Steam Deck - Developer Kit Impressions


We had a chance to have a quick Q&A with a developer, who asked to remain anonymous, with hands-on access to the developer kit of the Steam Deck. Because of a non-disclosure agreement (NDA), they couldn’t comment on every question that we had — instead they could only “talk about the hardware, and the overall experience to some degree.” That being said, here’s some valuable info that you might find interesting concerning the Steam Deck, which is scheduled to start shipping next month!

The first thing they mentioned was that they’re “not convinced that even with all the improvements to SteamOS 3.0 between August and October that it would have been ready by December. Yes, there’s a semiconductor shortage but I’m thinking it’s not the real reason for the delay.” So, the shipping delay could potentially be tied to the SteamOS experience needing more polish rather than (just) the chip shortage we all thought it was connected to.

Here are the other questions we had for them. Several questions they couldn’t leave a comment on for the above reason and this has been slightly edited for clarity and to respect the anonymity of the developer.

Boiling Steam: Have you tried any demanding games?

Yes - battery life is between 2-5 hours depending on APU load.

BS: How easy is it to install custom programs?

Relatively, depending on what you want to add.

BS: Can you add ProtonGE?

It’s possible.

BS: HThe devkit corresponds to which version? The 512 GB one?

I have the 256GB version, if I recall correctly other devs do too.

BS: Can you access the BIOS?

I haven’t tried to.

BS: Is the new SteamOS interface much better than the current Big Picture Mode?

It’s getting better.

BS: Have you tried plugging it in to a larger monitor? How do things behave when you do so?

Yes, it behaves like a small form factor PC.

BS: Can you resume a game at any point in time? Or do you have to exit and restart?

Mid-game resuming is being worked on.

BS: How many settings are exposed to the end user? Less than on the current Steam BPM or more?

Less, currently.

BS: How fast are load times from the microSD card?

Indistinguishable from loading off the SSD; I’ve not timed anything.

BS: Are there many games you tried where the low resolution of the display made things harder to enjoy (like text size, visibility)?

Yes, the Final Fantasy Pixel Remasters. Text needs a magnifying glass to read.

BS: How hot does the unit run when playing games?

It gets warm but never uncomfortable.

BS: Is there a way to know if the game runs natively or thru Proton via the SteamOS 3 interface? Or is it hidden from the end user?

Currently, it is hidden from the user.

BS: Is the fan somewhat noisy?

It has a similar pitch to the Switch fan and can get a little louder; unless you’re holding it to your ear, it’s barely noticeable.

BS: How much “better” does it feel than a Switch when playing games? If you had to compare qualitatively.

It’s more comfortable to play for longer sessions, button placement is good. Being wider than the Switch helps with the Deck’s weight distribution and feeling of balance.

BS: Now that you have it in hands, do you feel it’s going to sell well?

I genuinely don’t know. It doesn’t matter to Valve how well it sells, you’re already buying your games from Steam and if every Deck gets Windows installed, it’s still a win for them.

BS: Does the Deck live up to the hype?

Hardware wise, it’s the best gaming device since the Game Boy Advance. Experience wise? That’s difficult to answer, it kinda does but also doesn’t currently. Could it live up to the hype? It could.

BS: Are you impressed?

I’m not disappointed with the hardware. Being completely honest, many people will get a Deck and will be impressed. Equally, many will not be (mainly because they didn’t temper their expectations). As long as you keep in mind it’s a handheld and run games at reasonable settings, it’s a fantastic gaming device. SteamOS 3.0 needs more time in the oven and I think February is cutting it close to have it in a shippable state. Especially when Valve only recently started manufacturing the consumer SKUs.

BS: How do you think Windows gamers will react?

I genuinely don’t know. Other devs I know said “if the Deck is anything like the Switch, experience wise, Microsoft should be worried.”

BS: So, is it anything like the Switch?

It’s a pretty close experience, in that once you’re playing a game, everything else melts away.

BS: What’s the desktop experience like? How do you access it? Is it plausible as a daily driver?

It’s a good experience. Can’t comment on how it’s accessed. It can be a daily driver though I wouldn’t recommend it.

BS: Were you able to show the device to anyone in private and get their reaction?

I may have. The DV [design validation; sent to developers in December] isn’t the first Deck I’ve seen in real life; before I received it, I had access to an EV2 [engineering validation] through a UK-based studio I work with from time to time. Everything I wanted in SteamOS, everything I’ve ever asked Valve for, is there. Many devs share that sentiment.

BS: How are devs reacting to it? Planning to test their games with Proton from now on?

Of the devs I’ve spoken to who have a dev kit (around 30), half are seriously considering making a GNU+Linux native version. The rest either have a native version or their games already work well under Proton.

BS: Are they typically people who know Linux? (The ones who will make a native version especially.)

They have experience or have used tools that make porting to native easier. It’s mainly publishers who are less supportive of native versions. Steam Deck, and ultimately SteamOS, cannot be wholly reliant on proprietary middleware that’s reliant on Windows APIs. Valve needs to push not only for native ports, but also GNU+Linux exclusives.

BS: If the install base grows sufficiently then native versions will come… but even on the Switch… are those console and PC ports really “native” or just run through a Switch translation layer?

It’s pretty much 50/50. My biggest concern with Valve is they’re shipping a half-assed attempt at replacing GNU+Linux native ports & telling everyone it works perfectly. They’re selling it as a “one size fits all” solution and it isn’t. But, Steam Deck could be the very best device on which to play games, not just PC games.

BS: GNU+Linux exclusives? Not going to happen. Valve has said many times they don’t like the concept.

They’ve said they don’t want Deck exclusives, they’re fine with GNU+Linux only games.

BS: I guess emulators run well? Retroarch?

It does. Valve isn’t selling it as an emulation device, however.

BS: Were you able to try Switch games on the Deck?

I can’t comment on that as Valve aren’t selling it as an emulation device.

Several questions couldn’t be answered, though we tried. Questions we tried like: Can you image the disk? Do the Steam Verified labels already show up? Are the Proton versions managed in the same way or is it on Proton Experimental by default? Did ‘Steam launch options’ and ‘Compatibility Tools’ options change compared to the current official state? The Deck as vendor lock-in? had no comment.

We also discussed the potential for Valve to exercise control over the platform and they told us that “Valve want SteamOS on more devices than just the Deck, though if other companies licence the OS and hardware design from Valve, that’s when they may exercise their right to restrict the Deck to SteamOS.” Valve has a bit of a mix of open and non-open software, let’s hope they continue in the vein of things like Proton in the age of the Steam Deck. Valve still list the Deck as shipping in February (of this futuristic year, 2022).

As for me (podiki) my order is listed as “Q1 2022” and I hope I’m in an early batch since I got my preorder in very quickly. If it goes as it did for the Index queue, I would expect an email to pay shortly before it ships. There’s a lot in my backlog and current rotation that would make great first Deck games, off the top of my head I’m thinking some top-down action (Hades, Death’s Door which I just bought), card games (Monster Train, Slay the Spire, Griftlands), and some more intensive games to see what it can do and try the gyro aiming (No Man’s Sky, Horizon Zero Dawn, Cyberpunk 2077??).

It was particularly interesting for me to see the insight of someone on the other (developer) side and what some of the reaction and thoughts have been. We discuss and debate a lot how the Deck will be received by consumers and the mainstream gaming press, but we haven’t paid as much attention to the developers. If Valve does well for them, making it easy and beneficial to have games on the Deck (meaning Linux more broadly!), that could certainly have good knock-on effects for us Linux gamers. It is not as simple as the Deck heralding a new age of Proton; it could very well be a gateway to Linux itself for developers or consumers. That’s my hope at least!

Either way, since the Deck announcement I’ve gone from “cool device, but I’ve never been a portable gamer” to “can’t wait to have this in my hands.” I’m definitely intrigued by what the hacking and customization scene will be like, you know I’ll want to do something weird with it right away.

What about you? Anyone else excited or waiting to see what happens? What will you play on yours or hope to see once the Deck is in the wild?