D layer. Linux saw a whopping 315 FPS, whereas Windows, saw a measly 271. Richard Geldreich, a former Valve employee would go on to remark in a personal blog post that Valve's L4D2 posts "lit a fire underneath Microsoft's executives to get their act together and keep supporting Direct3D development."

And what followed was a veritable OS arms race that played out behind the scenes; pushing both companies to provide greater support to developers and ultimately leading to a rapid maturation of Linux and free and open source software.

Steam for Linux

While Linux remained quite niche as far as gaming goes, Valve wasn't afraid to push their boundaries. On November 6, 2012, Valve released a beta version of their Steam client for Linux (at the time, Steam was only supported on Ubuntu; other distros would get support later on). Over 60k people had pledged to help by providing feedback on the beta client. Linux users were able to play Team Fortress 2, as well as a few dozen other games that were natively available on Linux. The client also included support for their new Big Picture Mode, a controller-drive user interface that signaled where Valve's ambitions were; to deliver a console-like experience to PC gamers.

Gabe announced this beta client release as "a huge milestone for the development of PC gaming" and noted Linux as being an "open, customer-friendly platform." Valve's embrace of Linux was universally seen as the company hedging not only their own bets with Steam as the premier PC gaming storefront, but also the interests of any other software developer who were concerned about Windows becoming a walled garden.

The Steam client would see a stable release a few months later in February 2013. The number of native Linux games had doubled to over 50, and Steam celebrated with a discount on those games. Valve expanded their first-party Linux support by porting Half-Life and some of the games in the Counter-Strike series. Players of Team Fortress 2 would receive an exclusive in-game item: Tux! This prompted some TF2 players to install Ubuntu on their machines, install Steam, and play a game of TF2 just to get the Tux figure.

And all this buzz about Valve supporting Linux had Canonincal--the parent company of Ubuntu--quite excited. David Pitkin, Director of Consumer Applications at the company, said that they're "looking forward to seeing AAA games developed with Ubuntu in mind as part of a multi-platform day and date release on Steam." Alen Ladavac, CTO of Croteam (responsible for the Serious Sam series) also chimed in on the importance of Steam being available on a platform other than Windows, noting that Linux is "like the indie OS -- a perfect home for our indie game."

Companies like Feral Interactive, Aspyr, and Virtual Programming would later join in on the Linux initiative. Thanks to their porting efforts, we saw big hits like GRID Autosport, Bioshock Infinite, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, and Tomb Raider come to life on the penguin-flavored OS.

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SteamOS and Steam Machines

Following the release of Steam for Linux, Valve would further strengthen their support for the open-source platform by creating a fork of Debian, dubbed "SteamOS" on December 13, 2013. After SteamOS was installed on the machine, it would run Steam in Big Picture Mode, making it easier for gaming in the living room with a gamepad.

Valve would later partner with various OEMs, including Alienware, to sell Linux-based gaming PCs running Valve's in-house OS. These PCs were dubbed "Steam Machines" and were sold in tandem with Valve's new Steam Controller and Steam Link on November 10, 2015.

Though, I think most everyone is aware of the Steam Machine disaster: less than half-a-million units were sold, and PC manufacturers would later move on from SteamOS to Windows. Even the flagship Steam Machine--the Alienware Alpha--was being shipped with a Windows variant. This was because there were just so few games natively supported on Linux. And asking your average PC gamer to sacrifice over three quarters of their Steam Library which they had amassed over the years was simply a non-starter.

But that didn't stop Valve from realizing their Linux-powered Steam console dream.

Proton - Play Windows-Based Games on Linux

As the Steam Machines had all but faded away from the Steam store, 2018 saw Valve announced Proton -- a modified version of Wine--designed to play Windows games on Linux.

To oversimplify a bit, WINE is a software stack which translates DirectX into a something Linux can understand; either OpenGL or Vulkan. There's other stuff too, like system calls and Windows libraries that get translated. But suffice it to say, DirectX gets translated to Vulkan and that's why it's faster.

Now, it wasn't a perfect solution, as some games just REFUSED to run through Proton, but now, all of a sudden, Linux gamers had access to far more titles than they had before. They now had access to games like Doom, Witcher 3 and Metal Gear Solid 5.


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And Proton would only improve in the years to follow -- more games with anti-cheat software built into them would work, DRM limitations were overcome, and the overall compatibility for Windows games on Proton would increase. As it stands, 80% of Steam's most popular titles now run through Proton.

The Rise of the Handheld PC

As long as the IBM-compatible PC has been a platform, there have been companies chasing the handheld PC form-factor. Many companies had tried. And many had failed.

But it wasn't until around 2015 that the concept of the "palmtop gaming PC" really took root in the zeitgeist. Then, with the Nintendo Switch's release in 2016 promising a AAA experience on-the-go, the thought of a

Many folks first became aware of the idea of the handheld gaming PC with the IndieGoGo campaign for the GPD Win 2: an Intel Core M3 with 8GB of RAM. It's clam-shell design made it a bit of an ugly duckling and--when gamers finally got their device in hand--they realized there were some ergonomic considerations that had simply been neglected. The device didn't sit comfortably in the hand. And when gaming for long periods of time, the thermal exhaust would cause the hands to heat up in unexpected ways.

But that didn't stop the intrepid--fledgling community of handheld gaming enthusiasts--inspired by the Switch and enticed by the idea of having their entire Steam library in hand.

Other competitors tried their hand: the AYA NEO, OneXPlayer, and incremental improvements with the GPD series... gamers were not want for choice. But none of these handheld PCs and the burgeoning market they were fostering had it all. Especially when it came to the Windows experience when crammed onto a tiny screen.

The Steam Deck - The Ultimate Culmination of Valve's Hardware Projects

Valve initially started out as a software company. That was the case until nearly 20 years later in late 2015, with the Steam Controller and the Steam Link. While these projects saw mediocre success at best (the Steam Controller ended production in 2019, and the Steam Link's legacy lives on with the Raspberry Pi), Valve learned from their mistakes.

They knew native Linux gaming wasn't going to move forward without some serious help. And with the advent of Proton, several games that had seen early Linux games remove their native clients from Steam. Some developers said the development burden was too high. Others lamented the low sales. Still other titles languished with delayed updates or just complete neglect.

Valve knew they had to make it easier for developers and gamers alike to have access to a larger portion of the user's Steam library by means of Proton. However, Linux gaming market-share on Steam would barely reach 1%, despite how much work was poured into on Proton.

Drawing on the handheld PC market for inspiration, the popularity of the Nintendo Switch, and their carefully honed expertise when it came to hardware production, the Steam Deck was born.

I won't go over the many, many details about the Steam Deck here; I've covered that enough in my previous videos (get subscribed if you want to stay up-to-date with all the latest news, by the way). But here's the important stuff: The Steam Deck runs Linux. In fact, it's running the latest version of SteamOS version 3.0, the very first product Valve has ever made to go past the number 2. And the Deck features streamlined user experience that feels warmer, more inviting, and console-like than Big Picture Mode--and leagues better than being dropped into the cold and deleterious Windows desktop on competing handhelds. It can be docked to a TV or monitor--just like a Switch--and it's got the vast majority of your Steam library available from atom. Plus, it's still just a PC with a desktop you can switch to whenever the fancy strikes you.

So Valve's plan was simple: sell many as many Steam Deck units as possible, change the discussion around Linux gaming, and build a bigger audience willing to pay for quality games on Linux... without them even knowing or having to think about it. Capitalize on the PC gaming market first, then approach the console gamers. In particular, the Switch gamers. And all this would help protect Valve's business model of an "open" PC platform.

With all the hype for the Deck, it would help rally against the use of the walled garden that is Windows.

And thanks to the Steam Deck, Linux is actually making an impact on the future of PC gaming. Though, at the moment, we don't know how many reservations were made... we can make an educated guess based on comments from Gabe in a recent IGN interview. They've probably had over two million reservations at this point.

And comparing SteamOS to Windows updates, it's night and day. Windows 11 is generating more and more controversy with every update. Meanwhile, SteamOS updates have been massive, consistent, and universally praised by Deck owners.

And the fact is that while Valve's Steam client is a proprietary, they've made HUGE contributions to the free and open source software they rely on, including in-house tools that they've developed and released to developers!

Valve's Steam Deck and SteamOS 3.0 facilitate an open platform running free software, allowing PC gamers to rid themselves of the walled gardens, and still play the majority of games designed for Windows!

So where does that leave us? Could Linux really be the future of PC gaming? I believe so. But it hinges on the Steam Deck, and judging by their success so far it very well could be! If Valve hadn't created the Steam Deck, Linux gaming would remain niche, and Windows would continue dominating the PC gaming market.

So thanks, Valve, for all that you guys have contributed to Linux, to PC gaming, and the rest of the Free and Open Source world. Also shout-out to CodeWeavers, as they're responsible for a lot of the work that goes into Proton and helping this compatibility layer to mature the way that is has.