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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.

Article taken from GamingOnLinux.com.
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96 comments
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CatKiller 22 Jul
Quoting: denyasisI've been trying to follow the discussion and would like your opinions.
We don't want developers telling us to go stick our head in a pig.

A native build doesn't guarantee that a game dev gives a damn about their Linux customers (see Rocket League, Supraland, others), but flinging their product over the wall hoping that Valve will fix it is a pretty strong indication that they aren't interested in their Linux customers, and will provide no recourse when they break it. They're just going to pocket the money.
caseinpoint 22 Jul
Ethan is obviously wrong. In my opinion his argument is too focused on current titles and ignores that newer titles will set higher requirements to run acceptably and so - given that the Deck isn't very powerful when compared to the rest of the consoles - devs will have to port their games to be able to present a passable product to their customers. Either this or Proton will work so well that games run at the same performance as on Windows, in which case - well - a port won't be necessary anyway.
mirv 22 Jul
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Quoting: caseinpointEthan is obviously wrong. In my opinion his argument is too focused on current titles and ignores that newer titles will set higher requirements to run acceptably and so - given that the Deck isn't very powerful when compared to the rest of the consoles - devs will have to port their games to be able to present a passable product to their customers. Either this or Proton will work so well that games run at the same performance as on Windows, in which case - well - a port won't be necessary anyway.

Not really sure what you mean? He's obviously not wrong - he's done a lot of porting, been in the industry a long time, and has information from a lot of people (including Valve directly).

If you think "devs will have to port their games", then I think you underestimate the power of marketing, and just how much publishers don't care about the customer experience.

There are many, many other reasons for a native port other than pure performance too.
slaapliedje 23 Jul
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One thing I will go ahead point out. Native Linux games vs Proton ones usually have a better go out of the box for gamepad support to just work. I have had a few through Proton that were just not detecting the gamepad at all.

Definitely something that needs fixing for this!
slembcke 23 Jul
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So I used to be a big Mac nerd until a few years ago, and even with several times the market share, the Mac never got a critical mass of games either. Ports of AAA games were rare and often delayed by years. Indie games were more likely to have day 1 support, but coverage was still really patchy. I jumped ship to Linux right before Proton, and I considered it to be about the same "fine, but not great" platform for games as the Mac. Even in the early days, Proton instantly made it a better gaming platform than the Mac I thought.

On the other hand, Proton is really running a fine line as Microsoft could really screw them over if they wanted to. They will also be playing catch up indefinitely. I just can't imagine the Steam Deck's initial price point being able to cover their ongoing costs to keep compatibility with new titles high. On the other hand, I'm baffled why they would want to discourage native ports as it would almost certainly improve battery life if not a small performance bump.
const 23 Jul
Quoting: slaapliedjeOne thing I will go ahead point out. Native Linux games vs Proton ones usually have a better go out of the box for gamepad support to just work. I have had a few through Proton that were just not detecting the gamepad at all.

Definitely something that needs fixing for this!

One thing that Valve recommends for Proton compatibility is implementing SteamInput, which should be really good for gamepad support. It's not like all Ports magically have great gamepad support :)
const 23 Jul
Quoting: slembckeSo I used to be a big Mac nerd until a few years ago, and even with several times the market share, the Mac never got a critical mass of games either. Ports of AAA games were rare and often delayed by years. Indie games were more likely to have day 1 support, but coverage was still really patchy. I jumped ship to Linux right before Proton, and I considered it to be about the same "fine, but not great" platform for games as the Mac. Even in the early days, Proton instantly made it a better gaming platform than the Mac I thought.

On the other hand, Proton is really running a fine line as Microsoft could really screw them over if they wanted to. They will also be playing catch up indefinitely. I just can't imagine the Steam Deck's initial price point being able to cover their ongoing costs to keep compatibility with new titles high. On the other hand, I'm baffled why they would want to discourage native ports as it would almost certainly improve battery life if not a small performance bump.

My guess is that it comes down to continuous support. During the SteamMachine hype, we got a big lot of (partly bad) ports, that hardly or never got updated or where the Linux port got ditched. The Linux guys at Valve were probably equally annoyed with this and can't really solve this with repressions.
If developers make their games fit for proton in their normal windows code, though, chances are those changes stay active and the game stays compatible.
On the other hand, developers deciding to put additional work into a port now are probably more trustable to continue support, especially as our market share hopefully grows.


Last edited by const on 23 July 2021 at 6:38 am UTC
Quoting: slembckeOn the other hand, Proton is really running a fine line as Microsoft could really screw them over if they wanted to. They will also be playing catch up indefinitely.
It's not as simple as that. The problem for Microsoft is, they change Windows to make new Windows software (temporarily) incompatible with Proton, I believe they've just abandoned backwards compatibility with Windows software too. They could find themselves in a situation where all the old Windows software runs better on Proton than on latest Windows. And I'm not just talking about games. That would be bad for them.
And then Proton would catch up, and it probably wouldn't even take that long because Windows is a big old beast that isn't simple to make workable changes to so whatever they did couldn't be that big a deal. Then Proton would be working with the new stuff and working with the old stuff, making it definitively a better Windows than Windows.


Last edited by Purple Library Guy on 23 July 2021 at 8:09 am UTC
mirv 23 Jul
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Quoting: Purple Library Guy
Quoting: slembckeOn the other hand, Proton is really running a fine line as Microsoft could really screw them over if they wanted to. They will also be playing catch up indefinitely.
It's not as simple as that. The problem for Microsoft is, they change Windows to make new Windows software (temporarily) incompatible with Proton, I believe they've just abandoned backwards compatibility with Windows software too. They could find themselves in a situation where all the old Windows software runs better on Proton than on latest Windows. And I'm not just talking about games. That would be bad for them.
And then Proton would catch up, and it probably wouldn't even take that long because Windows is a big old beast that isn't simple to make workable changes to so whatever they did couldn't be that big a deal. Then Proton would be working with the new stuff and working with the old stuff, making it definitively a better Windows than Windows.

Windows breaks compatibility between versions sometimes. To their credit, Microsoft put an effort in to minimise such things, but it does happen.
Microsoft can make it very difficult for future games to run through wine. That's enough to bury Valve's efforts, before even considering legal challenges they could make. Don't even have to be particularly valid legal challenges - Microsoft could just drag it on, and that alone would also be enough to bury Valve's efforts.
Quoting: mirv
Quoting: Purple Library Guy
Quoting: slembckeOn the other hand, Proton is really running a fine line as Microsoft could really screw them over if they wanted to. They will also be playing catch up indefinitely.
It's not as simple as that. The problem for Microsoft is, they change Windows to make new Windows software (temporarily) incompatible with Proton, I believe they've just abandoned backwards compatibility with Windows software too. They could find themselves in a situation where all the old Windows software runs better on Proton than on latest Windows. And I'm not just talking about games. That would be bad for them.
And then Proton would catch up, and it probably wouldn't even take that long because Windows is a big old beast that isn't simple to make workable changes to so whatever they did couldn't be that big a deal. Then Proton would be working with the new stuff and working with the old stuff, making it definitively a better Windows than Windows.

Windows breaks compatibility between versions sometimes. To their credit, Microsoft put an effort in to minimise such things, but it does happen.
Microsoft can make it very difficult for future games to run through wine. That's enough to bury Valve's efforts, before even considering legal challenges they could make. Don't even have to be particularly valid legal challenges - Microsoft could just drag it on, and that alone would also be enough to bury Valve's efforts.
Windows do try to avoid breaking compatibility, though. They know it's a big problem for them when they do, because one of the biggest things holding people to Windows is all the back catalogue of software that runs on Windows but not elsewhere (well, as far as they know, or easily). As I understand it, the last time they did was because they were desperately trying to get Windows 7 out of the way because nobody wanted to upgrade.
Breaking compatibility exactly because something exists that can run all that old stuff might make people think about taking a look at that something. Could backfire. Imagine Wine ran existing versions of Microsoft Office, but the latest Windows didn't, and everyone knew that was because Microsoft was afraid of Wine.
No doubt they can make it very difficult for future games to run through Wine--but at what cost? What else stops working? How difficult does it make it to write those future games for Windows? I just don't think it's as simple as some people suggest. You can't actually move the target that much, because doing so doesn't just mess with the emulators, it messes with your whole ecosystem.

As to the legal thing . . . they can drag things out in the courts, but that only matters if they can make an injunction stick. Otherwise Valve can just go along doing their thing while fighting it. I don't know, but I would imagine that you have to have at least a sort of workable case to get an injunction to stick if the defendant has good lawyers and is not indigenous or something. Otherwise every company would just sue on some spurious basis every time a competitor started to eat their market share, and shut down for years whatever it was that the competitor was beating them with. Maybe MS could muster something good enough to actually get an injunction that would stop Steam Deck production, but I have doubts. If all they could manage was to be annoying in court for a few years and cost a few million in legal fees, that would be irrelevant.
Now if they could win, that would be pretty disastrous--presumably that would make Wine itself illegal, and arguably the whole concept of reverse engineering, every emulator of everything. But I really doubt we've gone all this time without that kind of thing ever being tested in court, and there are still emulators.


Last edited by Purple Library Guy on 23 July 2021 at 4:59 pm UTC
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