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5 years ago Valve released Proton forever changing Linux gaming

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Has it really been that long? Apparently so. Valve originally announced their rebranding of Steam Play with Proton back on August 21st, 2018. Seems like a good time for a quick reflection being halfway to a decade old now.

The problem: before, during and just after the original Steam Machine push developers just weren't porting many games to Linux, and on the whole really when you look back Linux gaming was in a period of mostly stagnation. Nothing much was happening. A lot of the early porting work that came along was slowly dying off since the Steam Machines didn't provide the boost Valve and Linux gamers were hoping for. 

Originally, “Steam Play” simply meant you could buy a game on Steam and get access to all versions of it. So if you purchased a game on Windows, you could play it on Linux if it had a Native Linux version (same again for macOS). Clearly though, that wasn't enough for what Valve had planned. So if Valve wanted to make Linux a better platform for people to actually use it, they needed something more.

Popular games needed to be able to run on Linux if more people were to use it, because what good is a platform for gaming if tons of the most played games weren’t compatible? As Valve saw with the Steam Machines (not the only reason of course) it doesn’t end well.

I remember being sat in my office at the time, going over my TODO list of various articles and games to cover, planning the week ahead. Ready to then probably go to bed and then BAM — out of nowhere this announcement comes along from Valve that basically said “you're going to be hella busy, better get a lot of coffee”. Valve had partnered up with CodeWeavers and Proton was the answer. 

Proton being the name Valve gave to their fork of Wine with a bunch of added extras, and it has changed Linux gaming forever. Steam Play is more than just Proton though, be sure to read my full Steam Play Proton guide. Side-note: John Carmack (id Software / Oculus VR / Keen Technologies) even thought Wine was the solution back in 2013.

Of course Proton wouldn't have been possible without all the many years of work that went into the Wine project in the first place, and everyone who contributed to Wine should be applauded for their effort. Valve has funded a lot of extra work though to get things like DXVK and VKD3D-Proton for the translation from Direct3D to Vulkan into a state where performance can be really great! Valve also funds work on Linux graphics drivers, Linux kernel work and the list goes on.

Just how much has Proton changed things though? Well, we certainly wouldn't have the Steam Deck if it wasn't for Proton. There's no way Valve would have released their handheld without as many games as possible, clearly learning their lesson on the failure of the Steam Machines. But as we all know, the Steam Machines burned so Proton and the Steam Deck could rise from the ashes.

Proton just makes a lot of sense. It didn't take long for Valve to expand Proton to go initially from a few select Valve-approved titles, to being able to run anything we choose to try with it. From there, Linux gaming just seemingly exploded. And then eventually we saw why Valve made Proton with the Steam Deck announcement coming less than three years later in July 2021.

When you look at the crowd-sourced reports on ProtonDB over 11,000 titles are reported to work by multiple people. It's a small fraction of Steam's overall game count but ProtonDB relies on people actually going and writing a report.

Valve's own Deck Verified rating system just for the Steam Deck hit plenty of milestones since the Steam Deck's release too, now having over 10,000 titles rated to be Playable or Verified. Although both ProtonDB and Deck Verified include a mixture of Native Linux releases and Windows games run with Proton. The point is - being on Linux now for a gamer means quite often a huge amount of your games do actually "just work". It's almost magical.

The real number of games playable on Linux will never be truly known though, because on Steam there's many tens of thousands of games and a lot of them will likely "just work" with Proton if they don’t have a Native Linux build available…and many more are releasing every week. This is a truly incredible place to be in. When you think about Linux and Steam Deck together having just less than a 2% user share on Steam overall — these are some insane numbers for game compatibility for a niche platform.

Thanks to Proton, I've been able to discover a ton of new favourite games, some I would never have played before. Games like Deep Rock Galactic, God of War, Death Stranding, Baldur’s Gate 3, Brotato, Beat Saber and so on. You get the idea, there’s a truly ridiculous selection of games available and at times it’s a little paralysing scrolling through my Steam Library deciding what to play — a delightfully annoying problem to have huh?

Pictured - Baldur's Gate 3, shot taken on Kubuntu

Gamers using Linux (be it desktop or Steam Deck) in 2023 are now in a place where they can get excited alongside friends who use Windows or traditional consoles, because they know there's a good probable chance at release that whatever new exciting game coming out will work without much trouble.

Proton is far from perfect though and it does mean in a few ways that Valve, CodeWeavers and everyone else working on it are playing catch-up with Microsoft on compatibility and whatever changes Microsoft suddenly decides to announce that affects gaming. That, and how many different ways game developers can abuse various APIs to do things in weird ways. Valve and co are a dedicated bunch though, constantly fixing up issues from AAA games like ELDEN RING where Valve quickly worked to implement optimizations, same again for problems with Dead Space to the likes of PooShooter: Toilet Invaders (what a fun highlight that was eh?). There's also the constant third-party launcher breakage, that Valve are also fixing up each time it happens.

Valve produce updates to Proton constantly to improve compatibility, with over 300 revisions to the main changelog (although some a minor text corrections) it's clear to see how much work goes into it. With various new main versions of Proton through 4, 5, 6, 7 now onto 8 and multiple updates to Proton Experimental almost every month.

So here's to Proton, the magnificent tech that allows playing all kinds of games across Linux systems from desktop to Steam Deck and wherever else you decide to stick Linux. Nice one Valve. Cheers.

Article taken from GamingOnLinux.com.
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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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pleasereadthemanual Aug 21, 2023
This all happened before I started using Linux in 2020. I spent a lot of time last month reading all about Wine, DXVK, VKD3D, WineD3D, Wine-Mono, Media Foundation, and plenty of other stuff, and it's truly insane how much work has gone into these Windows compatibility layers.

The interesting part is that not all of it is part of the Wine project. DXVK is its own thing (some Wine developers were actually on bad terms with the DXVK developer at some point and don't like how it re-invents a bunch of stuff already in Wine). FAudio is a completely separate project again, which replaced the XAudio implementation in 2017 that nobody was a big fan of and improved audio API compatibility considerably.

And on that note, while I appreciate Valve's work on Proton and the Wine ecosystem, I know the work they're funding isn't going to help me out with the games I most play—visual novels. Most Japanese language visual novels aren't published on Steam, so Valve doesn't have a reason to care about them. Japanese publishers like DMM, DLsite, and Digiket are responsible for publishing the vast majority of digital visual novels. And they're almost always encumbered by DRM. DRM that is so particular to these publishers that Valve has no reason to fund work to make it compatible.

But that's not the only issue—we've also got codec patents to think about. Valve can't do much about this even if they wanted to, because the laws prevent them from writing software which can include decoders for particular audio and video codecs. So, to get around this, Valve is re-encoding the encumbered audio and video for games into free formats which they can legally decode and storing them on their servers. Obviously, this only works for Steam games...not visual novels.

We're at a point where Wine is so compatible with games that the blockers are gigantic walls like software patents and anti-cheat. For Anti-Cheat, all Valve can do is write their own, bundle it with the native Linux version of the Steam client, and hope developers will use it. Well, they already tried that, and it's not really working. Now, it's in the hands of Anti-Cheat vendors and developers to support Wine.

And I suppose the software patents issue could be solved if Valve just sold every game in the world.

So, it's good. I just buy visual novels without DRM (which usually means physical) and Wine usually works great, assuming I pair it with Gamescope. Gamescope is another project that Valve, Joshua Aston, and Sourcehut worked on to solve windowing issues, and it works pretty damn well.

And uh, sorry if you've heard it all from me before.
CatKiller Aug 21, 2023
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Quoting: pleasereadthemanualAnd on that note, while I appreciate Valve's work on Proton and the Wine ecosystem, I know the work they're funding isn't going to help me out with the games I most play—visual novels. Most Japanese language visual novels aren't published on Steam, so Valve doesn't have a reason to care about them.
That's not really true.

Valve aren't using Linux to make more money. The vast, vast majority of their money comes from customers that use Windows. Valve are using Linux as a strategy to ensure the survival of Steam against Microsoft misbehaviour: they need their customers to be able to be Steam users that don't use Windows rather than Windows users that don't use Steam should Microsoft make Steam-on-Windows non-viable in the future. Anything that keeps their customers locked to Windows, including but not limited to games that aren't on Steam, is an obstacle to that plan.

Valve can't rely on hardware manufacturers or game developers to make it happen - the Steam Machines demonstrated that - so they're just brute-forcing it themselves.
pleasereadthemanual Aug 21, 2023
Quoting: CatKiller
Quoting: pleasereadthemanualAnd on that note, while I appreciate Valve's work on Proton and the Wine ecosystem, I know the work they're funding isn't going to help me out with the games I most play—visual novels. Most Japanese language visual novels aren't published on Steam, so Valve doesn't have a reason to care about them.
That's not really true.

Valve aren't using Linux to make more money. The vast, vast majority of their money comes from customers that use Windows. Valve are using Linux as a strategy to ensure the survival of Steam against Microsoft misbehaviour: they need their customers to be able to be Steam users that don't use Windows rather than Windows users that don't use Steam should Microsoft make Steam-on-Windows non-viable in the future. Anything that keeps their customers locked to Windows, including but not limited to games that aren't on Steam, is an obstacle to that plan.

Valve can't rely on hardware manufacturers or game developers to make it happen - the Steam Machines demonstrated that - so they're just brute-forcing it themselves.
While I can certainly agree with that, how many of Steam's customers are Japanese, anyway? It's a pretty tough market to break into, from what I know. Hell, Microsoft knows firsthand with Xbox. I understand it's a survival strategy they're doing to retain customers; I don't know if there exist many Japanese customers to retain.

Japanese publishers just don't sell their games on Steam, and Valve often doesn't want English localizers to sell their games on Steam either: https://jastusa.com/page/the-state-of-muramasa

I still don't see Valve funding any work to get Soft-Denchi, DMM Game Launcher, or Buddy Launcher to work in Wine (not Proton, because these games aren't sold on Steam), but I would be very happy to be proven wrong. DRM is such a huge blocker for visual novels, even beyond the codec issue.

Based on this page, getting DRM to work in Wine is some of the most unfulfilling and demanding work, effectively ruling out community contributions, too.

I'm not hopeful but very willing to be surprised.


Last edited by pleasereadthemanual on 21 August 2023 at 2:12 pm UTC
kuhpunkt Aug 21, 2023
Quoting: pleasereadthemanualAnd on that note, while I appreciate Valve's work on Proton and the Wine ecosystem, I know the work they're funding isn't going to help me out with the games I most play—visual novels. Most Japanese language visual novels aren't published on Steam, so Valve doesn't have a reason to care about them. Japanese publishers like DMM, DLsite, and Digiket are responsible for publishing the vast majority of digital visual novels. And they're almost always encumbered by DRM. DRM that is so particular to these publishers that Valve has no reason to fund work to make it compatible.

They fixed some Proton stuff for Diablo 4 a few months ago - that's not on Steam (yet) - and yet they fixed it.
pleasereadthemanual Aug 21, 2023
Quoting: kuhpunktThey fixed some Proton stuff for Diablo 4 a few months ago - that's not on Steam (yet) - and yet they fixed it.
The reason I think DRM support in Wine is different from D3D fixes and whatever else is because of this section from the WineHQ page I linked above:

QuoteIn an effort to make copy protection more effective (i.e. resistant to cracks), the methods used by many copy protection products have become complex, difficult to understand (obfuscated), and hard to debug. In some cases Wine would need to be altered to allow for almost rootkit-like functionality of programs to get some of these copy protection schemes to work. To support copy protection Wine developers have to contend with undocumented interfaces, code obfuscation, and maintaining compatibility with *nix security models.
If we look at why Soft Denchi fails to work in Wine (great report from fallenguru on WineHQ, it seems to be because Soft Denchi wants to register a watchdog service that runs at all times from system boot on Windows. It seems to require privileged access based on an ActiveX control (?) that Wine can't provide—at least, not without a lot of work.

This doesn't seem like something you can inadvertently fix; you would need to go out of your way to do it. The reason I think Valve is unlikely to do this is because Valve has already expressed, at best, indifference to selling visual novels on Steam, and at worst, hostility to English localizers who publish their games on Steam with no clear communication or standards on what content is permitted.

Quoting: JAST USAHowever, after months of talks, Valve rejected Full Metal Daemon Muramasa for distribution on Steam, banning it from their platform. We at JAST have always been transparent with Valve, ensuring the quality of our games does not suffer when we must adjust content to fit the requirements of Steam. We hoped we could resolve Valve's concerns amicably and ultimately deliver the game to the many fans waiting on Steam, but Valve is firm in their decision.

Our case is, unfortunately, not unique in the industry. An increasing number of visual novel games are getting unjustly banned from Steam, with no recourse. This creates an environment where publishers don’t release games like Muramasa because the risk is too high with Steam's heavy-handed hold on the PC market, stifling the medium and forcing publishers to adopt self-censorship to survive.
Japanese language visual novels are also quite niche, which is in comparison to a much more popular game like Diablo 4.

Supporting only Soft Denchi (which would fix 90%+ digital visual novels) is work that's difficult and only benefits a very niche audience even among Linux players which Valve doesn't seem to want on their platform.

Again, happy to be proven wrong, but those are the complete reasons for why I don't expect support from Valve.
artixbtw Aug 21, 2023
Since I started Linux gaming after Proton had already matured (2019? 2020?), reading some linked articles only just now made me realise Steam's "platform-specific wishlisting" is a feature that helps Linux/macOS users nudge developers to support their OS.

TL;DR: If you don't rely on Steam to find games, make sure to visit this page and only leave Linux ticked. If you do rely on Steam's recommendations, be aware that any Steam Deck "incompatible" or unrated game won't be shown to you unless you explicitly visit the page.


Last edited by artixbtw on 21 August 2023 at 3:50 pm UTC
CatKiller Aug 21, 2023
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Quoting: pleasereadthemanualI still don't see Valve funding any work to get Soft-Denchi, DMM Game Launcher, or Buddy Launcher to work in Wine (not Proton, because these games aren't sold on Steam), but I would be very happy to be proven wrong. DRM is such a huge blocker for visual novels, even beyond the codec issue.

Having things fixed in upstream Wine is Valve's favoured outcome. They don't want to have to maintain a wildly divergent code base all on their own. That's why they give money to CodeWeavers. DXVK is the exception: it was never going to be included with Wine, and performed way better than wined3d, so Valve brought it in-house.

Japanese non-Steam visual novels aren't going to be a priority compared to other low-hanging fruit, sure, but if the unimplemented-in-Wine functions that those games use are holding people on Windows - especially if they're also used by other software - then Valve are going to be perfectly comfortable giving a bag of money to CodeWeavers or Collabora and saying "make this work, please."
pleasereadthemanual Aug 21, 2023
Quoting: CatKiller
Quoting: pleasereadthemanualI still don't see Valve funding any work to get Soft-Denchi, DMM Game Launcher, or Buddy Launcher to work in Wine (not Proton, because these games aren't sold on Steam), but I would be very happy to be proven wrong. DRM is such a huge blocker for visual novels, even beyond the codec issue.

Having things fixed in upstream Wine is Valve's favoured outcome. They don't want to have to maintain a wildly divergent code base all on their own. That's why they give money to CodeWeavers. DXVK is the exception: it was never going to be included with Wine, and performed way better than wined3d, so Valve brought it in-house.

Japanese non-Steam visual novels aren't going to be a priority compared to other low-hanging fruit, sure, but if the unimplemented-in-Wine functions that those games use are holding people on Windows - especially if they're also used by other software - then Valve are going to be perfectly comfortable giving a bag of money to CodeWeavers or Collabora and saying "make this work, please."
You make a very good point about divergent code. However, the games themselves work fine under Wine. I know this because DRM-free visual novels and visual novels encumbered with PlayDRM (which does work in Wine, for now) perform fine. Admittedly, there are issues with codecs and fullscreen is usually broken, but the latter is easily worked around with Gamescope. There's really not much to visual novels most of the time.

It's not the games that are broken—it's the DRM. Specifically, it's Soft Denchi, because most digital visual novels are encumbered with it. I'm not a Wine developer, so I could just be talking nonsense here, but I don't think implementing whatever ActiveX functionality Soft Denchi DRM wants is likely to have much overlap with other games. As I understand it based on the WineHQ page, DRM schemes are very particular and finicky. Then again, I'm almost certain that nobody fixed PlayDRM on purpose, and apparently that wasn't working before ~2018, so maybe..?

I don't know how much ActiveX comes up in other games, but I guess I'll continue to hope. And on that note, you seem to imply Valve is interested in getting software in general working, or is that a misread on my part? Adobe Suite in Wine would be nice...
Pengling Aug 21, 2023
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Quoting: pleasereadthemanualAdobe Suite in Wine would be nice...
I know some folks who are waiting for the Affinity suite to work nicely under Wine, too, so that they can drop MacOS in favour of Linux. Hopefully one day!
Arehandoro Aug 21, 2023
5 years already? We gamed so much with Proton that it feels the time just flew by xD
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