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Editorial - Linux Gaming's Ticking Clock

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Years ago, when we could still meet in the hundreds in small enclosed spaces, I was speaking to a Valve employee and brought up the topic of integrating Wine into Steam. I was met with something that I assume is taught to all of their employees during orientation - a sly, precise and knowing smile. When performed correctly it's a smile that offers up no information other than a confidence that there are good things to come. Back then Proton was very clearly something to be held close to the chest, not to be shouted about, at least not for a while.

Now, Proton is all anyone wants to talk about when Linux gaming is brought up. It comes with an argument just waiting to spring out at you - are you for or against? Are you perilously blind to the devastation caused by opening pandora's box, or are you a stifling traditionalist unwilling to let the platform evolve towards a bright future? I don't think either of those is a hill worth dying on, but I've heard these exchanges enough now that I can tell they're coming by the hairs on the back of my neck. It's not that these aren't important debates to have, it's just that the angles people take are so often unable to give the pragmatist room to breathe, let alone space to get down and dirty with the real issues at hand and how to solve them.

I think I now understand why the Proton cards were kept so hidden, sometimes it's not worth inciting an angry debate without letting something speak for itself first.

Today there's an undeniable truth that in a short window of time we've gained a wealth of games to play on Linux, but instead of the current dialogue focusing on finding common actions - how to capitalize on that potential, how to generate growth or even how to prevent too much damage being done, it too often ends up distracted in arguments that only focus on the past. These are fruitless. There's nothing to be gained but the ego boost of a hollow personal victory. "Is Proton good or bad for Linux gaming?" is a tired old question, that was thrown around in slightly different forms long before Proton even existed. There's a far more interesting topic: "Proton is here, so what next?". Finding answers to this, collectively, should be our urgent priority, because there's one thing seldom brought up in all these discussions: Proton's current success is the child of impeccable timing, and it may not last.

There are many factors to this, the first being the currently extended console generation. In 2019 almost all Windows games were still rendering with DirectX 11, a technology released 10 years prior. DirectX 12 was launched five years ago but we're only now seeing games start to truly use it. Part of Proton's success is founded on the fact that Vulkan is a generational leap above the tech current games are built on. It's not even simply DirectX 12, which is a mostly solved problem on Linux, the incoming generation is going to leapfrog that directly into entirely new technologies like Ray Tracing, DLSS and Nanite. You can see hints at the impact of the generational jump that's about to happen in NVIDIAs recent DLSS video, Epic's Unreal Engine 5 Reveal or the jaw-dropping Marbles RTX demo (shown below).

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These new technologies may well have great compatibility with Vulkan and Proton, but not if Vulkan can't keep up - it may be that games start requiring them sooner as a baseline, and there could be significant unavoidable performance hits in a translation layer just like in the old days of DirectX to OpenGL. Because of this, Vulkan adoption and wide-spread use are vital to keeping Linux capable of cutting edge graphics tech. Supporting the use of Vulkan not only massively helps Proton, but it also helps Khronos stay at the cutting edge, making future native ports a much simpler prospect.

The potential success of Stadia could be a key factor in this - the more Google looks to push the boundaries of graphics hardware, the stronger Vulkan will need to be when put up against DirectX. Desktop usage of Vulkan is growing, with Vulkan renderers being added to games like Red Dead Redemption 2 and Rainbow Six Siege while Android use is on the rise as well, the success of both of these will be another factor in keeping Vulkan at the forefront. There was some doubt only a few years ago about whether Vulkan would end up as another OpenGL, an unwieldy, rarely-used-on-desktop API with dodgy driver support and lacking widespread expert knowledge, but I'm hearing those doubts less often these days. One situation that might play into all this is if Microsoft brought DirectX to Linux which, while farfetched, doesn't seem so insane anymore as it's coming to WSL, though the implications of a move like that are beyond anyone's fortune-telling abilities.

Another view on Proton's impeccable timing would be that Steam's strong market share on Windows for the last decade is only now hitting some serious competition. The Epic Games Store is the big challenger in the public eye, and while there's more to be done there (Epic integrating Proton would be special) the fact running it on Linux is a mostly solved problem, for now, has taken it out of focus a little. - we shouldn't get complacent. The second challenger that may be a far greater threat is the dirt-cheap and expansive Xbox Game Pass, which encourages a lack of game ownership that completely breaks the option of gamers taking their games with them when moving Linux (short of buying an Xbox). It also has the potential to finally transition more games to UWP, a format incompatible with Wine, and we recently heard that Microsoft is working on unifying their executable formats into something new, potentially causing even more problems.

For one flavour of pragmatist Stadia and other streaming services offer up a tangible step towards mitigating those issues by making your OS of choice irrelevant to the games you play. These services will give many Linux users direct access to the best AAA titles on their launch, and in Stadia's case, they're delivered using Linux virtually end-to-end. Xbox Game Streaming and Playstation Now may also unlock a huge library of console games without the need to invest in the set-top box. Streaming might not be your cup of tea or could be inaccessible due to your location, but it can't be ignored as part of the wider picture - a strong way to play games on PC without the need for a specific OS has clear benefits for Linux users.

Another simple counter is that it's becoming more and more obvious that Proton has far better historical compatibility with games than Windows does, and particularly better than Mac. This situation is likely to continue to improve, and it's a massive stealthy benefit for many gamers. Game preservation is a worthy shared goal to get behind, and we could look to establish Linux as the platform of choice for nostalgia seekers, tinkerers and modders for the digital age, in the same vein to that cabinet with a well preserved Nintendo 64 and a bunch of old games that some of us keep.

One last piece of the Proton timing puzzle is Anti-Cheat. We're nearing the end of a relatively long grace period where game developers shy away from going too invasive with protecting their IP. Most DRM and anti-tamper solutions are solvable in Wine, but Windows kernel-level anti-cheat has been around for years and is a much tougher challenge, bringing to a halt the hope of a quite a few games working on Linux. This level of invasive security isn't just a problem for Wine, it should be seen as a dangerous obstacle for all gamers, but it's a difficulty that's unlikely to go away in the short term as we see more AAA developers begin to rely on it, even though other methods have proven viable and are used in world-class esports. The problem is that invasive anti-cheat is now seeping outside of competitive multiplayer games - the latest victim is Doom Eternal, a game whose single-player campaign while writing this article became inaccessible on Proton due to the addition of Denuvo's new Anti Cheat.

However, it isn't all doom and gloom - broader campaigns against invasive anti-cheat are making small steps, Microsoft is granting users the ability to disable anti-cheat for single-player in the MCC, and most recently Denuvo Anti-Cheat is being removed again from Doom Eternal. In other good news, Valve is working with the developers of Easy Anti-Cheat, and Denuvo is working on out-of-the-box Proton support, but standing united with Windows gamers in setting a safer precedent for how companies handle these tools, regardless of Proton compatibility, is something we all should aim to do.

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Proton's timing was its strength, but native ports are another story. It's probably fair to say that the number of ports has reduced over the last year, and you can't blame developers for taking the easy route when they find their game works flawlessly under Proton. However, the story in terms of native development is more positive. In the open-source world, Godot has a significant fresh round of funding with its 2020 showreel showing a notable upward trend in quality and quantity, while Blender made a huge leap with 2.80 last year. For the big-name engines, both Unity and Unreal's support for native game development is improving at a solid pace. Combining these with great progress in the Linux Distribution world for ease of use, installation and compatibility, as well as the multiple manufacturers now providing more high-quality OEM Linux laptops means that native development has never been easier, and keeping it strong helps to counter any damage Proton may do.

It would be easy to have been pessimistic here, but I hope I've shown there's a fair amount optimism just waiting to be had once everything is weighed up. Proton may have come with a strong tailwind, but there are a plethora of other factors at play to help keep Linux gaming fresh. If there's one action to be taken here it's not to stick all of our eggs in one basket - we have to stop acting like Proton is the only choice on the table, that's a massive distraction pulling us away from coming together and solving this puzzle collectively and co-operatively. If we do that right, then next time someone brings up Proton and Linux gaming we can offer them up that same knowing smile, knowing that the future should speak for itself.

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I’m a programmer and avid gamer. I currently develop and game on Pop_OS, plus run Mint, Fedora and Raspbian at home. I work at Unity as a Linux specialist in the Sustained Engineering team, while also contracting for Valve. Formerly developer and Linux Group Lead at Feral. Any opinions and thoughts I write are mine personally and do not represent those of my employers.
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Corben 22 May 2020 at 9:23 am UTC
Nice read!

For Linux gamers the last few years since Valve officially started to support Linux with their client have been getting better and better. Though I guess that even the Humble Indie Bundles have to be taken into account as well. And of course all the other games that have native Linux version even before all that (e.g. ID software).

But even though we had quite some games to play natively on Linux, barely AAA titles have been among them. To play those, we ware mostly depending on wine.

I remember when John Carmack stated a few years back that the focus for games on Linux should be to improve wine compatibility, and have a look where we are at now. Not that only Valve has integrated wine via Proton, also Lutris is doing an amazing job getting games easily running for non-tinkerers. Yesterday I've been playing Titanfall again on Linux, the first one, that's only multiplayer! And it worked very well.

The impression I get now about Linux gaming is, it's becoming normal. It's not that difficult any more to get something up and running (ymmv) and thus not creating this special feeling to have done something extraordinary. Which is good!

Though we have now so many games to play, and it's that easy to play them on Linux now, it will still take a long time for more people to migrate to Linux. The majority of people is "lazy". Not meant as an offence, it's more like, why putting energy into something that works well enough and would cost me a lot of effort to make a change to. That energy maybe spent better elsewhere. But as Pierre-Loup Griffais stated, they see an equal amount of new users to Steam coming from Linux as from Windows.

On the other hand, there are still so many quirks and hurdles to overcome for an enjoyable experience on Linux, which still puts off many people. It's mostly all depending on the official support. It's getting better and better and is better than ever, but still. Personally, I miss the support of the Browser Source in OBS right now. Or having Linux support for mixed reality VR from e.g. LIV. It's nice to see though, that devs consider implementing a freely configurable 3rd person cam for VR games (at least OhShape and Synth Riders do) after requesting it.

After all, I'm happier than ever with Linux and with the variety and amount of games I can play now on Linux. Though we might be annoying, I guess we should not stop nudging devs about Linux support in a friendly way. There is still a long way to go, so we don't have to ask for Linux support any more, be it native or wine-wrapped.
Sojiro84 22 May 2020 at 10:04 am UTC
Comandante ÑoñardoI suggest Valve that Windows only games must have the current 30% cut, but games with a Linux version should have only a 5% cut...

I literally was thinking that this morning while reading this article. I mean, with such a low steam cut for the Linux version, I am sure many developers would make their game in such a way that it was extremely easy to port it.
musojon74 22 May 2020 at 11:14 am UTC
EDIT. I know we don’t all do this. Sorry to sound ranting but this is a big issue. We are a small market share. Plus we make ourselves smaller by only buying drm free and avoiding steam. ( not that I disagree with the principle of that ). But it does affect sales. Then we vocally shout about this. Then we shout at people for bad poets. Like Virtual Programming. It’s less they trashed their reputation, more like f it why should we bother supporting people who just shout at us.

Last edited by musojon74 on 22 May 2020 at 11:16 am UTC
jens 22 May 2020 at 11:48 am UTC
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tonyrhDo you remember two years ago when proton came out and people on this site seriously thought linux gaming numbers were going to radically grow because of it?

The numbers grew, didn't they? So how do you know it wasn't because of Proton and Wine progress?

But radically? I don't remember such expectations. Rather, it was expected to help sustaining the growth. And it does. You can see new users commenting all the time how they switched to Linux because of how easy Proton makes playing games for them.

And I would say Linux (gaming) got a lot more general attention and acknowledgment lately, I guess Proton and also Stadio have their share in this. I for example had a very pleasant experience with Kunos (Assetto Corsa Competizione). Linux people reported a Proton issue and it got fixed with a hotfix.
See (might be visible behind a forum account).

Last edited by jens on 22 May 2020 at 11:49 am UTC
Liam Dawe 22 May 2020 at 12:01 pm UTC
Comandante ÑoñardoI suggest Valve that Windows only games must have the current 30% cut, but games with a Linux version should have only a 5% cut...

I literally was thinking that this morning while reading this article. I mean, with such a low steam cut for the Linux version, I am sure many developers would make their game in such a way that it was extremely easy to port it.
It would probably become a nightmare of admin for Valve though, which is why they don't do it. Think of how many games would suddenly do a quick and poor job, just to get their name in the ring for a reduced cut. It would cause a lot more issues than it would solve I think. As much as I would like to see Valve do it.
Mohandevir 22 May 2020 at 12:33 pm UTC
elmapul... another thing to take into account is geForece Now...

Yep! And it's bad experience with AAA studios when it was officially released.

I don't know how Valve will deal with that, if they ever release an official streaming service, but Nvidia saw many AAA studios remove their games from GeForce Now, once they learned about the subscription service. Unless the "Steam streaming service" goes free, there is a possibilty that there will be a limited set of games available, lacking lots of popular titles.

Time will tell, if it ever becomes a thing...

Last edited by Mohandevir on 22 May 2020 at 12:34 pm UTC
sub 22 May 2020 at 1:21 pm UTC
Liam Dawe
Comandante ÑoñardoI suggest Valve that Windows only games must have the current 30% cut, but games with a Linux version should have only a 5% cut...

I literally was thinking that this morning while reading this article. I mean, with such a low steam cut for the Linux version, I am sure many developers would make their game in such a way that it was extremely easy to port it.
It would probably become a nightmare of admin for Valve though, which is why they don't do it. Think of how many games would suddenly do a quick and poor job, just to get their name in the ring for a reduced cut. It would cause a lot more issues than it would solve I think. As much as I would like to see Valve do it.

To avoid exactly that, the privilege of reduced cuts can be dropped if "port is in bad shape or not in sync or generally unmaintained (not sure about cross-platform multiplayer as well, though)".
Out of sync is an objective and simple thing to check.
Port quality can be alarmed on user feedback and checked by Valve.

Don't think it would be an extreme task for Valve but totally worth it.
In particular for Valve if they want to push the Linux platform.
It's an investment to their service and not a bribe.
One could think of it as an offer "We see this might be resource intensive for you to port and support your fantastic game on Linux and conquer new grounds. But if you do so, we'll do our share to compensate you for the effort."

On a side node. A lot of indies would automatically profit form the reduced cut, because many already provide a well-maintained native Linux builds.

Liam, if you got the connections to the Valve people, would it hurt to propose this?
mirv 22 May 2020 at 1:30 pm UTC
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Making sure a game is in good shape requires a lot of checks from Valve, something they don't traditionally do that much of. So I don't think basing how much of a cut is taken on the subjective quality of a title will work.
appetrosyan 22 May 2020 at 5:03 pm UTC
Purple Library Guy
gradyvuckovicReading over everything you wrote Liam about the different platforms competing, I don't think there should be any doubt that the way every major player in this market is competing right now, is with a strategy of platform lockin.

It's the name of the game. Every platform wants exclusives, or a subscription model, or at the very least to lock players into their platform with huge libraries of games, or a sense of dependency on a particular feature set, or 'something'.
It's an interesting problem for sure. One thing that makes it a problem is that the nature of Linux and open source makes it very hard to use lockin tactics in the usual way. However, there are forms of "opening all the things" that could effectively become exclusive-like in practical terms.
For instance, people have mentioned in this thread the ability of Proton/Wine to run old Windows games better than Windows does. Boxtron might also be mentioned in this connection. This is presumably true not only of old Windows games, but old Windows software in general. And there is a ton of old Windows software. In the past, all the masses of little old Windows apps for lots of little tasks that people still rely on was a shackle holding people to the safe backwards compatibility of Windows. Now the ability to use all that stuff could become an exclusive feature of Linux. My dad has this genealogy program that won't run on newer Windows . . .

There's the "Open source isn't spying on you" feature. Linux probably already has most of the paranoids . . . but paranoids are plausibly a growth market what with the way the world is going. You're not paranoid if they really are out to get you . . .

Linux could extend its various attempts to make everything run on it. Get serious about running Android apps, for instance. The Linux advantage could be that whatever platform you want something from, Linux can get it for you.

One thing to keep in mind in terms of growing the Linux (gaming) desktop is that we're sort of piggybacked on all the other Linux use cases. Desktop Linux is still viable largely because server Linux, HPC Linux, embedded Linux, "tinkerer" Linux (like Raspberry Pi and stuff) and so on and so forth are all prosperous or dominant in their spheres. That gives us a big mass of development happening on the Linux kernel and various important, infrastructural Linux software, so the core OS keeps on being very competitive, not to say awesome. Plus it creates this pool of people who work with Linux for various reasons, and some of them start wanting to use it for their desktop and their gaming.
The corollary is that every time Linux gains ground in some other space, it gives desktop/gaming Linux a little boost. And in fact, any time any open source software gains ground, it gives desktop/gaming Linux a little boost because open source software virtually always at least runs well on Linux and often is closely associated with Linux even if technically cross-platform. So if Blender starts taking over its space, there will be more Linux workstations, more development for graphics-oriented Linux software, drivers and so on, and a few more Linux desktops.
So we need to watch out for, and feed, disruptive open source software in various fields.

Spoiler, click me
This relates to Windows dominance of the office space, and the growth in work from home seeming to have driven a growth in use of Linux desktops. Windows general desktop dominance would be reduced if they didn't control the office desktop. Apple's desktop niche would be way smaller if they didn't have such a footprint in the "creative" desktop. Linux needs to build its own niches and make inroads into those. This can be done.
I've said before that there's a tendency for open source software to dominate when it reaches a certain size. Open source software is hard to kill entirely, it can limp along as an also-ran for years and years in the shadow of big commercial offerings where a small closed competitor would go bankrupt and die. In that state it tends to have core features but be unpolished and missing things compared to the top closed source player/s. But sometimes something happens. Some key, energetic developers arrive, or some industry players decide this thing is needed and fund it, or some reform of how it's run makes it more high-profile and submission-friendly, or the people who have been plugging away for ages finally get the infrastructure how they want it and the fruits of their labour show up in big featureful releases. And development accelerates, excitement builds, user numbers grow, a "critical mass" is reached. Once this process begins, it feeds off itself--the better the features, the more users and developers, the more users and developers, the more features. At a certain market share, it becomes difficult for closed source to compete. And there's a new niche for open source, and riding on that a new niche for Linux.
So yeah, every time a piece of open source software hits critical mass and starts taking over some niche, it's ultimately a win for Linux gaming. We should be watching out for and helping such things.

Really well put. However I would argue that there’s a slight problem with the software utilisation. Most companies are using Microsoft because they can’t afford the downtime, the IT guy is very old fashioned and because they’ve already bought a subscription and want to make the best of it.
CatKiller 22 May 2020 at 5:38 pm UTC
MohandevirUnless the "Steam streaming service" goes free, there is a possibilty that there will be a limited set of games available, lacking lots of popular titles.

Time will tell, if it ever becomes a thing...

Free is the way that makes most sense. They have a shop, their client also already streams games;let the customer buy the games as normal but have the option to stream from Steam Machines In The Cloud as a value-add if the customer's Internet is better than their gaming rig. It builds on what they already know how to do. A Netflix-style subscription service would be quite a swerve.

It might still be a restricted selection, depending on which ones they get running on Linux and whether it's optional for the publisher for the game to be included in the service.
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