An Open Letter to Another Open Letter

Not too long ago, Shane Fagan (active on r/linux_gaming) answered to a piss-poor article from The Verge (by the way did you know that “Verge” had a totally different meaning in French ? I’ll let you find out) about the Steam Machines. While I agree with the sentiment, I feel that as a community, we tend to be overly optimistic regarding Linux Gaming, and we should be slightly more humble before any making any hasty conclusion.

Shane’s page has changed since then and the original article is not available at the same address for now, so if you want to read it again in full, just check the cached version on Google.

I will come back on a few comments that I find worth discussing again. The Verge mentioned that “most popular titles aren’t available for it yet” when referring to SteamOS and Steam Machines, and to this Shane Fagan (that I will shorten as SF) replied:

Going by player base how many of the top 10 most popular titles on Steam don’t have a Linux client? Top 3 all have clients, 4 is getting one by the end of the month, 5 is GTA5 which gets ported anywhere that has users so if more users come to SteamOS/Linux it will come, 6 is Clicker Heroes I never heard of it but its on MacOS so id guess that it could come to Linux but no word on it, the next 2 support Linux (Civ5 and Garry’s Mod), Skyrim doesn’t but Bethesda is close to Valve and there are whispers that Fallout3/NV/4 might get a Linux release so maybe Skyrim gets ported too. The Witcher 3 is coming to Linux soon. So a little more than half either have Linux or will soon. And even at that the others are cross platform titles which could come eventually.

And this kind of answer is a problem. First, even if you look at the top 10, it’s hard to say that Linux support is very good yet. This is what we get currently on Steam in popularity:

1. Dota 2
2. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive
3. Team Fortress 2
4. ARK: Survival Evolved
5. Grand Theft Auto V
6. Clicker Heroes
7. Sid Meier’s Civilization V
8. Garry’s Mod
9. Football Manager 2015
10. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Among these, Valve is supporting their own Linux initiative, so it would be ridiculous for them to sell Steam Machines while still being unable to play their own games – it’s like if you were counting Gran Turismo in a Playstation games list (Polyphonics is owned by Sony so it would rather be surprising if they did not have it). So the Linux support of Valve titles is given and hardly representative of other companies. Let’s look at the top without Valve titles:

4. ARK: Survival Evolved – Windows only
5. Grand Theft Auto V – Windows only
6. Clicker Heroes – Windows and Mac
7. Sid Meier’s Civilization V – Windows, Mac, Linux
9. Football Manager 2015 – Windows, Mac, Linux
10. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – Windows only

So we get… 2 out of 6, which is not great. And Mac support is hardly better. Next, the claim that “Bethesda is close to Valve” means absolutely nothing. Bethesda is part of Zenimax and Zenimax has shown nothing but contempt for Linux ports – iD software also belongs to Zenimax, and while Linux ports of games likes Quake, Doom, Doom 2, Doom 3, Quake 4 are all readily available, they were never made available for purchase on Steam or anywhere else in recent History. That says a lot about how it works among all Zenimax-owned companies, and as I was saying earlier, Bethesda is probably going to be the last company, together with Microsoft, to support Linux Gaming.

There is no indication either that GTA5 gets ported to SteamOS at any point. And the reasoning of “GTA5 which gets ported anywhere that has users so if more users come to SteamOS/Linux it will come” makes me smile because that’s a chicken and egg problem here all over again. For some people GTAV is absolutely expected (even among Linux gamers, as I’m running the current GNU/Linux Gamers survey, there were many comments about folks dual booting just for GTA5 or Witcher 3 recently) and they won’t jump on such a platform until it’s available. And GTAV is a massive game with dozens of millions of fans. Rockstar is not going to spend much time for any port for a small amount of users, and they are not the only ones who make that calculation. As for “The Witcher 3 is coming out soon”, the “soon” is just wishful thinking, we actually have no idea how long it will take to get a port. Witcher 3 uses Umbra3D and that middle ware has no Linux version so far, so this may be a reason why porting it is challenging at the time (unless one has to use a wrapper). Anyway, a port “coming soon” does not cut it for gamers who live on the age. Most people who are interested by Witcher 3 want to play it when people are talking about it, not in one year or two. It’s a bit like movies in a way, there is an ongoing discussion about movies when they are released, and that’s when you want to be able to see them so that you can share something with your friends over a drink. Of course, there’s still merit in playing games later, but it’s not exactly the same thing anymore. The excitement has died off, and the attention of the public is focused on something else. As much as possible Linux and SteamOS need to get same-day releases rather than delayed ports. It will take a while to get there but that’s really what we should care about for the expansion of the platform.

The Verge had, I think, a valid point when they said : “Hell, you can’t even play games that are compatible with Linux but aren’t on Steam.” to which Shane brushed off by :

Steam has a nice feature to add non-steam games.

Yes, it’s true, but it’s not a console-like experience anymore. If one believes that console gamers are the target of Steam Machines (which I don’t, but I seem to be a minority), then one should assume that console gamers don’t have to start tweaking and installing games by themselves out of Steam in the first place. And, God Forbid, even touch the hidden desktop mode or the terminal to install games – and many GOG Linux games, just to call an example, require some terminal commands even before installing them (chmod+x anyone? – not all of them are available as Debs).

The Verge’s point about SteamOS missing Blizzard games is still valid, too. There is no indication whatsoever that Blizzard will support Linux, even when they could easily. Even Hearthstone is a Unity game and a port to Linux should be relatively easy and painless for the development teams that they have. Yet they don’t. And they replied negatively again recently when Linux users asked them to consider supporting their platform. Love it or Hate it, but Blizzard has their own platform and they won’t be on Steam anytime soon, even for the sake of Windows gamers – so Linux gamers have no power to leverage anything here.

Now let’s come to the “meat” of the argument. The Verge stated “If you care about playing anything relatively new and popular, the Xbox One, PS4, Wii, and Windows-based PCs are all clearly superior options.” to which SF replied:

Both the PS4 and Xbox One have less games in total than Linux, that’s a fact as of now the 8th of June 2015. But superior options? PC in general is a superior option. Windows at the moment has the lead on the driver front but there is a strange situation going on which could tilt everything on its head and its being driven by Valve. Its called Vulkan and its the competitor to DX12. It promises to even the playing field and Valve are putting their money where their mouth is and the driver manufacturers are getting behind it as well. AMD specifically deserve a good mention because they were the ones who donated Mantle to Khronos which is the basis of what turned into Vulkan. So eventually the driver problem on Linux will go away meaning either Linux is better or at least it’s even. Windows on the other hand will always have issues, the issue of needing an anti-virus program which will slow your computer, the issue of manufacturers installing bloatware, the issue of shitty drivers for hardware. All of which are much better on Linux. I could give a million reasons but since the driver problem is being fixed and we are going to be on a level playing field it makes it quite fun.

There are good points made but I don’t agree with all conclusions. First, right now, I’d say that the Verge statement is absolutely right. For anything new and popular, there are big chances that PS4 and Windows PC are going to be the right options. Just look at the E3 going on right now, the PS4 is going to get Final Fantasy VII remake, Last Guardian, and ShenMue 3 (Windows too). There’s a bunch of gamers who want to play each of these games, and none of them are going to be on Linux at launch (and maybe none of them later either – we just don’t know). So yeah, if you want to be sure to be able to play some of these games (and these are just a few examples, there are more exclusives), you better make sure you get a PS4 or a Windows-based PC for it. There’s just no discussion about that.

Besides, the answer is hardly a reply to the argument and makes a strawman, by diverging from the point the Verge makes and arguing over something they were not. And even on this point, the reasoning is doubtful. Vulkan is certainly going to be a major player in the API market for 3D engines, but how prevalent it will be, nobody knows right now. Apple is going to have Metal, DX12 will be the standard for years to come because Windows is still the leading gaming platform and Windows 10 is not getting as much heat as Windows 8 did. There is no sign right now that Vulkan will become the key focus API anywhere – what it may solve is the performance issue, but it does not mean that the adoption will be much greater. And “Windows on the other hand will always have issues, the issue of needing an anti-virus program which will slow your computer, the issue of manufacturers installing bloatware, the issue of shitty drivers for hardware.” is a non-problem. Windows gamers have learnt to live with this, and I’d rather say that shitty drivers for hardware belong to Linux rather than Windows – looking at the AMD hardware support there is little to be proud of on Linux vs Windows.

The Verge had another point about consoles vs Steam Machines: “One of the reasons consoles are so compelling is that everything just works out of the box”, and again the reply is not really satisfying:

So you are saying that isn’t what Valve will have when the Steam machines release? Hint there a few months between then and now and like you said at the start big picture already is great and they are making moves already so honestly this point is pretty off. It’s their goal to have it comparable to the experience of the current consoles.

You don’t make major platform changes on SteamOS in a matter of a couple of months. There’s a LOT lacking to make SteamOS just like console systems. First, there is no indication of what game in the store plays well with your hardware. That should have been the priority number one for Valve to address, and they have done nothing about this at all – so that shows again they are assuming their consumers are PC gamers and not Console gamers. Then there are the weird port issues with the controls that don’t work as expected – and this is not on Valve, but on 3rd parties who do not give a shit and who are really late to fix their problems. And when one buys such a game, they won’t care if it’s Valve’s fault or not, they will just feel bad about the whole experience. That’s what the Verge is aiming at and again, they are definitely right on this. On top of that, there is currently no announcement for Video or Music partners – Netflix has been a given on consoles for a while now. Where is Valve on that? Is that going to be a last minute surprise ? Somehow I find it very hard to believe that we will see major changes just before launch. From a commercial standpoint you’d want to announce everything ahead of time to generate excitement and awareness, and it’s just not happening.

The Verge complains about the fact that the Steam Machine concept has “resulted in way too many options”. sparking the following comment:

Because options are bad for consumers. Damn I have way too many options for games, please only release 1 game this year, everyone else get in line. Damn I have way too many options for TVs, my poor brain can’t tell the difference. I’m not able to select things. Bla bla bla. Dude options are a good thing. If you have a 4k TV and you are limited to both the Xbox One and the PS4 you have shit options. Allowing for people to spend more depending on their setup is a good thing.

Sure, options are good, but the way it’s presented on the Steam Hardware page is pretty bad. If I pretend for a second that I know nothing about PC specs, basically I have no way to tell which Steam Machines are good or bad for me. I have no way to know if all these Steam Machines are going to be able to run all games or not at the same high quality settings. Choice is good, but choice without focus, documentation or guide is just SHITE – because it carries a lot more risk in you making the wrong choice. And Valve and their partners have a lot to do to make things better for their consumers… unless they target PC gamers only (which is what they claim, again – they have never declared they were tackling the console market).

As I said in a different post, the most glaring thing to me is that Valve themselves are not investing in that platform. They could have released their own Steam Machine to show the way, or even without going that far, partnered with a specific manufacturer to make a “nexus-like” Steam Machine just like Google does on Android. They are doing none of that, they are taking none of the risks they should be taking: either they have cold feet, or they just don’t think it has much likelihood of success in the first place.

In any case, my guess is that the following is a likely scenario:

  • Steam Machines in 2015 will sell poorly, and there will be a number of negative reviews on how things are unpolished compared to consoles. Hopefully Valve will react to that.
  • Linux ports will still come, but we may see a slower pace if publishers are disappointed with the lack of growth.
  • In the long term, Steam Machines will start having a more interesting value proposition. By 2016 or 2017 you will be able to buy a Steam Machine at 400 USD that will be massively more powerful than an existing console, not just marginally.
  • Just like Steam as a service was pretty bad at the beginning (if you had Steam 10 years ago you should know), it got better and better, so as long as Valve sticks with the idea, it should get better and better over time, and gain market share at the same time.

Overall, I think it’s fine to challenge the claims of the Verge, but let’s not push the pendulum at the extreme opposite. We should be aware of all the short comings of the platform and not react and say “Everything is awesome” or “Everything will be awesome”, because we just don’t know how things will turn out. Competitors on the market are neither static nor stupid and it would be very naive to assume that Steam can just get away with everything they create. There are smart people even at Microsoft, even at Sony’s. Valve does not have a brain monopoly.

And more importantly, consumers will decide what they want in the end – and whether they think Valve’s solution is great or not is not up to the Linux Community’s to decide.


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10 Comments

  1. The recent policy change regarding refunds is Valve’s way of tackling the “is my machine powerful enough?” conundrum. It’s not the rating system we all wanted, but its a good start.

    • Id say its one of the best consumer devices in the gaming market right now. GOG already has it. For Steam though it would allow users not to get burned by releases like AC Unity when they fucked up royally. It just helps a lot.

    • That’s a good point, but that’s more of a band-aid than a real solution. This introduces inconvenience for the user.

  2. I think Steam Machines receive too much negativity from gaming journalists, whose job it is to report about a lot of games. Not everyone plays every game, there are a lot of people who only play one game (and its successors) such as: FIFA, Call of Duty, Battlefield, League of Legends, Counter-Strike, Dota, Minecraft, etc.;
    Granted, out of the list only CS:GO, Dota 2 and Minecraft exist on Linux, but they are very successful games with huge communities.

    Also:
    “ARK: Survival Evolved” will be released for Linux on June 25, 2015. You should definitely mention that, given that it is in the top four and seems to become a successful game.
    Here’s a list of other games, which have been rated well:
    Bioshock: Infinite
    Borderlands 2
    Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel
    Metro 2033 (Redux)
    Metro Last Light (Redux)
    Outlast
    Shadow Warrior
    Spec-Ops: The Line

    Note how most of these games are singleplayer games, which means they will disappear from top lists much quicker than multiplayer games.

    • Gamers may not want to play 200 games, but even if you play only one game a year you want to make sure that whatever format you have chosen has it. And if it’s GTA5, well the Steam Machines won’t have it, it’s as simple as that.

      About negativity: there’s two types of negativity : the gratuitous, non-deserved one (akin to fanboy-ism), and the one that emanates from fair criticism. Most of the criticism that Steam Machines are receiving right now is not new: Valve has announced them about 2 years ago now. But what have they done to address the criticism ? Not much, honestly, and I think they should have at least tried to improve some elements.

      About First Player games (the AAA type), the issue on Linux right now is not that it does not have any – as you mentioned it has several of them already – but the real problem is that they don’t come out fast enough. You have to wait x months between every AAA game: ideally you need to have a constant flow of new, big titles, to keep the momentum going and also build credibility. This year should be better in that respect, but there’s a lack of visibility as to when big ports come out (Witcher 3, Shadow of Mordor, Grid, etc…). The uncertainty makes some people impatient, it’s never positive.

      • Not only do they come slow and delayed in regard to their Windows and consoles releases, but they sometime come with half the performance and the graphic fidelity.

        Metro Redux never solved its lack of tessellation on Linux as an example. It’s still a very good game and I won’t deny it just because of that specific feature but it still shows.

        It is yet another argument against SteamOS for people that don’t care about platform philosophy but just want the best platform with best performance.

        I share most of views, and among them the fact that Steam Machines aren’t really catered towards console gamers. That leaves us with the demographic of mobile gamers (if such a concept makes sense) who for obvious reasons don’t care (even if they may be important for technical leverage, aka Vulkan implementations on handheld devices). And of course PC gamers, that are not to jump on a platform that won’t offer them more than they already have on Windows.

        It’s not hopeless but there are sure lots of efforts to be made. The Verge article was full of innacuracies and sometime FUD, but there’s a number of things for which they were right on the spot. Those cannot be ignored.

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