We got a chance to sit down with alkazar79, the main developer behind the beloved console-like distribution GamerOS. Just a tad less than a year ago, we had reviewed this distro, and we liked it so much we wanted to get in touch with the developer and get a behind-the-scenes look as to why GamerOS was made, what sets it apart from other distributions, what the dev’s plans are for the future, among many other questions that we had asked him. Without further ado, let’s get right into it!
Boiling Steam: What is GamerOS, and why was it made?
alkazar79: GamerOS is a turnkey console-like OS that boots directly into Steam Big Picture. I think it is more accurate to think of it as a gaming console firmware than a regular Linux distro. After SteamOS stopped getting updates I switched to using Arch on my couch gaming rig. I eventually got a setup that I thought was really awesome and I wanted to make it easy for even non-Linux users to do the same.
BS: Why is GamerOS based on Arch? Is that a good idea, looking back? Sometimes there’s a few breaking changes in Arch after updates; has this ever been an issue so far?
alkazar79: Mostly to make my life easier. Arch has everything you need to setup a gaming machine and I didn’t want to have to do a lot of extra packaging.
I think it has been a good decision. There can be breaking changes, but because of the way
frzr (more on
frzr later) does updates this only ever effects the developers and never the end user. There have been a few times where things broke quite badly and delayed a release, but a solution is always found eventually.
The relationship between GamerOS and Arch is far more loose than say between Ubuntu and Debian. Arch Linux is essentially just a source of files for GamerOS.
Fun fact: because
frzr just distributes a full prebuilt file system, this actually allows us to switch the base distribution at any time and the user would never even know.
alkazar79: GamerOS has a laser-focused use case: couch gaming. You should never have to touch a keyboard if you don’t want to. That makes GamerOS very different than almost any other distro.
BS: What’s typically the day-to-day cycle working on GamerOS? Is it challenging, fun, or a nightmare? How many developers are there?
alkazar79: I don’t think there is a typical day to day really. I try to sneak in some work where I can, but this is just a hobby project and I don’t always have much time to dedicate to it. My activities include coding or researching new features, trying to get to the bottom of issues, doing code reviews on PRs or doing some testing.
Deciding what to work on can be tough. Because my time is limited, what I work on is mostly based on my mood, but my mood can be affected heavily by community feedback :)
There was one other contributor that helped a lot earlier on but life got in the way and they have mostly dropped off. Other contributors come and go so it has mostly only been myself for the last little while. There has been a bit of an uptick in contributions lately, so I am hopeful!
BS: At this stage is GamerOS a hobby project? How much time do you spend on it every week? Do you rely on community donations? (do you plan to work on it full time?)
alkazar79: Yes, it is definitely a hobby project. I probably work on it 10 hours a week at most although it varies quite a bit.
I purposefuly setup GamerOS to be completely hosted on GitHub so finances wouldn’t be an issue. However, this might change in the future as there are some features I would like to add that will need some dedicated servers. I do have a personal Patreon after some community members encouraged me to set it up, but I do not rely on it. I would love to work on GamerOS full time but that is not feasible at this time.
BS: Seems like there’s been a lot of backlash from the Linux community concerning the name “GamerOS”. Do you have any intentions on changing the name of the OS, or keep it as it is?
alkazar79: Yeah, it has been rather disheartening to see all of the rude comments and people entirely dismissing the project just because of the name. I never associated the word “Gamer” as something negative so I was quite surprised by the reaction. It seemed like the perfect name after struggling to find a name for so long. The good news is there is actually a name change coming soon-ish (it will be called ChimeraOS).
BS: Valve hasn’t touched SteamOS since early 2019. Do you have any theories as to why they never update it?
alkazar79: It looks like they just prioritized getting the compatibility story up to par first. Honestly, it seems like the right decision, I don’t think most people miss SteamOS and PC couch gaming doesn’t exactly seem like a big market. What I am more disappointed with is that Big Picture Mode has been rather neglected.
BS: Speaking of Big Picture Mode, what do you honestly think of it?
alkazar79: I think it is amazing. It allows me to take my Steam account to the living room and not have to split my game library across PC and console. It does unfortunately seem to be in maintenance mode right now. One of the most glaring issues is the huge regression in usability of the friends/chat feature after the big update to Steam a while back. It seems that in order to save time Valve nuked the existing chat interface which worked great and just grafted the desktop interface onto Big Picture. It makes it almost impossible to use with a controller.
BS: GamerOS uses a unique system update mechanism called
frzr. Seasoned Arch users may not like the fact they can’t use
pacman. Why use
frzr? Would you be opposed to users hacking at GamerOS as they see fit (for example, to modify the kernel, upgrade the graphics driver, or have access to a desktop)?
alkazar79: One of the main goals of GamerOS is to be an out of the box console-like system that is usable by non-Linux users. It is unreasonable to expect non-Linux users to know how to use
pacman to update their system.
frzr was designed to allow GamerOS to update automatically without any user intervention; this is something that very few Linux distributions are able to do. It may not be a solution that die-hard Linux folks love due to the limitations that are imposed, but it was not meant for them, and they already have plenty of other options.
If someone wants to add their own packages or other customizations and build their own version of GamerOS it is actually incredibly easy to do. You just need to fork the repo on GitHub, add your changes, then point your GamerOS install at your fork.
frzr was deliberately designed to support this.
Of course, the most constructive thing would be to contribute to the project! One way to think of GamerOS is as a community driven shared gaming setup.
BS: GamerOS includes
steam-buddy. Could you explain what these tools do in detail and how it enhances the GamerOS experience?
steamos-compositor-plus is a fork of the original compositor that came with SteamOS. It is essentially a very simple window manager that makes sure any game windows are always full screen. It includes improvements over the original SteamOS compositor like 4k support and some fixes for specific games that had compatibility issues.
steam-tweaks is a repository of optimized game configurations for Steam games. It can do things like enable specific versions and configurations of Proton for certain games, enable Steam Input for Linux native games with poor controller support, and even patch game files to get them working out of the box. Although there are currently only a few hundred games in the database, the ultimate goal is to have as many games as possible so that users don’t have to fiddle with any settings, they can just install and play.
steam-buddy is a web application that lets you install and manage non-Steam games. Using a second device, like a phone, you can remotely install games from Flathub, the Epic Games Store or GOG. You can also upload ROMs for various emulated systems.
BS: Users can access the terminal with
CTRL + ALT + F3. What could they typically do while accessing this?
alkazar79: You can do anything you could on a regular Arch Linux system for the most part, except with the limitation that the root file system is read-only by default. I would recommend using SSH instead though!
BS: Are you aware of Steam Tinker Launcher? If so, any plans on incorporating this tool into GamerOS?
alkazar79: I have seen Steam Tinker Launcher but am not very familiar with it. It seemed to duplicate a lot of functionality already available in GamerOS so there aren’t currently any plans to integrate it and I haven’t seen any requests for it.
BS: Do you plan on adding Wii U/Switch/PS3 emulation support later down the road?
alkazar79: Yes, I would love to see these integrated into Steam Buddy at some point. These systems are more challenging due to not being based on RetroArch, so there needs to be a separate solution for things like automatic controller configuration.
BS: What if Valve releases a new SteamOS version in the near future: would you keep working on GamerOS?
alkazar79: For sure! I think there are a lot of features that Valve would never be able to incorporate, including the emulation support.
BS: Do you actively look at what consoles do UI-wise? Are there things we should try to replicate on PC?
alkazar79: Not really. The only modern console I own is a Switch which my kids twisted my arm to get. Honestly, I find the Switch interface to be quite awful. Some folks seem to be interested in replacing Steam Big Picture mode, but I don’t think it is practical at this point as you would lose things like the ability to invite friends to games, and the incredible controller configuration built into Steam.
BS: How much do you use community feedback to enhance the work you do on GamerOS?
alkazar79: Community feedback is super important. Without it GamerOS wouldn’t be anywhere near as well rounded as it is. Just checking the last few releases, a vast majority of the features and fixes were requests directly from the community.
BS: Do you welcome contributions? If so, what is the best way to contribute code/documentation to the project?
alkazar79: Of course! The best way is to find a feature or bug you want to work on and just submit a PR on GitHub! You may want to consult on our Discord server to make sure the feature makes sense for GamerOS first. Also, please be patient, sometimes it can take a while before I am able to review and test your PR!
BS: While GamerOS may never be “finished,” what would be a state where you tell yourself “Oh, this has become pretty good!”? Do you have such an image in mind?
alkazar79: I think it is pretty good now! It is incredible how far the project has come. This was a dream project only recently and even though it could still use a lot of polish, I am most proud of Steam Buddy, which I enjoy using to manage all my classic games.
BS: Can you give us a bit of a teaser as to what the team is working on next?
alkazar79: We are currently working on game streaming/recording and a Steam Buddy redesign that better organizes the functionality which has ballooned over the last while.
We’d like to thank alkazar79 for taking the time to answer our questions! If you’re interested in trying out GamerOS yourself, version 24 just came out earlier this month, with 1440p screen support, kernel 5.11.16, Mesa 21.0.3, NVIDIA 465.27, updated tools, Proton GE support, etc. And if you like his work, consider supporting his Patreon!