At a time in the history of PC Gaming where we find potential buyers and manufacturers unable to run as many new components as possible, not everyone would be willing to take the risk, to experiment a new approach on the HOW to enjoy the ultimate gaming experience which has been flaunted for years by members of the Master Race, with all due respect to console players. Well, somehow, Valve could do it with its Steam Deck, the latest jewel conceived by the leading company in the field of digital delivery on PC.
In just over two days (between the official announcement and the opening of pre-orders), the upcoming portable console branded with the valve symbol has become the only topic at the center of most online discussions. It'll be fine? Will it go wrong? Will it go the same way as the Steam Machines? When will Valve release Half-Life 1.0 + 2.0 Final Remix +? Before answering all these questions, I would say that the time has come to take a few steps back and move the hands of videogame history (and Valve itself) by a few years and analyze the long and tortuous path that will end by the end of the year. (or in 2022 for many others) with the release of the console. And why not, add some personal considerations on the whole project and that in the worst case will attract much less insults towards me than I took with the last article on Sony.
Penguins, Open Source and Courage
Year domains 2012, a period of transition for the entire technology industry, even before videogames. We are in fact at the dawn of a generational change as regards the console market, but also in the period of maximum rise of the mobile market, with a growing interest on the part of almost all phone companies towards free and customizable operating systems, such as Android, able to take the smartphone model proposed by Apple and make it available to everyone, within affordable devices. It is precisely in the name of this opening that Valve decided to focus on Linux as a vessel of the revolution within a market that, willy-nilly, saw and still sees the excessive power of Windows, the operating system of Microsoft, a company that was beginning to be a bit unpleasant to the good Gaben.
Valve at that time was very different from the current one (despite the release of pearls like Half-Life: Alyx) and in 2012 he was always looking for the next big implementation for Steam, a client that at the time had already revolutionized the way of understanding the videogame on the PC and that at that moment was in an opening phase. Workshop, Marketplace, Steam Greenlight and last but not least the beginning in November 2012 of official Linux support, including it within the program Steam play, a sort of multi-platform ecosystem that guaranteed its users the ability to install their favorite video game (at the discretion of the developers) on the main operating systems: Windows, macOS and the aforementioned penguin system.
A solution that, in the long run, proved to be unsuccessful. Sure, the community has seen games like The Witcher 1 and 2, Shadow of Mordor and naturally almost all of Valve's portfolio, but at the same time the system itself still was too niche to entice software houses to develop porting of their games available on Windows. So much so that one of the most famous cases linked to this problem has as its protagonist CD Project Red, which in 2014 came targeted by the Linux community for releasing a "native" version of The Witcher 2 based on the virtualization of a Windows executable, and which inevitably was inferior to the original release. The protest of the players was so aggressive (and in some cases even toxic) that it forced the Polish software house to abandon any support to the open source platform, although The Witcher 3 was also advertised for SteamOS.
Summing up this first piece, the arrival of Steam on Linux will certainly not have shaken the PC landscape (which sees Linux cover a market share of 2,7%), but he still sowed a seed on the earth. A seed that in the years to come led to the birth of the most ambitious and at the same time bankruptcy project by Valve: SteamOS.
The big flop
"Oh SteamOS, how much did you shit!"
This is the only way to sum up my thoughts on that OS disaster. In fact, we are talking about a distro (an alternative version of an operating system) of Debian released in 2015 and that turned your computer into a machine dedicated exclusively to starting the Steam client in Big Picture mode… That's it! In just over four lines I have listed the characteristics and reasons for the flop of this OS that already at the time had very few applications and was outclassed by other Debian-based operating systems (Ubuntu to name one) that had on their side a continuous and constant support, in addition to being able to manage software dedicated to other activities outside of gaming. Other than that, all the cons of having a Steam client on Linux are worth it.
Despite the less than positive reviews, SteamOS represented the launch pad (and subsequent tombstone) of their second bankruptcy project: Steam Machine. In fact, even before Steam Deck, Valve thought it best to take the longest step of the leg and forcefully enter the console market. Announced alongside the OS in 2013, the Steam Machine (or SteamBox as it was named in the leaks) represented a bold step by Valve to bring PC gaming into living rooms, and ironically that's not the reason for his flop. On the contrary, the high cost of the individual machines put on the market (including the Alienware Alpha) and, as before, all the cons of SteamOS that was pre-loaded by default, decreed the death of the project.
Sure, you could opt for one Windows-based Steam Machine but it was still expensive hardware that undermined the most popular gimmick of PC Gamers: upgrade of your machine, a lack at the time understandable on consoles but not on PC (especially after dropping a nice 1000 euro banknote on a potential doorstop).
Proton & Wine
Once the Steam Machine chapter is closed, we enter a period of absolute silence where, for better or worse, Linux remains an operating system used mainly by professionals in the field of information technology (systems engineers, programmers, hackers, etc.) and gaming within the universe dedicated to the penguin is seen as a geek stuff, including alternative launcher wrappers such as PlayOnLinux e lutris or even orthodox methods like the virtualization based on the passage of GPUs between host and guest systems.
At this point in the story it would also be logical to think in an easy surrender by Valve also regarding the penguin's operating system support, but it was not so. In fact, the way I see it, the team behind Steam Play began to reverse and work on how to make titles not compatible with SteamOS work without putting individual software houses in the middle. And that's exactly how, in August 2018, Valve proudly announces Steam Proton, a compatibility layer managed by Valve itself.
For the less experienced in the environment, a compatibility layer is in a nutshell an interface that can be installed within your operating system, able to run (with the necessary compromises) applications that are normally impossible to run, in this case games and programs for Windows. Among the various strengths, unlike the standard version of Wine, Proton sets aside the libraries OpenGL in favor of the recent and much better performing graphic libraries Volcano, which made it possible to start games like DOOM 2016.
All this, without developers like Feral Interactive develop native versions for Linux. Indeed, as in the case of his big brother Wine, the implementation of Proton has led Valve to open up even more to the community behind free software, allowing the compilation of multiple external versions of this add-on by sharing the source code on GitHub. And this is where the fun begins! In just over 3 years, the list of compatible titles with Proton has grown immeasurably, covering a large slice of the most played titles on the platform, with well over 18.000 titles whose operation has been documented within the site. ProtonDB. At the moment, it has reached a level of compatibility that can launch highly anticipated titles such as cyberpunk 2077 e Resident Evil Village a few hours after their official release. Something that, at the time of Steam's release on Linux, seemed impossible.
We are not talking about a perfect system, quite the contrary. Where Valve can't get it right (as in the case of running proprietary video codecs) we think users like GloriousEggroll through the development of customized versions able to buffer certain problems. However, the same thing cannot be said regarding anti-cheats, which for now represent the real obstacle to overcome before making Linux what Gabe Newell predicted in 2013: the future of PC gaming.
Steam Deck and the future of VALVOLA
And we have arrived at July 16, 2021 and at Valve we are starting to draw conclusions. Steam Deck will most likely be the culmination of this path that lasted more or less a decade and that already from the first images and official statements seems to take all those setbacks, all the flops of the past and turn them around in its own right. favor. Didn't SteamOS seem like a reliable operating system? Bam! SteamOS 3.0 changes its core and becomes an Arch-based system, with all the advantages that derive from this choice, first of all the possible periodic release of system updates. Did the Steam Machines cost too much and could the hardware inside them become obsolete over time? And here's where the Steam Deck mounts hardware architecture similar to consoles like PS5 and Xbox Series X / S, albeit with some compromises. Does Proton still have problems with Anti-cheats? No problem, Valve may resolve compatibility issues even before the Steam Deck comes out.
Obviously at the moment the whole project could turn out to be everything and nothing, and honestly I feel compelled to also mention some of my concerns about it. It will be necessary to see what the (long-term) performance of upcoming games will be in the future, how the ergonomics of the Wii U-style controls will be handled in the final console model or whether there will be a distribution in our territory that does not involve paying particular shipping fees (as the Steam store has accustomed us for years regarding the sale of hardware).What I'm trying to say is that now it's time for Valve to step on the gas and fire all their cartridges, regardless of whether or not they hit the million units sold. With all due respect to the PC Master Race screaming for the third time at the “Switch Killer”, when in reality the Steam Deck doesn't aim to be that. Conversely, Steam Deck is an opportunity to legitimize what you products like GPD Win, Aya Neo e ONEXPLAYER have tried to demonstrate in recent years: the best of PC Gaming has to open up and go beyond buying a prohibitive entry ticket… Scalpers permitting (bags of shit).