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Editorial: An open letter to Valve on why they should keep on embracing Linux

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News in the last week, heck, in the last few weeks and months have the potential to shake up the games industry significantly. It certainly may have huge repercussions for Linux gaming. It’s also been a little hard to follow sometimes, so I decided to explain many of the developments of the past few months and put them within an easy-to-understand context.

What better way to speak from the heart than using the ancient art form of letter-writing? I couldn’t think of a better alternative. So below is my earnest plea to Valve regarding Linux gaming:

Dearest Valve,

The first time we met, I was a precocious scamp, highly excited about the potential of video games and already a voracious gamer. It’s already been 20 years and you still have people enamored with your first title. As you might already know, I also really enjoyed my time wielding a crowbar. Even if I found headcrabs sometimes a little too scary at that tender age. It’s hard to believe just how that early success blew up and how it allowed you outclass most other developers when it comes to having an impact on the PC gaming market.

Well, I mean, I think we both know that it’s kind of hard to believe for outsiders. You and me know the real score. The massive success of Half-Life wasn’t just due to its impressive AI, naturalistic storytelling and tight action. Instead, rather astutely I need to add, its modability is what truly made it stand out. You promoted the GoldSrc engine with the original Team Fortress but it was ingenious modders that created Day of Defeat and Counter-Strike. That generation of mods really came to define PC multiplayer games for several years and I lost track of how many times I played a Half-life-based mod at a LAN party or cyber cafe.

That’s also why you were able to get away with pushing Steam. No one liked the client at first and I think most people begrudgingly installed it as a way to play Half-life 2 and Counter-Strike 1.6. You were smart to acquire CS and smart to invite other developers to release their games on Steam. Having an open platform with no exclusivity deals and which also took care of distribution in an age where brick and mortar stores were still a major force was a risky gamble. But you rightly saw that there was a niche in the market you could establish yourself in. With enough time and effort, that niche pretty much became the market.

Once you were the top dog in the digital front, you didn’t rest on your laurels. You added support for OSX and, eventually, Linux to your client and your games. The common refrain from people when the subject comes up is that it was Microsoft’s announcement of their own store for programs that made you panic. I don’t really disagree but, personally, I think that the more useful way of looking at is that you value openness; Gabe Newell has famously quipped that he thinks exclusives are bad for everyone. And I think that’s something that many gamers agree on—people should get to enjoy the games we like no matter what operating system or platform they choose.

Too many hours were spent here back in the day.

Though you’ve had your controversies with curation and the games on your store, you’ve ultimately opted towards openness when it comes to content. Nudity and violence are all fine and dandy, hidden behind opt-in filters in your store. Sure, it’s an imperfect solution with plenty of ambiguous wiggle room but, so far, so good. Liam got to pretend he wasn’t into sexy times just recently thanks to that policy. Let the good times continue to roll.

I was apathetic to Epic’s announcement of their own game store earlier this week. Competition, in principle, is good. You know it best as you’ve shared the space with other stores for years. You know that you’re in an open relationship with every gamer. DRM-free and a good deal is hard to say no to sometimes. It’s by competing that customers get the best value. Your improvements to the store, friends chat and other features are clearly spurred on by the desire to keep on being relevant and competitive.

Tim Sweeney, founder of Epic Games, has sent mixed-messages about Linux and the games industry over the years. I’m not exactly holding my breath that the new store will support Linux properly despite vague hints. Seeing is believing, insofar I’m concerned. Their flagship title, Fortnite, has come to our Linux-powered Android cousins but not to our shiny and GNUish desktop computers, after all. And, besides, they’ve already committed a most grievous sin insofar we’re both concerned: they have 3rd-party exclusives on their store.

You know that’s a tactic that big companies try to do to get people to flock to them. Console makers do it all the time. Certain big publishers do it to varying degrees in the PC field: some publish on Steam as well but some really large names do all their business exclusively through their digital storefronts. You probably knew of Epic’s moves in advance—that would explain your recent adjustments to revenue sharing for popular titles. I get it, you want to prevent the big boys from packing up and striking it out on their own.

Yes, some indies are (rightfully) upset that they’re not getting any breaks. But I see the cold business logic as well. You need to keep the latest and greatest big titles on your store in order to keep customers. You’re not a charity. Still, I know you have a cunning plan for maintaining your primacy in the PC space. People like to joke about Valve Time and your aloof nature but I think it’s plain enough to see if you’ve been following closely your engagement with Linux.

Though we make up a little less than 1% of the Steam market share, we’ve gotten a disproportionate amount of attention from you. Timothy Arceri, Samuel Pitoiset, Andres Rodriguez, Daniel Shürmann and others have been paid by you to contribute to Mesa. Pierre-Loup Griffais has been very active in sorting out things like Proton and generally making gaming on Linux better. And, of course, Keith Packard has been a very busy man getting VR to work well on Linux. I check the Mesa mailing list almost daily and often see something being contributed by one of your affiliated devs. Do forgive me if I forgot any other big names but my memory isn’t what it used to be.

My, and Proton? You worked with Codeweavers, Wine, and Philip Rebohle, the person behind DXVK. And you’re working with Ethan Lee in order to get FAudio sorted. That likely took a level of resources and commitment that most companies would not bother with—the advantage you have is that you’re privately-owned and doesn’t have to answer to shareholders who want short-term returns. You’re playing the long game. You recognized that the only way an open platform thrives is by making sure that the programs that everyone knows and love work well and as painlessly as possible. The objective there isn’t to get everyone to switch because of Proton, but make the barrier of entry as low as possible. Realistically the thousands of Windows-only games that have been released on Steam won’t be ported in their entirety anytime soon. It simply doesn’t make financial sense for the developers and publishers.

There’s a plan afoot! But I’ll get to that in a moment.

I have to add as an aside that I’ve become impressed with your Steam Play efforts after being initially skeptical. As I said at the beginning—I’ve been a lifelong gamer. I had a lot of PC games before I switched to Linux full time and, my lovable but clueless friends and family have occasionally gifted me Windows-only games because they thought that I’d enjoy the shiny new hot game. I’ve played some of those old games in my library now. And, in a moment of weakness brought on by a glass too many of actual wine, I even bought some newer titles with good compatibility during the last sale. Then again, you always did know my weak spots. I have to admit it was a rather unfiltered pleasure to let myself be seduced by the erstwhile forbidden allure of DOOM and Valkyria Chronicles 4.

I've broken my vow of "no tux no bux". Feel free to shame me.

Anyways, your plan! Your lying lips may say otherwise but I know you better than that. I’m on to you. You’re about as conspicuous as a tower of hats. I’ve thought so for the longest time, what seems like years now, that you’re clearly gearing up for another generation of VR hardware and SteamOS-powered consoles. Recent “leaks” have reinforced my suspicions. You realized that depending on Windows for your console was a non-starter if you want an open base system. Astutely, you realized that the driver and software support situation on Linux could use improvement. Hence the direct driver work and hence the continuous push for ports and Steam Play. That’s fantastic, if true, and I wish you all the best with your ultimate plan.

And yet... I’m not sure it’ll be enough, sweet Valve.

After buttering you up and extolling your genius so shamelessly, I need to tell you that you need to keep a firm heading. You need to double down on Linux because that’s the only way that you can replicate your booming success of the early days with all the sharks in the water. Only smaller fish like the awesome itch.io and Paradox Interactive have bothered to provide first-class Linux support for their stores and launchers. They don’t have the resources to invest in the ecosystem as a whole, much less drive its direction. Being able to deliver on competitively-priced VR hardware with a the largest games catalog in the market would be a huge win. No one has yet made VR appeal to the masses as it’s too cumbersome and expensive.

You can’t win against aggressively-split revenue because there will always be a more desperate newcomer that will attempt to show you up. You have to be calm, steady and head into a market that you get to create all over again. You insistence on open platform and that’s how you got here in the first place.

That said, be nicer to small developers! 30% of their revenue is too much. Once you factor in any costs they might have in licensing engines and tech as well as the cut to their publishers (if they have one), they’re barely making ends meet. You know it and I know it. Indies, porting houses and basically anyone who isn't a AAA publisher knows it too. Y'know, the vast majority of developers on your platform. Something's got to give.

There’s only one piece of very practical advice I’d give you to turbocharge your Linux efforts. It involves some numbers, though, and they aren’t my strongest suit so feel free to tweak them to your liking. I know you can’t count to three, yourself.

Simply put: you should lower your take by 1-2% for anyone that puts up a game on steam with an officially supported Linux version. This may not seem like much but at the 50+ million USD range, where you’ve currently adjusted your cut to be 20%, that’s at least whole extra million USD (at, say 18%) that the publisher or developer would get to keep. Even the biggest players might find that their financial calculus is worth the risk of having and supporting a Linux port despite our paltry numbers in terms of absolute market share. Indies would also love the extra income, no matter how little it might seem. When you’re small, every penny counts. It’s important that this is a flat percentage for all sales instead of just Linux sales, otherwise the incentive isn’t large enough.

With the cost of entry lowered due to your work all these years on drivers and the ecosystem as a whole, I think that a more direct nudge is needed. It’ll play into your long-term plan of building towards a VR Linux-powered console. Don’t get me wrong: releasing games like Artifact (with day-1 Linux support) or making CS:GO free-to-play is great but it’s not enough to guarantee your spot at the top. You need to keep pushing the market and shaping its direction. Our interests are aligned at the moment and I want to see Linux gaming be as great as it possibly can be. I’ll dare to say that they’re aligned in the medium-to-long run as well—fat chance Microsoft will drop its store anytime soon given they’ve also started buying up studios. Not mention, Epic is clearly going all-in with their strategy and store; even their formerly flagship title, Unreal Tournament, has been seemingly abandoned in their bold charge forward.

Even if I’m not convinced about the broad appeal of VR yet, it really can’t hurt to have an open and free ecosystem where you can really push your weight around. You’ll have to be smart about your move in the PC game market and competing on just the traditional price wars front is a definite road towards stagnation. Sure, consumers will win either way in the short run but where will you be in five to ten years? Is this format sustainable? You don’t need to answer me right away.

I know you’re quiet and not given to clear communication. We’ve been at this for twenty years, so I don’t expect any different. Still, if I could have any one thing from the holidays from you it’d be that you take my concerns seriously. Your direct contributions are laudable but will be for naught if you don’t get enough of a critical mass in both users and software for Linux. Don’t answer right away please—take your time to think and reflect. I’ll be waiting eagerly to see what you have to say or what you do in the coming weeks and months.

Yours affectionately,

BTRE

P.S. If you do ever feel like sharing, know that both Liam and I would gladly talk to you about your vision and plans for Linux and the games market whenever you want. Let us know!

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86 comments
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gustavoyaraujo 10 December 2018 at 4:35 am UTC
Valve, keep that up!
Salvatos 10 December 2018 at 4:58 am UTC
qptain NemoI don't understand the connection some people make between reducing cuts for people making Linux ports and developers making bad ports as the result.
Laziness. Some companies already make bad ports even in the absence of incentives. If Valve offered "free money" to anyone putting up a Linux port on the store, you don't think even more companies would put in minimal effort to tick the box and take that extra cash? That wouldn't be the first time people try to game the system; just recently one of Valve's announcements mentioned "developers (...) producing 'games' that generated revenue without anyone actually buying and playing them" by abusing the trading card system. Putting up a Linux executable that barely launches sounds easy in comparison.

There is no doubt in my mind that bad or soon-unsupported ports would (continue to) happen, which leaves Valve with a choice of either paying those companies for nothing or policing their software. We all know Valve like to leave moderation to others, but I doubt they would enjoy losing money for the heck of it either. And with Steam Play working the way it does now, a bad port is more detrimental than no port for us Linux gamers. So Valve would essentially be giving some devs a bigger cut for preventing us from playing their games on Steam.
TemplarGR 10 December 2018 at 5:19 am UTC
jarhead_hThe problem with all of this is that Linux was supposed to free us from these corporations. Instead they are going to use it to chain us in.

Where did you get that idea? Linux was NEVER supposed to "free us" from corporations... This is one of the most delusional things i have ever read here, and i have read some... Being opensource does not equal being free of corporations... Who you expect to make serious developments then, hobbyists on their mom's basement? Sure, those people do some contributions as well, but for decades the vast majority of SERIOUS WORK comes from big greedy corporations...

Opensource and Linux are just a more open and standards-based way of development, nothing more.
TheSHEEEP 10 December 2018 at 6:23 am UTC
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qptain Nemo 10 December 2018 at 7:17 am UTC
Salvatos
qptain NemoI don't understand the connection some people make between reducing cuts for people making Linux ports and developers making bad ports as the result.
Laziness. Some companies already make bad ports even in the absence of incentives. If Valve offered "free money" to anyone putting up a Linux port on the store, you don't think even more companies would put in minimal effort to tick the box and take that extra cash? That wouldn't be the first time people try to game the system; just recently one of Valve's announcements mentioned "developers (...) producing 'games' that generated revenue without anyone actually buying and playing them" by abusing the trading card system. Putting up a Linux executable that barely launches sounds easy in comparison.

There is no doubt in my mind that bad or soon-unsupported ports would (continue to) happen, which leaves Valve with a choice of either paying those companies for nothing or policing their software. We all know Valve like to leave moderation to others, but I doubt they would enjoy losing money for the heck of it either. And with Steam Play working the way it does now, a bad port is more detrimental than no port for us Linux gamers. So Valve would essentially be giving some devs a bigger cut for preventing us from playing their games on Steam.
Yeah I think more companies would, I hope they would, that's the point, that's what I want to happen.

It's not that hard to support Linux objectively though. Minimal effort ports don't necessarily translate into bad quality ports. And if the mainstream engines are so flawed that this is never true for them, that's frankly a completely separate problem and the fault of the engine developers first and foremost. I think it should be solved by encouraging the engine devs to fix their engines, it's not going to be solved by giving up on encouraging developers to port their games.

Example: visual novels using Renpy. Virtually all of them support Linux. Pretty flawlessly. Probably not because they all happen to be developed by massive Linux enthusiasts. Probably has more to do with the toolset used being properly made and easy to utilize without issues.

And regarding lack of support, again, I'm not saying, and I think nobody is saying that Valve have to wave this big sign that reads "please scam us". The ports should be proper ports. Nobody is advocating for the developers to get money for nothing with zero accountability.

Of course if developers started supporting Linux out of genuine respect and interest it'd be highly preferable but it's a difficult target to hit and I don't believe that this approach would lead to such disastrously negative results.

There is also a flipside to this coin. Yeah, some developers have made terrible ports. Some other developers on the other hand have made very good properly supported ports of cool good quality games, but then just decided not to support Linux with their next releases. We're losing some developers who treated us absolutely right in the past and did everything right but now are packing up. Assumedly because it's not worth it to them. What now? I don't know about you but I'd rather get a bunch of crappy ports by people who don't have much respect for their craft, than lose people who do care for good because the market has lost all merit to them. That is just about the worst thing that could happen and it's already happening on some scale.

Having said all this if Valve have an even more effective incentive up their sleeve, I'm all for it. I hope that is the case.
theghost 10 December 2018 at 7:17 am UTC
I think the Epic store is a good thing for us consumers that use Linux.
Valve became a bit lazy the last years.
The made no new games, did not invest too much into existing games and even Steam could need a huge update (which we know is coming sometime).

So at the best we'll get another store with Linux support (Epic Store) and our beloved Steam will see improvements and we will see more Valve games.

At worst Epic store will be Mac / Windows only.
Then we know the real face of Epic. Crying about closed ecosystems and doing nothing against it.
So we don't get the exclusive games of the Epic store on Linux.
So what? I don't need Fornite (it's hype will be over soon).

I wouldn't overreact by the opening of the Epic store.
Apart from some exlusives I don't think all games there will be Epic store only (no developer would want this).
The exlusive titles aren't that exciting.

Valve did most thing right in the past. They had some kind of monopol and used it by setting high cuts (this changed these days). They reinvested the money into support for other platforms because more platforms means more customers, more sales, more money and always an escape plan (if platforms lock up completly).

They didn't cry about closed platforms and did nothing, they got their hands dirty.
OpenGL and drivers sucks? No problem, they invested in Vulkan standard, brought it to MacOs, brought it to Linux. Fixed the drivers.
Developers don't want create native ports? No problem, let's roll with Proton.
They development continues. They will bring Artifact to mobile platforms as their first step into the next platforms.

So what did Epic do? They announced a multi-platform engine where Linux support is half-assed and a lot of the fixes were done by community developers. They cried on walled gardens only to bring their one and only game just to these walled gardens. Epic has some kind of soaring flight and luck with Fortnite. They have a long hard way to go, let's see if their store works out.
Obviously their initial pricing model their engine wasn't as good as they thought. Much more games used Unity. Now they need to find another way to squeeze more money of their pricing model and try to attract more developers for their engine. It it works out, time will tell.

Edit: Thanks for the letter btw, BTRE. Well written.

Edit 2: One more thought. If the developers think their cut on Steam is too low, they still can raise the price on Steam to get a better cut. I am willing to pay more, to get the game on Steam instead of yet-another-launcher.


Last edited by theghost at 10 December 2018 at 10:05 am UTC. Edited 2 times.
ageres 10 December 2018 at 7:47 am UTC
qptain NemoI don't understand the connection some people make between reducing cuts for people making Linux ports and developers making bad ports as the result.
Today Gaben decides to pay extra for having Linux ports, and devs make them. Tomorrow he decides to stop it, so devs abandon Linux. But what about us, humble Linux gamers? Our opinion doesn't matter in this case.
Power-Metal-Games 10 December 2018 at 10:09 am UTC
Valve knows what they are doing without any suggestions. I felt like an idiot just by reading this. They are not supporting Linux to fulfill your wishes, but because it's a right thing to do in this moment. I'm sure we all love technologies, computers and Games and Microsoft with their idiotic OSs is just destroying every enjoyment of using computers. Meanwhile, Linux just won everywhere and it needs a help now to become widely accepted as a gaming platform. That means serious graphic drivers and a lot of Games. Right now, if you read Reddit you will realize how difficult for people to install some games they want to play. You can see how many of them are trying. When Proton is finished and when there is no more difficulties that we are seeing now, that will be an other story. Linux OS will become a very good gaming platform very soon. That's exactly what the world needed in this moment.
And, Valve knows what they are doing. They released two very interesting games in just a week. It was a mistake not to continue doing that earlier, but they will improve that. It's not probably that some Epic store will win and take the place that Valve has.


Last edited by Power-Metal-Games at 10 December 2018 at 10:11 am UTC
mortigar 10 December 2018 at 10:31 am UTC
Only scrolled down to reply, too many words didn't read it -_-.
There is a high possibility valve is the same.
Just saying.
Nevertheless 10 December 2018 at 10:55 am UTC
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mao_dze_dunThere are tons of Steam only games. Why is all of a sudden Epic evil for having 3rd party esxclusives?

-Steam exclusives are neither Steam exclusive nor platform exclusive by any kind of force. Any developer may decide to publish his game elsewhere.
-Epic exclusives seem to be shop exclusive (until Epic decides otherwise), but not platform exclusive (as far as platforms are availlable on the Epic shop).
-MS Store are platform- and shop exclusive (Windows and XBox until MS decides otherwise).
Decay of openness from top to bottom..
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