A few days ago, the Steam Machines page on the Steam client suddenly disappeared while there were still some links towards a few models kind of available. Outrage! Valve is abandoning Steam Machines! SteamOS will be the next to be flushed down! Linux Gaming is DEAD!
Sometimes I am really glad I tend to wait before reporting anything. Turns out that nothing could be farther from the truth, as Pierre-Loup Griffais from Valve pointed out in a follow-up post to debunk the ridiculous stories that were printed left and right.
It did smell fishy right from the start. Valve has been hiring more and more folks to work on AMD open drivers, Mesa and Vulkan. They even ensured that Vulkan works on MacOS via MoltenVK that they helped open-source. On top of that we know that folks such as Tim Besset are working for Valve to enhance Unreal Engine 4’s Linux support, among other things. We also know that Valve is still working on bringing better VR support to Linux. And SteamOS updates are still rolling out on a regular basis.
Pierre-Loup specifically confirms this point:
Pierre-Loup Griffais: While it’s true Steam Machines aren’t exactly flying off the shelves, our reasons for striving towards a competitive and open gaming platform haven’t significantly changed. We’re still working hard on making Linux operating systems a great place for gaming and applications. We think it will ultimately result in a better experience for developers and customers alike, including those not on Steam.
He also elaborates on why Vulkan has become such a critical aspect of Valve’s focus:
Pierre-Loup Griffais: Through the Steam Machine initiative, we’ve learned quite a bit about the state of the Linux ecosystem for real-world game developers out there. We’ve taken a lot of feedback and have been heads-down on addressing the shortcomings we observed. We think an important part of that effort is our ongoing investment in making Vulkan a competitive and well-supported graphics API, as well as making sure it has first-class support on Linux platforms.
Following that logic Valve has also allowed pre-caching of Vulkan shaders to remove the compilation time needed during loading or in-games for such shaders:
Pierre-Loup Griffais: We also rolled out Steam Shader Pre-Caching, which will let users of Vulkan-based applications skip shader compilation on their local machine, significantly improving initial load times and reducing overall runtime stuttering in comparison with other APIs. We’ll be talking more about Shader Pre-Caching in the coming months as the system matures.
Finally, he touches on something that is really intriguing:
Pierre-Loup Griffais: We also have other Linux initiatives in the pipe that we’re not quite ready to talk about yet; SteamOS will continue to be our medium to deliver these improvements to our customers, and we think they will ultimately benefit the Linux ecosystem at large.
This seems to be related to what Gabe Newell was himself caught saying during the latest conference where he presented the new cards-game from Valve, Artifact:
Gabe Newell: We aren’t going to be talking about it today, but sort of the big thing, the new arrow we have in our quiver, really, is our ability to develop hardware and software simultaneously. We’ve always been a little bit jealous of companies like Nintendo. When Miyamoto is sitting down and thinking about the next version of Zelda or Mario, he’s thinking what is the controller going to look like, what sort of graphics and other capabilities. He can introduce new capabilities like motion input because he controls both of those things. And he can make the hardware look as good as possible because he’s designing the software at the same time that’s really going to take advantage of it. So that is something we’ve been jealous of, and that’s something that you’ll see us taking advantage of subsequently.
Do you want to know what I think? Well, my guess is that Valve is developing Linux-based VR stand-alone hardware, running SteamOS. Maybe something with integrated GPU directly on the headset or on the device so that it can make you move freely without the constraints of cables on the ground. This is probably why they need proper Vulkan support, and additional work on drivers, and AMD in the loop to ensure the fastest framerates possible, if possible at reasonable cost.
And maybe this headset would be put back on a stand when you are not wearing it, and become a full fledged Steam Machine then connecting to an external display, a la Switch. If it can do VR, it should be able to run just about any game properly as well on a regular 2D screen.
Of course, this may be completely wrong, but it seems plausible at this stage, and consistent with the idea that the Steam Machines as they were, were not a critical piece for Valve per se, but a side-project towards a bigger project.
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