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Ryan Gordon and Ethan Lee on Proton and the Steam Deck

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For anyone who has been around Linux gaming for a while, the names Ryan "Icculus" Gordon and Ethan Lee will be well known as developers who port games to Linux and work on the tech behind tons of games.

Recently, our friends at Nuclear Monster spoke to both about Proton and the upcoming Steam Deck. Both giving a very different outlook on the future of Linux gaming, so it's interesting to see their perspectives on this considering how respected they both are for their work. For those who don't know Ryan Gordon maintains a lot of SDL, the MojoSetup installer (used by GOG), MojoShader, and ports to various platforms (not just Linux). Ethan Lee created FNA, the reimplementation of Microsoft's XNA, and Lee has probably ported more to Linux than anyone else (along with macOS too).

In the post with Ryan Gordon, it starts off with a little personal thought from the writer (who is sceptical of relying on Wine/Proton) but Gordon sees it differently. Gordon mentions it's no longer a case of talking about how many people directly use Linux of the desktop or how many install SteamOS but the focus will be on sales number for what's basically a type of games console. It is an interesting point, as eventually it could lead to millions of people with a Linux-powered handheld:

And maybe someday down the road, if this is wildly successful, we tell people that it’s a no-brainer to target 18 bazillion Linux users that aren’t Linux users so much as customers reliably running a Linux-based game console. The end result for you and me—clicking “install” in our desktop Steam client—is the same, even if it took millions of unaware and uninterested other people to get us there.

Ryan Gordon - Nuclear Monster Interview

The subject of porting to Linux did come up too. Since Valve have and continue to invest into Steam Play Proton, they're telling developers you don't need to port. Here's what Gordon had to say on that:

Even in the short term, one can always make the argument: okay, sure, your Windows game runs here, but you want more performance, more control, and no worries that Proton didn’t quite paper over some Windows thing weirdly? Then stop letting Valve treat your game like some RetroPie target and do a real Linux port. That choice is available to you now, almost six months before anyone will hold a Steam Deck.

Ryan Gordon - Nuclear Monster Interview

Gordon further mentions how we should hustle, not think of it as some kind of funeral for Linux gaming.

The complete opposite it true when Nuclear Monster spoke to Ethan Lee, who was far more negative about the whole situation. Lee sees Proton as an "essential preservation project" and did even contribute work to it when contracting for CodeWeavers. However, Lee seems to think that Proton and Valve's marketing with the Steam Deck will result in packing up shop and moving on from game porting:

I have my remaining contractual obligations, but short of a complete 180 from Valve that is very very loud I have to walk away and go do other things for a living. A course correction is unlikely, as they seem abnormally confident that developers will just magically come to me after the device’s inevitable success, which is basically asking me to just casually accept that I’m going to endure even bigger losses than I already have with an empty promise that my business will turn around based on a third party’s big risk that they think anyone can endure. It feels very like much I built my own casket having worked on Proton, and as they’re shoveling dirt onto me they’re going “don’t worry, you’ll be fine when someone else finds you!”

Ethan Lee - Nuclear Monster Interview

Sounds like Lee will also be moving away from FNA development too. Both interviews are worth a read.

What are your thoughts? You can see some of our early thoughts in a previous article.

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I am the owner of GamingOnLinux. After discovering Linux back in the days of Mandrake in 2003, I constantly came back to check on the progress of Linux until Ubuntu appeared on the scene and it helped me to really love it. You can reach me easily by emailing GamingOnLinux directly. Find me on Mastodon.
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BlackBloodRum Jul 21, 2021
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Come on Q2! Hurry!
dubigrasu Jul 21, 2021
While I don't dismiss what Ethan says, I'm more inclined to side with Gordon.
I think valve plays the long game here, we have a saying: befriend the devil until you cross the bridge.
Corben Jul 21, 2021
Quoting: dubigrasuWhile I don't dismiss what Ethan says, I'm more inclined to side with Gordon.
I think valve plays the long game here, we have a saying: befriend the devil until you cross the bridge.
I hope the same, but until then, what should Ethan do if devs aren't hiring him for a while? Let's hope there will be enough devs and/or publishers to contract him until the bridge is crossed.
Maki Jul 21, 2021
I don't like the way Valve has been treating Linux recently.

Ethan has recently asked about game developers being approached by Valve for making their products run Proton instead of having a native Linux version, and that's honestly despicable from Valve, if you ask me. (Source: )

SteamOS has not been updated in... forever. The repositories are a sad sight to see. And now they have SteamOS 3.0 for the Steam Deck, based on Arch, but how does that relate to the desktop version of SteamOS and will there be an updated repository (for the Steam Deck)? Nobody knows.

I'm not an Arch user myself, so I don't know how that stuff works. If you want to drop a new user onto any flavour of Linux, I tend to prefer Debian and its related family of distros such as Mint and *buntu since their binary setup with a .deb-based package manager makes it fairly consistent to help people across the distro family, even if *buntu makes it a bit weird with PPAs and whatnot.

I once made the mistake of trying out Gentoo when just learning about Linux and that was a jump into the deep that I can't recommend unless you pick things up fast or have masochistic tendencies. (j/k :D)

I'm not sure the Steam Deck will do for Linux what we hope it does. There needs to be synchronous updates for SteamOS that actually go beyond Steam Deck so people can have their handheld experience be similar to what they can install on their desktop, laptop, or other computing device at home to help the adoption of Linux as a whole in a household. Just having a dock that allows using the Steam Deck as a mini-computer is not going to be the end-all fix.
jens Jul 21, 2021
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Given their knowledge, would be cool if both get hired by Valve to help getting Proton even better into shape. That said, I also understand Ethan's side, from his own perspective, his very specialized skills might be less needed when his customers go for Proton. Though no idea actually how booming his own business had been in the past and how his future would have looked like without Proton.

As a user, I'm still thinking developer support and visibility of Linux as a gaming OS are the most important things in the long run. I don't mind all the translation layers in-between, as long as it works the same (or with a small performance penalty) as on other platforms.

Last edited by jens on 21 July 2021 at 10:06 am UTC
skinnyraf Jul 21, 2021
Valve learned from the Steam Machines fiasco. The success of Steam Machines depended on native ports, few of which materialized. Additionally many Linux ports either did not have cross-play with Windows, or cross-play was broken when the Windows version was updated while the Linux port lagged behind. Finally, several ports were released much later than the Windows version.

So it seems that this time Valve does not want this dependency. They control Proton, they work with Wine developers, so if something breaks, they can fix it themselves. Thus this time the message to developers is not to develop for Linux, but to ensure that their games use Proton-friendly technology (especially Vulkan) and Valve would take care of the rest.

Last edited by skinnyraf on 21 July 2021 at 10:14 am UTC
syylk Jul 21, 2021
I'm always torn when the subject of WINE/Proton comes up.

On one hand, it's a good thing: many, many, many titles would not be played/playable in Linux without that framework (I'd dare say that "line of thinking"). I constantly play EVE Online, GTAV, Elite: Dangerous, Borderlands 3, and as we all know, it'd be nigh impossible to enjoy these games without a very refined compatibility layer.

On the other hand, of course having this "lazy way out" means fewer developers would care for a native port, or contract some third party (Feral, Aspyr, then-Icculus, etc.) to port their stuff over some form of linuxware. And that's not so good.

On the other (!) hand, companies investing into any form of Linux engagement can't be seen as a bad thing, from the POV of a Linux gamer like I am. Valve isn't into it for the glory, of course, or for eternal gratitude of us penguin fans - even if the fatman has my own eternal gratitude! But I'd rather see development in this field than leaving the entire ecosystem dead and gone.

I mean, Linux already completely dominates the markets for:
  • embedded

  • devices in general/IoT

  • smartphone

  • microservices

  • containers/virtualization/cloud (even Azure!)

  • backend server

  • research/academia

  • AI

  • supercomputing (top500 is the best Linux ad ever)

I think it was always just matter of time before the penetration of the kernel would reach console/games/mobile world.

Considering the Android market - especially in Asia, one can speculate that there already more games played on a Linux kernel on any single day than on any other platform (PC/Win + console) combined.

But then again, the incredible progress of WINE/Proton in the very few last years is a mixed blessing, and I can't make up my mind if it's a godsend or a hidden curse.
skinnyraf Jul 21, 2021
Quoting: GuestNative Versions are always better and how thing are going i think we will see less and less native ports since why bother when we have Proton right?

Native versions (i.e. software developed as multiplatform from the start and readied for Linux and Windows at the same time) yes. Ports - not necessarily. Late releases, poor performance, lack of cross-platform, dropped support forcing people to switch to Windows builds anyway - they all exist.
toor Jul 21, 2021
Personaly I don't really think it gets people to not port to Linux as a "lazy thing". Proton is risky for the game devs in the way that it can stop working at anytime as you update your game. Also some versions of proton would work, some others wouldn't. So it's not reliable that much, and few users will even deal with twicking the version and even less would actually apply patch and other joy to get the games working.
I guess the point for valve is to bring users onto the device, by having enough games working good enough, and then if the device ends up being used enough, the developers would follow and make the effort to either keep their games working for proton, or have more control on it and do a native port.
Anyway, they are doing much better on the marketing part, and on the more simple options to chose from, as well as the prices. The steamos, steam controller idea to allow to play mouse/keyboard games, and proton to increase the available library without requiring to move the whole gaming ecosystem all come together nicely and actually makes a lot of sense.
Bringing the openness of the PC to a console-like market.
CatKiller Jul 21, 2021
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I think Valve's messaging is somewhat problematic.

QuoteDo I need to port my game to Linux to have it work on Steam Deck?
No porting necessary. Your Windows build will likely work right out of the box, thanks to Proton.

Will people be able to install Windows, or other 3rd party content?
Yes. Steam Deck is a PC, and players will be able to install whatever they like, including other OSes.

Not even a hint about the benefits of multiplatform development, and nothing to suggest that staying with SteamOS would give a better experience than installing Windows on it.

However, game devs and Windows gamers are easily spooked, and to make any difference at all Valve need to get these devices into people's hands.

I'll still be applying the sliding scale. Getting more games into the 50% category is great for everyone, but it sure would be good to get more into the 100% category. There are dozens of new games released on Steam every single day, as well as every game's patches, and Valve has a couple of hundred employees. Testing and fixing has to be the responsibility of the game devs themselves.
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