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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.

Article taken from GamingOnLinux.com.
Tags: Editorial
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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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mirv 22 May 2020 at 11:28 pm UTC
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appetrosyan
musojon74EDIT. 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.

I don’t think this is baseless. In words of RMS, we’re sacrificing convenience for freedom.

Also, If Virtual Programming are turned off of writing Linux ports, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. I can imagine a whole slew of games that they could have ported just as badly. Now those games probably went to feral, or conceivably didn’t get ported at all, and now enjoy a nearly hassle-free experience through Proton. The policy off shutting down things that you don’t like has the effect of things that you don’t like not showing up.

VP improved the quality of their ports massively after the initial Witcher 2 debacle. There are quite a few games they did that ran really well - including Witcher 2 once it was patched up. And they did help with some driver issues in Mesa. If they'd managed to get through enough and invest in a Vulkan backend, they'd be pretty much where DXVK is now, except tailored to individual games and giving support for them.

Losing fglrx drivers was a good thing. Losing VP is not.
Linuxwarper 23 May 2020 at 12:58 am UTC
appetrosyanHopefully, we can reach critical adoption and every other proprietary application just becomes outmatched.
Vulkan needs to be dethrone DirectX. Vulkan isn't owned by Microsoft so it will be difficult for them to steer it into a dead end for Linux. Even if developers develop for Windows only, the games will run as good as native with Vulkan. It will make people switch over and eventually the marketshare will be significant enough (3% or more) that publishers can no longer ignore or neglect Linux. There will certainly be (and are already) developers who will rely on Proton as a easy way to earn cash from Linux users, but significant marketshare will surely make others choose more crossplatform software for development. And that will be a major victory in itself, developers choosing other crossplatform software (besides Vulkan) when they up to that point had not done that at all.


Last edited by Linuxwarper on 23 May 2020 at 12:59 am UTC
appetrosyan 23 May 2020 at 9:26 am UTC
mirv
appetrosyan
musojon74EDIT. 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.

I don’t think this is baseless. In words of RMS, we’re sacrificing convenience for freedom.

Also, If Virtual Programming are turned off of writing Linux ports, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. I can imagine a whole slew of games that they could have ported just as badly. Now those games probably went to feral, or conceivably didn’t get ported at all, and now enjoy a nearly hassle-free experience through Proton. The policy off shutting down things that you don’t like has the effect of things that you don’t like not showing up.

VP improved the quality of their ports massively after the initial Witcher 2 debacle. There are quite a few games they did that ran really well - including Witcher 2 once it was patched up. And they did help with some driver issues in Mesa. If they'd managed to get through enough and invest in a Vulkan backend, they'd be pretty much where DXVK is now, except tailored to individual games and giving support for them.

Losing fglrx drivers was a good thing. Losing VP is not.

I agree to an extent. There’s always a way to politely remind people that their work is not quite up to scratch, and death threats for a job however botched is never warranted. That does not mean that trust cannot be lost and that there are no objective markers of quality. My issue with this debacle is both the immaturity with which we have made a fool of ourselves, and the extent to which the entire community was gaslighted. VP, have learned a valuable lesson about quality of work. We have learned that telling people to kill themselves is a bad thing.
Linuxwarper 23 May 2020 at 4:26 pm UTC
appetrosyanI agree to an extent. There’s always a way to politely remind people that their work is not quite up to scratch, and death threats for a job however botched is never warranted. That does not mean that trust cannot be lost and that there are no objective markers of quality. My issue with this debacle is both the immaturity with which we have made a fool of ourselves, and the extent to which the entire community was gaslighted. VP, have learned a valuable lesson about quality of work. We have learned that telling people to kill themselves is a bad thing.
To add to that, I don't believe it's wrong for a developer to rely on Proton at this point in time. My reasoning for that is that for some games or genres Linux isn't that profitable, and thus it's not feasible to do extra work to provide native. The extra work could be used to make more content for windows game.

Streets of Rage developers provided keys to Valve so they could make it work with Proton. Ideally I would like native, but I understand that's not feasible and therefor I don't have any ill will against developers who decide to forego native release for Proton one. Provided their reason for doing so is warranted.

But it's important than when developers decide to go for Proton that they do it the right way i.e working with Valve and Valve's recommendations for Proton. Furthermore developers could be kind and give back X amount of money back in form of Steam wallet if players have played their game through Proton on Linux after X hours of played or something like that.
appetrosyan 23 May 2020 at 4:31 pm UTC
Linuxwarper
appetrosyanI agree to an extent. There’s always a way to politely remind people that their work is not quite up to scratch, and death threats for a job however botched is never warranted. That does not mean that trust cannot be lost and that there are no objective markers of quality. My issue with this debacle is both the immaturity with which we have made a fool of ourselves, and the extent to which the entire community was gaslighted. VP, have learned a valuable lesson about quality of work. We have learned that telling people to kill themselves is a bad thing.
To add to that, I don't believe it's wrong for a developer to rely on Proton at this point in time. My reasoning for that is that for some games or genres Linux isn't that profitable, and thus it's not feasible to do extra work to provide native. The extra work could be used to make more content for windows game.

Streets of Rage developers provided keys to Valve so they could make it work with Proton. Ideally I would like native, but I understand that's not feasible and therefor I don't have any ill will against developers who decide to forego native release for Proton one. Provided their reason for doing so is warranted.

But it's important than when developers decide to go for Proton that they do it the right way i.e working with Valve and Valve's recommendations for Proton. Furthermore developers could be kind and give back X amount of money back in form of Steam wallet if players have played their game through Proton on Linux after X hours of played or something like that.

A bit intractable, but I’m sure it’s with good intentions.
Purple Library Guy 23 May 2020 at 5:43 pm UTC
Reading through the last bunch of comments I noticed a couple of things.
Some people are talking about the way "the community" behaved at certain times as though that's tactically relevant and we could choose do do that differently in future. It isn't because we can't. It is not a controllable factor. Any uncontrolled community bigger than a certain size will have some people in it who act like jerks. Period. Planning based on the notion that we can make that not be the case is entirely pointless.

Some people in the last few posts are also talking as though if we get Proton working well enough, that will actually cause Linux adoption. It will not. A lot of the story of Linux is about removing barriers to adoption--getting rid of the things that block people from switching. Many, many barriers have been removed, many others have been made much lower. Proton is one of those barrier removers, and a fairly important one. Removing barriers is an important thing to do. IMO, Linux developers have been really very successful at barrier removal, whether it's hardware not working or UI polish or software that does needed jobs. For a lot of use cases, there are no significant ones left.

And yet here we are at about the same market share we've always been at. Removing all the barriers is not enough to drive adoption. The big question coming out of the original article and some of the key discussion posts is, what can be done to create actual pull towards Linux, so that people are not just not blocked from switching but have positive reasons to do so?
Linuxwarper 23 May 2020 at 6:08 pm UTC
Purple Library GuyReading through the last bunch of comments I noticed a couple of things.
Some people are talking about the way "the community" behaved at certain times as though that's tactically relevant and we could choose do do that differently in future. It isn't because we can't. It is not a controllable factor. Any uncontrolled community bigger than a certain size will have some people in it who act like jerks. Period. Planning based on the notion that we can make that not be the case is entirely pointless.

Some people in the last few posts are also talking as though if we get Proton working well enough, that will actually cause Linux adoption. It will not. A lot of the story of Linux is about removing barriers to adoption--getting rid of the things that block people from switching. Many, many barriers have been removed, many others have been made much lower. Proton is one of those barrier removers, and a fairly important one. Removing barriers is an important thing to do. IMO, Linux developers have been really very successful at barrier removal, whether it's hardware not working or UI polish or software that does needed jobs. For a lot of use cases, there are no significant ones left.

And yet here we are at about the same market share we've always been at. Removing all the barriers is not enough to drive adoption. The big question coming out of the original article and some of the key discussion posts is, what can be done to create actual pull towards Linux, so that people are not just not blocked from switching but have positive reasons to do so?
You speak of Proton as if it's complete when reality is it's not. It still lacks support for anticheat, and VK3D is still not mature. How can Proton make a significant impact when it's still lacking? I am certain a completed Proton will drive adoption. But as I stated in a previous post, Linux's competitors aren't standing still. Xbox Game Pass, Game Bar (Personally I find it bloat), XCloud, Play Anywhere etc are ensuring people stay on Windows. Proton has already convinced people to switch or use Linux, and I can safely say I am not the only one who has noticed the surge of people asking for help before switching. /r/Linux_Gaming is also increasing in suscribers.
https://imgur.com/BWnpeOs

Clearly Proton is having a effect as minuscule as it might be. And I remind you, Proton is not complete. It's still a work in progress. So how can you expect our market share to be 1% or more when Proton isn't complete, Linux gets no marketing or much vendor support?

Another barrier is performance, Vulkan does that. Before I switched to Linux I compared Windows and Linux performance and was disappointed at performance difference (pre Proton/DXVK). Why would anyone switch to a OS that doesn't allow you to play your favourite games or most games in general and the performance is poor?

What can be done is; Valve needs to offer incentive to gamers or developers to consider Linux. Us on the platform need to promote it; Linux Gaming In 2020 - You'll Be Amazed By What's Now Possible.
But I think it will be premature to promote Linux in mass until Proton has matured further (anti cheat). Because users will switch and find out Rainbow Six Siege and Fortnite can't be played and they get a poor experience. Though making videos informing potential switchers of what current situation is of gaming on Linux is good to do.


Last edited by Linuxwarper on 23 May 2020 at 6:10 pm UTC
RandomizedKirbyTree47 23 May 2020 at 8:39 pm UTC
I think anti-cheat is likely to be the biggest threat of the things you mentioned. Not just to Proton, but to Steam and all Linux gaming. To see why, take a look at Android.

Right now, a lot of big-studio mobile games use a very simple mechanism to detect cheating: they check (or try to check) whether the supposed owner of the phone has root access. If you have root access to your device, they assume you are cheating. If you don't have root access, they assume you aren't cheating.

This method of anti-cheat doesn't always work. For example, in Pokemon Go and other location-based games, the most common type of cheating is location-spoofing, which is possible to do without rooting. Some users have reported location-spoofing without being banned. It's particularly embarrassing on the part of Niantic, because it should (in at least some cases) be possible to detect location-spoofing server-side: if a player travels from North America to Europe to Australia and back to North America in a matter of seconds, they are probably cheating, and you don't need to know what other programs are installed on their phone to figure that out.

Anti-cheating has also become common in single-player mobile games, thanks to the dominance of pay-to-win. In a pay-to-win game, there is already a publisher-approved way to get an in-game advantage: buy IAPs. Publishers are likely to view cheating in a pay-to-win game in a similar manner to how they view illegal downloads of a premium game.

And the vast majority of smartphone-owners don't care. The general public has come to accept that a company who "sells" them a device still has complete control over the device.

Given the increased popularity of iOS and Android among non-techies, and given the fact that the global revenue from mobile games keeps increasing, I think it is only a matter of time before an AAA publisher attempts to do the same thing on PC, and makes a game that can only be played in S Mode. The deciding factor in the future of AAA gaming will be how Windows users react to such a restriction.

In the best-case scenario, most Windows-gamers won't be willing to give up the ability to install apps from outside the Microsoft store just to play one game. Hence, whichever game is S-mode-only will be a commercial failure, and publishers will be discouraged from trying to do the same thing in the future.

In the worst-case scenario, Windows users will willingly enable S-mode just to play one AAA game. Since s-mode only allows users to install apps from the Microsoft store, that could create a death spiral for Steam and other storefronts: anyone who switches to s-mode for one game would have to buy all of their other games from the Microsoft Store, which would increase the market share of the Microsoft Store, which in turn might convince other publishers that they wouldn't lose many customers if they made their games s-mode only.

If the worst-case occurs, I think that would be the end of (legally) playing AAA games on open platforms. Publishers will get the idea that they can prevent cheating or illegal downloads by making their games playable only on console-like locked down platforms. If they ever allow their games to come to Linux after that, it would only be to a variant of Linux that was as locked-down as iOS and Android.

As a Linux user, I really, really, hope I am wrong about all of my predictions above.
Purple Library Guy 24 May 2020 at 1:00 am UTC
LinuxwarperYou speak of Proton as if it's complete when reality is it's not. It still lacks support for anticheat, and VK3D is still not mature. How can Proton make a significant impact when it's still lacking? I am certain a completed Proton will drive adoption.
I'm afraid you missed my whole point. Proton, whether incomplete or complete, is a thing which reduces barriers to adoption. It cannot in itself drive adoption. With Proton, you can potentially say "If I switch to Linux, I can still have my Windows games." But people who stay with Windows can already have their Windows games--that's not a reason to switch.
If barriers are high, there can be drivers of adoption and people still won't switch--they'll say "I'd like to switch, but I wouldn't be able to play my Windows games." So something like Proton is important in its own way. But it is not in itself a driver of adoption, just an enabler if such drivers exist.

For people to switch, there need to be both few and low barriers to switching, and positive drivers, actual reasons why you get something out of switching. My point was that Linux people have tended to work very hard to reduce barriers, but have not put as much effort into creating actual incentives--and Proton is in the former category, not the latter.
jens 24 May 2020 at 6:45 am UTC
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Purple Library Guy
LinuxwarperYou speak of Proton as if it's complete when reality is it's not. It still lacks support for anticheat, and VK3D is still not mature. How can Proton make a significant impact when it's still lacking? I am certain a completed Proton will drive adoption.
I'm afraid you missed my whole point. Proton, whether incomplete or complete, is a thing which reduces barriers to adoption. It cannot in itself drive adoption. With Proton, you can potentially say "If I switch to Linux, I can still have my Windows games." But people who stay with Windows can already have their Windows games--that's not a reason to switch.
If barriers are high, there can be drivers of adoption and people still won't switch--they'll say "I'd like to switch, but I wouldn't be able to play my Windows games." So something like Proton is important in its own way. But it is not in itself a driver of adoption, just an enabler if such drivers exist.

For people to switch, there need to be both few and low barriers to switching, and positive drivers, actual reasons why you get something out of switching. My point was that Linux people have tended to work very hard to reduce barriers, but have not put as much effort into creating actual incentives--and Proton is in the former category, not the latter.

Very good points, thanks.
I wonder what actual drivers are there to move to Linux. The one I could think of, except from non-functionals like being free/open or less intrusive, is that Linux offers a much better developer experience. Even in development areas where Windows is rather strong, e.g. Web development, I'm gradually seeing people move to Linux since things like Docker or Nodejs do work much better on Linux (I guess that is also the reason why there is so much investment into WSL from Microsoft). Are there more strong functional drivers?
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