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:
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.
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!