Steam Deck and Proton: Good & Bad Times Ahead

Steam was released as a beta for Linux nine years ago. While Linux gaming was a niche within a niche before that time, in the years since, gaming on Linux has been only getting better and more convenient. Valve released their own console-like distro SteamOS in 2013, and while it was a mess, distros like ChimeraOS have drastically improved the quality-of-life experience of PC gaming in the living room.

Valve brought most of their game catalog to Linux, while many Linux gamers were begging developers to port their games over. Some did, most of whom were indie developers, and porting was made easier thanks to engines like Unity and Unreal offering one-click export options. Companies like Feral Interactive, Aspyr, and Virtual Programming did the AAA stuff, bringing titles like Borderlands 2, Bioshock Infinite, the Tomb Raider reboot series, the F1 series, and many more hits to our beloved platform. While some of the ports were hit or miss, it was awesome just seeing the splash screen for GRID Autosport back in 2015 as the game was booting up.

As it stands today, there are over 60k titles available on Steam. Just a little over 9k (15% of the entire catalog) are available natively for Linux. In late 2017, a few months prior to the announcement of Proton — a collection of tools combined to create the best Windows gaming experience on Linux — the number of Linux titles was at its peak. Slowly over time, however, the number of native titles dropped, as Proton was proving to not only play many titles out-of-the-box, but now game developers didn’t have to spend the time and extra resources to support a secondary platform when Proton took care of most things for them.

Death Stranding on Steam Deck

When Proton was first released in 2018, I think it’s safe to say everyone was in shellshock. It took gamers by surprise. No one seemed to know it was coming. It is one of the best gifts Valve, CodeWeavers, and everyone else involved have given to us. No longer did you have to dual-boot in order to play Witcher 3, Metal Gear Solid 5, or Street Fighter V (granted, SFV took a while, but it came). Proton seamlessly integrated Windows-based games on the Steam for Linux client as if you were installing a native game. Just a few clicks, and the game is downloaded and installed.

Initially, Proton only supported DX11 titles. Therefore, being able to successfully run a title could be hit or miss. As time went, however, the individual components that make up Proton — such as D9VK (DX9 titles to Vulkan) and VKD3D (support for DX12 titles) — grew rather quickly in maturity, which opened up the possibility of allowing even more games, like those using DX9 or DX12 backends, to be playable. Games like GRID (2019), DIRT 5, Forza Horizon 4, Horizon Zero Dawn, and Death Stranding all eventually made it, making Windows gamers migrating to Linux less of a headache.

For the most part, games would run. A Windows game on Linux. It would run. And more often than not, it ran beautifully. Some users would later discover that, in rare instances, Proton could handle a game better than its Linux counterpart; the Windows version through Proton would have higher framerates, better quality graphics, better performance, and in some cases there were more graphics options available to the player. For instance, Outlast performs about 40 FPS better than the native version on Intel and NVIDIA, as demonstrated here:

There’s also a case of DIRT 4 running about 8 FPS faster on AMD + NVIDIA:

Proton only improved since. Not only are the updates to this compatibility layer bringing faster performance and bug fixes, but more and more titles are becoming playable over time — as of September 2021, 72% of the top 50 played games on Steam work on Linux with Proton. Today, there’s still the occasional game using anti-cheat software, such as Easy Anti-Cheat (EAC) or BattlEye, or use some type of DRM that will simply not allow the game to be run through Proton, but as we’ll get into later, we’re finally seeing the light of day with this as well (a little light, anyway).

During the second half of 2021, the three years of hard work since Proton was made public would cumulate into what Valve has created — the ultimate Linux handheld device called the the Steam Deck. Thanks to Valve’s announcement of the Steam Deck, more and more people, even people outside of the Linux realm or who haven’t even used Steam before, have been wanting to get their hands on this device. Developers who were previously uninterested in making a Linux version of their game or making it Proton-compatible are now looking into supporting this device, which means Proton in general.

While EAC, BattlEye, and other anti-cheat software has hindered Proton for the longest time, we’re finally starting to see a breakthrough. A few months ago Epic announced EAC compatibility with Proton. A developer would need to use the latest SDK and click a few checkboxes, and EAC would work! The Verge offers a nice summary of games that will be (or already has) supported through Proton, and so far Rust, ARK: Survival Evolved, Dead by Daylight, and Warthunder are on the greenlight. The developers behind Brawlhalla made a beta version of their game with EAC, and gamers have confirmed this version works beautifully on Linux.

Last weekend, Valve announced that BattlEye also now has support for Proton/Steam Deck, starting with Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord and ARK: Survival Evolved. Any other developer that has a game using BattlEye can simply send the company an email to get their game running through Proton. As if things couldn’t look any brighter, Proton Experimental incorporates CEG DRM fixes for games that use it, meaning certain Call of Duty games should now work, as well as Just Cause 2, Lara Croft and the Guardian of the Light, among many others.

Steam Deck keyboard

Good times are indeed ahead of us. By the time gamers get their Steam Deck in the mail starting February of next year (initially it was December of this year, but as you’re probably aware, Valve announced a delay, which we’ll get into later), I would imagine even more titles with anti-cheat/DRM will become compatible and playable out of the box.

However, this comes with an asterisk. You might have noticed from the article I linked to earlier from The Verge that not everyone is on board with supporting anti-cheat on Proton. Many developers have either left no comment, said that they don’t have anything to share at this time, or downright not support it at all. PUBG? Apex Legends? Halo: MCC? We don’t know yet. The Twitter account for DayZ said that the game will likely not be supported on the Deck at all.

Additionally, even though some developers have received dev kits for the Steam Deck, there will be other games that, though it may launch on the Deck, problems can occur (what Valve refers to as “playable” with Steam Deck Verified rather than “verified.”). Problems like controls not being mapped to the proper place, no automatic optimization for the Steam Deck (meaning low framerates on the default graphics settings, unless the user turns them down), the game not being able to support the odd 1280 x 800 screen, and in-game text being too small.

Steam Deck case

There’s also the annoyance that every PC gamer, regardless of whether they use Linux or Windows, has to deal with: multiple launchers for separate games. Even some games that are on the Steam store may launch a launcher prior to the game actually running. How is the Steam Deck going to handle this? Or will this responsibility fall into the developer’s hand — should he use the Steam Deck API to remove the launcher? How many developers will actually be on board with this?

What about EA games? Though EA has formed a partnership with Valve to bring their games over to Steam, there’s still the annoyance of having to install Origin while installing each game. Each game. Will there be a friendly way of doing that while on the Steam Deck? Probably not; we haven’t heard anything from EA yet regarding their thoughts on Valve’s device.

We might have a little better success with Ubisoft, however. They noticed the Steam Deck and Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot mentioned that “if it’s big we will be able to put our games on it.” Notice there’s an if there. We don’t know what the success of the Steam Deck will be like. But at least we know Ubisoft might bring their catalog over to Steam, without having to use their Ubisoft Connect launcher.

Steam Deck docked mode

Finally, there’s also the case of launchers that don’t use Steam at all, such as the Epic Games Store and GOG. This is where we get into the territory when the user has to get their hands dirty by installing these clients separately. Additionally, Valve is likely not going to support other launchers besides Steam (as in, you can install these launchers if you want, but you’re on your own with that). On the Steam Deck, that would likely require the user to add the Epic Game store client as a shortcut on Steam (installed through Lutris on SteamOS, or a third-party client like Heroic Games Launcher as an unofficial, native alternative), and installing the EGS client will not be an out-of-the-box experience. The user will likely have to plug in a mouse and keyboard to do that (as seen in some of Valve’s videos, it appears there’s an on-screen keyboard in addition to the touchscreen, but who knows what kind of experience that will bring). Even then, EGS doesn’t support gamepads for browsing games, and likely third-party clients won’t anytime soon either.

So where does that leave us? By the time you get the Deck, there definitely will be a few games unplayable or would not offer an out-of-the-box experience. If they’re a die-hard fan of some of these games, it may turn some people off.

The takeaway? A decent chunk of your games should at least run on the Deck. In other words, in the “playable” status field. The amount of “verified” games in your Steam library may be a different story. Titles that require a separate launcher may not work nicely, and even if they do run, there’s the chance that the game was not optimized for the Steam Deck, so you’ll be squinting your eyes on the tiny text on-screen, or there’s no optimized graphics options set up. And even though Valve has been trying to make developer’s lives as easy as possible to make their game work on Linux, they still have to take that extra step of enabling a few checkboxes or sending BattlEye an email to make their game work through Proton if it’s using anti-cheat software.

And after all this time, we still haven’t heard from a lot of AAA publishers besides Ubisoft — are they perhaps being pressured by console manufacturers to stick to their guns and not branch out to this platform? Or are they simply taking the “wait and see” approach to monitor the community feedback before making a decision? We’ve yet to see.

Also, if you didn’t get an email from Valve yesterday, here’s the shipping update that we got:

Steam Deck shipping update

Of course it’s a bummer, and it’s not like Valve is immune to the chip shortage that just seems to never go away. But look at it this way: the extra two months will afford more time for developers to optimize their game. This gives Valve more time to verify various games across Steam. Chances are these two months will create an even better out-of-the-box experience for the Steam Deck than getting the device in December.

This meme here:

Goodbye Switch, hello Steam Deck

I would tend to think there’s actually a lot of Switch owners who have never heard of the Steam Deck, never mind Steam itself. The Steam Deck isn’t necessarily a console, per se; as mentioned, there’s the occasional extra launcher, unoptimized screen or gamepad configuration, or games that simply don’t run at all. So when a Switch gamer picks up the Deck for the first time, I imagine things will be a little rough.

The Switch “just works.” Every game developed for it is optimized. No extra launcher, no need to plug a keyboard and mouse, and every game launches without a hitch. As a personal Switch owner myself, I will definitely keep using my Switch, as Nintendo still refuses to branch out to other platforms, and I still need it as a legal means of emulation. But the Switch suffers from hardware that remains the same since 2017, and nowadays third-party ports often have to cut corners by lowering the framerate, lowering the graphics quality, or even using a cloud-based streaming solution.

Even with the hurdles the Steam Deck has to overcome, with the rigorous work Valve and CodeWeavers have put forth, especially over the past couple of months since the Steam Deck was announced, it’s just been simply amazing to see all the progress they have made. Linux market share, according to the Steam hardware survey, remains a little over 1% — that percentage hasn’t been reached in ages! Even if you don’t plan on getting a Deck, the changes made to Proton will still be of great benefit to every gamer out there.

So, hang tight. It’s only a few months away. podiki will likely be the first out of the four of us writers here at Boiling Steam to receive the Deck. We certainly look forward to seeing, hearing, and reading his thoughts on paper regarding this awesome new device. In the meantime, be assured we will continue to add more news as time goes on when it comes to things like this.

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Lachu

In my opinion, case where no all games work great on Deck, is not real problem. Valve sign/classify games about how it work on Deck. Comparing to Switch is not good compare. People may still buy only game with good grade to run on Deck. What about other games? Some old games are released on consoles, with gamepad support and the same case is about Deck. Companies could release Remastered game version, where it would be matched to fit good into Deck.

boltronics

It’s a shame Valve didn’t do a world-wide release of the Steam Deck. I think sales have been very lackluster in large part because, by the time Valve’s devices find their way to the rest of the world, it’s very old news and nobody cares anymore. For example, the Valve Index recently came out here in Australia, in September 2021, at AU$1899.95 (~US$1374.43). For comparison, it was initially launched in the US in June 2019 at US$999. Great if you’re in the USA, but Valve gives other countries the finger. The Valve Deck still hasn’t been announced in Australia. If… Read more »

citral

Honestly don’t care about EA and their practices… What is really interesting here, is a democratisation of linux as an os for gaming. It’s as mainstream as you’ll get. And it’s really time the industry moves forward, while win7 wasn’t too intrusive and could be easily optimized, win10 is catastrophic. Can’t turn autoupdates off. Installs stuff in your back, you never asked for. Re-enables cortana even if you shut it off. An os is supposed to do what I tell it to, not the opposite. Good riddance.

Corben78

Linux gaming has come a long way, starting with some ported games from Loki, some games from ID software, a few others… to the Humble Indie Bundle… and then it really took of with Steam coming to Linux.

The Steam Deck is the most interesting upcoming device right now. With a big company behind it, which really seems to be on the good side. Not excluding others, developing an open platform… it’s incredible. I can’t wait to finally hold it in my hands.