The Steam Deck, announced in August 2021, has Linux gaming circles talking about the future of gaming on Linux. The Deck, through its reliance on Proton, might be signaling the end of native Linux gaming. That might be just what Linux needs.
The Stalemate in Linux Gaming
It’s September 2021, and the year of the Linux desktop still isn’t here. If it were, game studios would be scrambling to get their games ported to Linux, while Microsoft and Apple cry out in repentance for their closed-source and monopolistic wrongdoings. But they’re not. Statcounter reports that the global market share of Linux users isn’t budging from around 1%, indicating the realization of that dream remains out of sight.
One of the most commonly cited reasons for PC users not switching to Linux is the lack of supported software, games in particular. Gamers won’t adopt Linux because of the lack of support, and the support isn’t there because studios won’t cater to the tiny crowd of existing Linux adopters, creating a sort of stalemate. With no one willing to compromise, the circle seems unbreakable.
At least one company, however, has been working to circumvent the problem.
The Rise of Proton
Remedying the pain for Linux gamers in wait, Valve debuted Proton for Steam in August 2018. Proton is a modified fork of the popular Wine software, a compatibility layer that allows Linux users to run Windows software on their desktop. Since the initial release, Valve has been developing Proton to support more and more of the gaming platform’s extensive library of games once restricted to Windows PCs.
Now, two years later, that work seems to be culminating in the arrival of Valve’s Steam Deck, a mobile gaming device that ships with Valve’s own Linux distribution called SteamOS. Valve has been promoting the Steam Deck as capable of running the entire Steam library. It’s worth noting, though, that one developer pointed out that they probably mean the hardware is capable, while SteamOS and Proton need further development. For reference, ProtonDB.com at the time of writing reports about 77% of the 1,000 most popular games have at least a Gold rating (which means it “runs perfectly after tweaks”).
Is Proton Killing Native Linux Gaming?
With the arrival of Proton, game studios have even less incentive than before to spend time and money catering to such a niche demographic as Linux users. Feral Games confirmed as much in a July 2021 tweet, reporting that “there is generally less demand for native [Linux] titles since Valve’s launch of Proton.” If Proton will take care of making the game available to the Linux crowd, why spend the money on an official port? It would seem Proton is killing the dream of native gaming on Linux.
This is just what we need to break the Linux gaming stalemate. Proton allows gamers to come over to Linux without forcing studios to cater to a demographic that isn’t there. SteamOS, by way of the Steam Deck, also gets Linux into the hands of gamers who might never have touched Linux until now. When they see discover the freedom Linux offers while also running their favorite games, skeptics could turn into enthusiasts.
So while Proton and the Steam Deck might be pushing down the demand for native Linux titles, it also has the potential to push Linux into more general adoption. And with adoption on the rise, the effect could come full circle, pushing studios to develop native titles instead of relying on a third-party compatibility layer.
Of course, this all depends on Valve’s ability to make Proton and SteamOS a success. Additionally, Steam’s library is not all-inclusive, as other popular games are exclusively licensed to Valve’s competitors. We are seeing signals, however, of other companies’ interest in joining the wave. For example, Epic Online Services announced that Easy Anti-Cheat is coming to Linux, including in Proton and on the Deck. That potentially unlocks a whole trove of additional game support.
We don’t know for sure what will happen, but Proton could result in the death of native Linux gaming while, in effect, kickstarting the Linux platform as a serious choice for gaming. The king is dead, long live the king!