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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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denyasis 24 Jul
Quoting: mirvNone of that is a healthy thing.

I must say, I totally agree with you there. Although I must admit I am beginning to worry Valve thinks otherwise.

Quoting: caseinpointgiven 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.

Ya, know, this got me thinking, and yes I'm taking it a bit out of context. I remember reading an article about porting to the Switch and how difficult it can be. Part of the reason is that it is under-powered hardware compared to the other available platforms.

The Steam Deck is in the same boat, no? It's certainly not a Desktop, or even a laptop. I mean their web page showed them playing Factorio (I didn't recognize the others, sorry). Great game, but runs just fine on my 2014-5 laptop with integrated graphics.

So what's the target audience and game type? Indie titles? Older titles? Hobbyists? Kids?
I mean I don't think say, CyberPunk 2077 is gonna run on it. What about The Witcher 3, or Total War: What ever we're up to?

I kinda wonder if "porting to the Deck" is going to be a tough sell.

In the Switch article, its implied that the cost of porting was made up for by sales. Hopefully that's true for devs targeting the Deck hardware.
Quoting: denyasis
Quoting: caseinpointgiven 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.

Ya, know, this got me thinking, and yes I'm taking it a bit out of context. I remember reading an article about porting to the Switch and how difficult it can be. Part of the reason is that it is under-powered hardware compared to the other available platforms.

The Steam Deck is in the same boat, no?
That is not the opinion I've generally seen, no. I don't know much about this stuff myself, but most of the comments and the claims by Valve suggest that it should be able to run most games fine, given the small not-too-high-res screen. Certainly everyone seems to agree that it's much more powerful than a Switch.
CatKiller 24 Jul
Quoting: denyasisSo what's the target audience and game type? Indie titles? Older titles? Hobbyists? Kids?


All of the above, as well as people deeply into PC gaming that want to play away from a desktop, TV, or permanent flat surface.

QuoteI mean I don't think say, CyberPunk 2077 is gonna run on it. What about The Witcher 3, or Total War: What ever we're up to?

Total War is going to be limited by form factor rather than performance. You could hook it up to a monitor and mouse, but then you might as well use a different device.** All the rest will be fine. C77 would be particularly good if they made a native version, since the Stadia version was said to be the best one of the bunch.

The hardware is solid; the big constraint is the 15 W power/cooling limit. While modern games are chasing high resolution and high refresh rates they'll scale down to the Deck's 1280×800 @ 30 fps target fine; if modern games switch to chasing the pretties they'll be using more compute shaders, which are expensive, and the Deck will run bang into its power limit.*

It's also a handheld Steam Link for those titles it doesn't have the grunt to handle itself.

* Some numbers to clarify what I mean. Let's say that the next gen's "standard target" is 4K @ 120. The Deck's aiming for ~one eighth the resolution and a quarter of the framerate, so it only needs to squeeze out 1/32 of the work. That's largely doable. If, instead, the next gen is aiming for the absolute prettiest 1080p30 image they can generate with their massive power budget, the Deck still needs to do around half of that with its teeny tiny battery. Not gonna happen.

** Information-dense games that rely on very precise mouse movements won't be a great fit because of the small screen and lack of mouse. First/third person games, platformers, fighting games, racing games, and games that only need loose mouse control will be fine. Basically, anything you could expect to play on a console you can now play on the toilet.


Last edited by CatKiller on 24 July 2021 at 6:20 pm UTC
peta77 24 Jul
Quoting: CatKillerto the Deck's 1280×800 @ 30 fps

Actually the display does 60Hz according to their current specs on its homepage. But still less computation effort due to the reduced resolution which should help for a smooth playing experience. I.e. I played Control Ultimate Edition on my desktop and it had some problems getting 60fps @ 4K in some situations. Now seeing it run smoothly in one of the promo videos on the Steam Deck I'm quite optimistic it will perform very good with many modern AAA-titles (unless they're badly/not optimized in general).
CatKiller 24 Jul
Quoting: peta77
Quoting: CatKillerto the Deck's 1280×800 @ 30 fps

Actually the display does 60Hz according to their current specs on its homepage.

It does, but that's not their target.

For my desktop gaming rig I wouldn't be satisfied with a framerate that's less than the refresh rate, but that's not their required performance level. If it can hit 30 fps (especially if it's a locked 30 fps) that's good enough by their metric, the same as the consoles.
denyasis 25 Jul
That's some good points. I totally agree it's more powerful than a switch.
I think 1280x800 is a good resolution to target for such a tiny screen.

It's a Shame Valve isn't more specific on the VPU and GPU, unless I missed something on the website. Then we'd have a way to compare possible performance.
CatKiller 25 Jul
Quoting: denyasisIt's a Shame Valve isn't more specific on the VPU and GPU, unless I missed something on the website. Then we'd have a way to compare possible performance.
The particular combination doesn't exist yet; it's new. The CPU is Zen 2 with four cores, which is... fine. There's a whole bunch of similar CPUs in gaming machines all over the world. The GPU is RDNA 2, AMD's latest architecture, which is very performant, but it's only 8 compute units; that's similar to the numbers used in previous generation APUs, but way fewer cores than you'd get in a dedicated GPU. That combination, only much bigger and with way more power and cooling available, is used in the PS5 and the current Xbox. The RAM is brand-new LP-DDR5 with 88 GB/s bandwidth, which is pretty impressive and should help performance a lot. The whole thing has a power limit of 15 W.

The combination of older stuff and unreleased stuff, and the particular configuration, and the power limit, means that you can't rig up something that's the same. There are videos where people have made things as close as they can, but it's very much pinch-of-salt territory.

The tech specs are here, and before it officially became the Soc in the Steam Deck it was codenamed Van Gogh.


Last edited by CatKiller on 25 July 2021 at 12:38 am UTC
Arten 25 Jul
Quoting: Purple Library Guy
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.

For legal thing, we have favorable precedent:
https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2021/04/supreme-court-sides-with-google-in-api-copyright-battle-with-oracle/


Last edited by Arten on 25 July 2021 at 12:50 pm UTC
denyasis 25 Jul
Quoting: CatKillerThe tech specs are here, and before it officially became the Soc in the Steam Deck it was codenamed Van Gogh.

Thanks for the link! I'm not sure how I missed that bit there.
slaapliedje 26 Jul
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Quoting: const
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 :)
SDL2 kind of makes it so they do. :)
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