With the dust settling on the absolute bomb that Valve dropped with the new Steam Play feature, I’ve had a little time now to think about the broader implications. It’s obviously a lot to process and these are just my own personal thoughts.
In the short time Proton has been live, the Linux gaming community has come together in a way that I've not seen in all the years I've been doing this. Looking at the GitHub page for Proton, there's already masses of people submitting issues, mentioning games that work perfectly to add to Valve's whitelist of games, people submitting code to help the project along and so on. There's also a massive document on Google Docs, with people submitting their findings on how games run. Seems like it's off to a rather good start!
One of the major worries I had initially, which I’ve seen others share, is that this could mean the end of native Linux ports. However, I have a different take on it.
When it comes to the long-term viability of Linux gaming, getting 2 or 3 AAA games natively ported a year is simply not sustainable. While I am absolutely appreciative of the effort and a big fan of the porting studios, we needed something else to complement native ports to help push us forward.
To be clear on something, I’m absolutely all for the famous “No Tux, No Bucks” slogan people like to throw around. It’s a brilliant thing that there’s a lot of enthusiastic people out there sticking to their guns, buying only games that support Linux. A small reality check though: for the vast majority of developers you’re basically pissing into the wind due to our market share. Developers aren’t likely to see enough sales to think it’s truly worth the effort.
Thinking that this will completely kill off ports from Aspyr Media, Feral Interactive and other porters is probably thinking too short-term. In my mind, this could actually help them quite a lot when thinking about the bigger picture.
With this Steam Play move, this could be a massive push for more people to actually play their games on Linux, get more people actually install Linux and so on. This could, at least in theory, give native porting houses a much bigger market to sink their teeth into. After all, the biggest problem we face is market share, what happens if this starts to move it upwards? Like with SteamOS though, let’s keep expectations in check—I don’t expect this to instantly move mountains. However, this seems like a long-term plan that’s thinking ahead and if it does result in more people using Linux for gaming, that will benefit the entire platform—not just gamers.
Think about it: what’s the single biggest issue people have when it comes to sticking with Linux for their gaming requirements? The actual games, duh. If this bridges a gap for all the people that claim “if x game worked on Linux, I would be on Linux” this probably will become a game changer. Especially important, is the fact that this doesn’t require time and effort to configure, like any other Steam game (for the whitelisted games at least) it will be click and play. The value of that, should not be underestimated. To give an example of that, see the below video:
It’s especially important for all those games people have on Steam that they would otherwise lose access to when moving to Linux. People shouldn’t have to lose their favourite games! Even if it’s only used as a bridge while people move towards purchasing native titles, it’s still an extremely useful feature.
Valve told us directly, that purchases of Windows games played with Proton on Linux will count as a Linux sale. If you missed the update to the previous article, they said this:
Hey Liam, the normal algorithm is in effect, so if at the end of the two weeks you have more playtime on Linux, it'll be a Linux sale. Proton counts as Linux.
So, with any luck, all the people who were already buying Windows games for Wine (and any users coming over to Linux from Windows) will start doing so from within Steam directly. Now if you pick it up to play in Steam Play and a native Linux port comes later (for those times when a release is delayed) you’ve still been counted for Linux gaming—which is truly awesome!
This may help give Linux gaming a more positive outlook in the eyes of developers looking at their sales statistics. That’s quite a big point to reflect on. This might give developers who otherwise ignored Linux some incentive and a push to actually support the platform. If they suddenly start seeing a ton of people buying on Linux, it might start some interesting conversations about actually supporting it officially. Those types of conversations end up creating waves through the entire industry, I've already seen a lot of developers quite excited and hopeful about it all, so it's already making a positive impact on some.
There’s other points to think about too. Linux GPU Drivers and the Vulkan API will be given a much larger testing pool. I imagine this benefiting them greatly. Valve said it themselves in their announcement, that they recommend that developers target Vulkan (as well as telling developers to avoid invasive third-party DRM middleware), so this could be a good way to push Vulkan which is better for all of us since it’s an open API.
However, Valve’s Proton can only do so much for performance and getting a game to work in the first place. What about bugs in the game itself they literally cannot code around to get it working on Linux? What about the masses of online-only games, that have various forms of anti-cheat that Proton/Wine simply cannot handle?
There’s a large number of games that only half work or simply don’t work at all. What about when your favourite game gets an update, which breaks it with Proton? There’s likely many cases that I’m probably not even thinking of, where Valve’s solution simply wouldn’t work or would give a subpar experience.
This is where native ports will still be king. You know what you’re buying will work on Linux and it will give you official support from the developer. When it gets updated, you know it’s still going to work because that’s literally their job to ensure it does. That’s likely the major reason why native ports won’t, or rather shouldn’t, dry up. Valve have to attempt to support a massive, ever-increasing library of Windows-only games and so their resources are going to be spread pretty thin on this. Not to mention that there’s always a chance that Valve could decide to pull back on support in a year or two if they decide it’s not working well enough.
Compare that with a developer putting out a Linux version; obviously they have a much smaller (and likely easier) bit of code to focus on. I would still expect the experience to be superior with a native port, since it’s tweaked specifically for Linux and it’s likely gone through some proper QA. When it comes to games that do require anti-cheat that doesn't (and might never) work with Proton, this could end up being a rather lucrative selection of games for game porters.
Like what happens when any new tech comes out, porting companies will need to adapt to survive. I hope they do, I want them to. The more options we have, the better it is for everyone.
I mentioned drivers briefly earlier. Well, how many times do you think driver issues have held up a Linux port? From what I know, quite often. If we do indeed get better drivers as a result of this, it might also create fewer issues for developers when it comes to doing native ports. We know that some driver developers have been specifically fixing issues with games in Wine, so it sounds like it's been someting ongoing for some time now.
I did speak to Feral Interactive, who told me “Our plans for our future Linux projects haven't changed.”. So we should be able to look forward to continued native Linux ports, including their currently announced Linux ports for Life is Strange: Before the Storm and Total War: WARHAMMER II. I also reached out to Aspyr Media, who declined to give a public comment for us at this time and Virtual Programming did not reply at all.
It remains to be seen what truly happens, but this is probably one of the biggest things to ever happen to Linux gaming. It’s a very interesting time to be both a Linux gamer as well as someone who writes about Linux gaming news.
At the very least, it’s put Linux gaming back on the map for a lot of people. I’ve lost count many times over at the amount of people sending us messages across our various social networks, telling us how excited they are about the possibilities of this.
These are just my own thoughts, I invite any game developer, game engine developer or game porter to write their own post to talk about it. Our submissions are always open and I appreciate having different viewpoints.
Also, as a final note, I find it somewhat amusing that John Carmack said this back in 2013:
Improving Wine for Linux gaming seems like a better plan than lobbying individual game developers for native ports. Why the hate?
To pinch a popular meme—it’s as if Valve said “hold my beer”.