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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.

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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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Ananace Aug 21, 2023
Quoting: TurkeysteaksOh man, can't believe it's been 5 years already
I remember trying to get warframe to work on linux over the course of a few years prior to proton. Always still somewhat broken, and eventually gave up on it to play other games.

I've still got the GitHub repo where I helped build a more Proton-friendly launcher for Warframe, to improve on the bash hack that GE had done previously. As it turns out, DE built their CDN almost identically to another MMO project I'd worked on previously, so I was able to strip out the authentication and UI/branding code from that launcher and basically just point it at the Warframe URLs.

Last edited by Ananace on 21 August 2023 at 5:24 pm UTC
ToddL Aug 21, 2023
Great writeup, Liam. I never knew Proton was 5 years old today but thanks to that, I can enjoy the many games I have on Steam with the Steam Deck

I remember the times when Linux gaming was not in a great state and reading the article takes me back to the early 2000s, where I was reading a Linux magazine that mentioned about a Linux gaming console that I thought would've been cool if it ever got release. Sadly, it never happened and I did frequent other Linux gaming websites for a time before coming to the realization that it's never going to take any shares away from Windows gaming (which it still hasn't happened but one can only dream). At that point, I just forgotten about it until I bought the Steam Deck and reading that it used Arch Linux for SteamOS made me happy because I love Linux and wanted it to succeed. Overall, I'm happy for Proton's existence and hope it continues to get better and better.

Happy birthday, Proton!
doragasu Aug 21, 2023
I had a hobby: from time to time, I chose a game from my Steam library, installed it, and made it work using Wine. Once I got it working, I uninstalled the game and did not play it again. Proton (and the Steam Deck) killed my hobby and now I'm forced to actually play the games!
minkiu Aug 21, 2023
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Liam Dawe Aug 21, 2023
It's both sad and funny that some (hi Reddit) feel like this article is "revisionist" because I'm celebrating Valve and Proton here, but they and others like them miss the point so badly.

Yes, Wine is great and CodeWeavers are fab for funding Wine for so long too. BUT if something is difficult to use and obscure (Wine is, let's face it) then people won't really care. Valve are the ones that boosted it, funded DXVK and VKD3D-Proton, funded Mesa driver work, expanded Wine with Proton tying it all together and literally put it in front of millions of gamers while making it the click of a button.

This is why I say that Valve and Proton are what forever changed Linux gaming. I know most will understand it, but as usual, some need to take issue with a celebration and make a fight out of it. How sad.

Don’t even get me started on the people trying to claim things were good pre-Steam 🤣

Last edited by Liam Dawe on 21 August 2023 at 7:47 pm UTC
Luke_Nukem Aug 21, 2023
Quoting: Liam Dawe.
Don’t even get me started on the people trying to claim things were good pre-Steam 🤣

Come now... We had Doom 1+2+3 and Quake 1+2+3+4. Linux gaming was great!

Highball Aug 21, 2023
Quoting: Liam DaweDon’t even get me started on the people trying to claim things were good pre-Steam

I suppose it's all relative. Me twenty years ago installing Slackware, compiling a custom kernel, building wine so I could play EQ on my dual Celeron system with 440BX mother board. 2010 - 2015 was hands down better in comparison. But for sure now, in 2023, with Steam+Proton... things are so easy now. I don't even question it, I just click buy, click install, and click play. Major triple A titles are day 1 supported.

I even told my Brother In-Law and my nephew, "yeah buy a Steam Deck, 110% worth every penny." They don't even know anything about computers. They were Xbox console gamers and now they want to build their own custom consoles with SteamOS and just forget about Xbox. If there was a chart of how easy it is to install and play games prior to Steam+Proton, Valve broke it. Nobody but Gabe could have predicted this.

Steam+Proton is a new era with new rules and new metrics. I for one am still completely blown away. I just can't believe we are here. Here is to the next 5 years with Proton and Steam and anything the Game Devs want to throw at us.
Soulprayer Aug 21, 2023
I'm so happy Valve is investing in Linux, Proton was my main reason to finally switch to Linux completely.
sonic2kk Aug 21, 2023
I built my first main gaming PC in 2017, dual-booted with Windows and whatever Linux distribution I was in the mood to try that week. In 2018 when Valve announced Proton, I laughed it off with a friend, and thought Valve were incredibly foolish expecting Wine to be viable for AAA gaming. I even said that if Valve start investing money in this, it will sink them. I should note, I was ignorant to DXVK and vkd3d-proton at the time.

Then I actually tried Proton shortly after, and I did it to justify my doubts. But aside from one game I tried, every single game in my library worked acceptably or better than Windows, with either no tweaks or very minor launch option changes. I was blown away, I was shocked that I was getting a solid 60fps in the brand new Yakuza 0 PC port, or that I could play my beloved Geometry Wars without having to boot up Wine Steam. It was magical. There was no more need to deal with a glitchy Wine Steam client, there was no more need to use Lutris, it was as simple as enabling Steam Play in the Steam Client and clicking the Play button.

I immediately wiped my drive and did an all-in vanilla Arch installation, the very same one I am using right now as I write this, and I never looked back. My library also grew exponentially since Proton was announced, because I felt more comfortable buying games knowing I didn't need to boot into Windows to play them. I had a few hundred games at most when Valve announced Proton - Now I have almost 1,700 games (which includes games hidden on the profile counter, and games no longer available on Steam). I think this is a much overlooked aspect of Proton, as I'm sure I'm not the only person who bought an order of magnitude more games on Steam thanks to Proton.

There were a few teething problems along the way, like having to compile Proton-tkg with some custom patches or use some custom Winetricks, but thanks to the strong efforts of the community (long before Proton was dreamed up) and Valve, and both coming together to support Linux gaming, the experience has been so good for so long that even my dad can play the entirety of his Steam library on his Linux PC.

The Steam Deck gets a lot of praise and attention, but the majority of my gaming is still on my Linux PC, and it's great to see Valve have not abandoned those of us who still prefer gaming on their Linux PCs. Thanks Valve, there's a reason you have taken a ridiculous amount of my money over the years.

Last edited by sonic2kk on 21 August 2023 at 8:46 pm UTC
ElectricPrism Aug 21, 2023
In the aftermath, after being there in the debates before this was the way.

I gotta say -- we made the right choice.

༼ つ ◕_◕ ༽つ GABEN TAKE MY ENERGY ༼ つ ◕_◕ ༽つ
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