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What we expect to come from Valve to help Linux gaming in 2021

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By now you've probably heard either through us in our previous article or elsewhere that Valve are cooking something up to help Linux gaming even further. We have an idea on what one part of it is.

Valve already do quite a lot. There's the Steam Play Proton compatibility layer, the new container runtime feature to have Linux games both natively supported and Windows games in Proton run through a contained system to ensure compatibility, their work on Mesa drivers and much more.

In Valve's review of Steam in 2020 that we covered in the link above, one thing caught our eye and has been gaining attention. Valve mentioned for 2021 they will be "putting together new ways for prospective users to get into Linux gaming and experience these improvements" so what exactly does that mean? Well, a part of that might have already been suggested directly.

Back in November 2019, the open source consulting firm Collabora presented an overview of the work they have been doing funded by Valve. Towards the end of the talk they mentioned ongoing work towards foolproof and fast instant upgrades of Linux systems. Collabora mentioned it could work for specialised systems like consoles or other systems where you don't expect users to be highly technical. Leading into that, a Valve developer posted on Reddit to clarify more details around what Collabora were talking about:

The image-based updater work is part of a set of efforts to attempt to improve the experience of trying out Linux on a normal PC with live USB media, and instantly updating said media from the other OS without losing user data. There's no "locking down" involved, as it can easily be disabled by the user to fall back to the normal package manager.

Pierre-Loup Griffais, Valve

Linux has long been able to run directly from USB drives but what about the next stage of this evolution? That appears to be what Valve are hinting at in their 2020 review blog post.

Imagine if you will for a moment: a SteamOS-style USB stick, that's highly optimized for Linux gaming, with drivers ready to go and Steam pre-configured with everything it needs all direct from Valve and also this special update system to ensure it keeps on working. Now add in some pre-configured persistence so your games, files and so on stay on it and that sure sounds like a new way for users to get into and experience Linux gaming doesn't it? Steam Machines didn't work, so a way to properly experience Linux gaming in full on hardware people already own? That could certainly work.

That could be a much more interesting way to actually market and advertise Linux gaming too. It's not enough to have Linux distributions be fast and stable, and to have plenty of games available to play otherwise we would already be in a better position as a platform. An absolute game changer? No, but another very useful tool in the shed. The conversation changes with such an easy to use way to get involved. Burn it to a USB stick, load it on your PC and login to Steam, download a game and away you go — you're now gaming on Linux.

Not just for gamers though, this could be a pretty valuable tool for developers to test their games on Linux too. If it enables developers to quickly boot up a drive with Linux on, that's up to date and works with games, that's going to make things a lot easier in the long run from all sides.

USB drives have been ridiculously cost effective in the last few years too, along with plenty of USB3 options now existing for the speed and you can get quite a lot of storage on them so it would be a pretty fascinating move.

Over to you in the comments, what are your thoughts?

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100 comments
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robredz 17 Jan
Quoting: no_information_here
QuoteNot just for gamers though, this could be a pretty valuable tool for developers to test their games too.
I think this is the real reason. I have seen a number of small devs post comments like "I don't have a linux machine" in answer to questions about porting games (or fixing the games they already ported). If it is super easy to plug in a USB drive and have an instant test environment, it would make many of those excuses go away.
TGhere are plenty of USB distro's out there, Puppy is one, but one set up for gaming and game devs to use would be good
Gobo 17 Jan
I am not against the idea of a SteamOS USB edition, but I highly doubt that would be the focus of the dev team.

Rebooting is inconvenient. Fiddling with Boot options to make sure boot from USB is possible could be an early show stopper, it is not easy for non technical people. Unless we see widespread adoption of open BIOS alternatives might be borked with the trusted platform bullshit (another thing Valve was worried about besides the closed windows store eco system). Booting from USB is slow. Keep in mind people might chose older USB storage devices with outdated read/write performance or simply use the wrong USB plug that only supports up to 2.0 speeds. Waiting for updates after the slow boot process is boring as hell (again, writes are even slower than reading over USB). And all that to just play some games?

New consoles have instant play options for a reason.

I do see benefits for USB live OS boot sticks if you plug them into work stations without them tampering with the work related storage for example. Taking the stick to a friend's house and play games where otherwise you could not. Or imagine using the stick with the new console generation to access your steam library on those.

I still think a new generation of steam machines would be a good choice. People love the "insert brand here" mini consoles with just a low number of preinstalled games. Those machines do not need to be top tier state of the art beasts, they would just have to be easy to use and play a good number of games up to a certain performance requirement. If they manage to enable Linux native games and the ones from the curated Proton compatibility whitelist, that would be good enough and still might offer to remove the restriction and try non white listed titles as well.

What about a mobile friendly steam container to play games on your phone? Or a handheld steam machine dedicated hardware? What about a new Vive VR headset with a build in Steam OS system? Co-operations with video streaming services so that you access them with just your steam account and pay through the wallet, integrated into the steam family restriction service where you can limit the content type and access times for kids? Tighter e-sports integration for spectators? Could they provide a reasonably smooth steam experience through new web technologies like WASM in the browser? How about extending the steam buddy list with its text and voice chat with added video, not just to compete with Zoom or Teams, but to enrich multiplayer lobbies?
sbolokanov 17 Jan
Quoting: const
Quoting: sbolokanovHow did Steam get to where it is now? By exclusive games.
How did console X get to where it is now? By exclusive games.

The idea that user X is going to simply ditch his OS for no apparent reason is ridiculous to me.

Well, releasing exclusive games would be a much better option once they can point to an usb stick stick solution that doesn't alter the system, wouldn't it? This might be especially interesting if they plan to put pressure on apple.

*cough cough* Linux live USB sticks exists for I don't really recall how many years now.

Many have said it already: People use Windows. People are fine with using Windows. In fact it's probably perfect for their needs.
And from a gamers perspective - they have all PC games + actual support.

What we need is better performance, better APIs and better software in general.
What we need is more companies that actually support our platform, not just grab extra cash for no effort at all.
Nanobang 17 Jan
The news that Steam might have plans to release what seems to be a sort of Linux Steam Live USB with persistence. Cool! It makes sense from Valve's perspective. It offers devs and gamers a way to experiment with Linux.

I'm sure many devs are as aware of Valve's interest in Linux as we are. Remember how we had all those games come out on Linux when SteamOS was announced? Granted, the Steam Machine/OS initiative (just "SteamOS initiative" hereon out) didn't catch on, but devs released on Linux as if it might.

Now, seven years later, when hardly any mainstream AAA or even AA titles are released on Linux, and even Aspyr and Feral have followed the money to greener pastures, Valve continues to put money and resources into Linux Gaming. Why?

Let's not forget, Valve's SteamOS initiative was their response to Microsoft's creation of a "walled garden" app store in Windows 8. The "Microsoft Store," as it's now called, seems no less a threat to Steam's revenue than it was in 2012. The more Valve builds dev and user support for Linux gaming through their efforts, the more loyal customers their apt to gain. Just a thought.


Last edited by Nanobang on 17 January 2021 at 7:06 pm UTC
Schbezzy 17 Jan
So I would like it that it is finally managed that when I play a Windows game with Proton that it is displayed correctly to my friends. At the moment it is not displayed correctly. Also a note that I play the game on Linux would be great. Under Discord exactly the same. There, for example, "wine64-preloader" is displayed, but not "Elite Dangerous.".
Creak 17 Jan
I'm sorry I didn't have the courage to read the whole 5 pages, but I read most of it ;)

My wishlist for Valve is:
  • Proton being able to run even better (it's already impressive, but reaching a point where you won't even ask yourself if it's going to work would be a huge sellpoint)

  • Proton being able to run with anti-cheat enabled games

  • A good UI overhaul for Steam (I'm tired of the multiple Steam windows that pops everywhere and steal the focus)

  • A Steam Machine made by Valve only and marketed as a full-fledged console with all the highly optimized HW/OS communication that is clearly an advantage for Linux. Moreover, being able to buy a game and play it on any platform (PC, console, portable console, mobile, streaming, VR) and, on top of that, keep the save states across the devices so you can shut down the console only to continue on your portable device! That would be absolutely fabulous

  • Valve investing in marketing for Linux, showing the benefits of running on Linux; right now, I think it's fair to say that Windows is better than Linux for games alone, but maybe there's a way to attract streamers to go full Linux by advertising the overall stability of it. That said, stability will need to be drastically improved as Linux is indeed stable.. for servers, but it's another story when in a desktop environment (should we talk about video acceleration? )



To get back on the matter of the article, whether this is the direction Valve is going to take or not, I am not really convinced by the idea. IMO right now, Windows gamers don't care about Linux because it doesn't bring anything better (technically). I prefer Linux, but because of the freedom it brings and some side-effects of it, but it is hard to find a killer feature on Linux (from a gamer perspective) that is not already on Windows.
Luke_Nukem 17 Jan
I'm getting flashbacks of DOS boot disks for gaming. This is pretty awesome if true.
Salvatos 18 Jan
Quoting: GoboOr imagine using the stick with the new console generation to access your steam library on those.
See, that’s where I think it could have been a cool move to get Steam into people’s living rooms without having them buy yet another console (or a gaming PC and Steam Link), but Liam’s quote says "trying out Linux on a normal PC" so... meh. If they could somehow force the consoles to boot to USB and give us full Linux operating systems on top of cheap console hardware without the risk of bricking the device, I would definitely be more excited about that.
Quoting: ageres
Quoting: Purple Library Guy
Quoting: ageres1. Promoting Linux among Windows users to lure people away from Xbox Game Pass for PC, the biggest competitor for Steam. No Windows 10, no Game Pass.
That's an interesting point.
I just don't see any other reason why would Valve prefer people to use Linux and not Windows 10 (if they even want that). Only to use their dominance on Linux. On Windows, there are Steam, Origin, EGS, etc. So many stores to choose where to spend money. On Linux, it's just Steam.
Ah, this on the other hand isn't very relevant. Nothing stops most of those from jumping onto Linux, and if Linux grew big enough that they smelled profit they would do so and then it wouldn't be just Steam any more. There's no real way Valve could grow Linux massively while maintaining it as mostly a Steam captive market (well, maybe with a successful Steam machine).

But your first point isn't like that--Microsoft isn't going to do an Xbox Game Pass for Linux.
Corben 18 Jan
Another small step... getting those people over, that are on the edge. Show them they can still play their games, but they are not relying on Windows. Here, have a USB stick, try it... if it works, you have no reason any more to stick with Windows and you can do the final migration step.

And getting more people over, even though little by little... will help reaching the critical mass. Won't happen soon, but hopefully eventually.

Unfortunately the rumour that Linux is not for gaming still sits in many people's head. Even if you tell them about which games all work on Linux right now. They are so hard-coded that games on PC only work on Windows, that they can't imagine playing on Linux. It's still the same statement from years ago: Linux is great for servers, but for gaming you still need Windows. Yeah, it's true for certain games (especially multiplayer with EAC), but not everybody wants to play those games. They always find a game, that doesn't work, and of course they want to play that game.

For me it changed... if a game doesn't work at all for me, be it native, via proton, via stadia or via geforce now... well, then I skip that game. But when having a discussion in a group of people, there is always that one person, that insists of playing this one game which doesn't work... and thus concluding for everybody: Linux is not for gaming m(

So, being able to show people, that it does work, that you can play your games on Linux... easily by just testing it with an USB stick, this might be a puzzle piece of the marketing Linux needs.
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