Valve Software has been promoting Linux as a gaming platform for many years without a fuss. With the Steam Deck, a lot more people will suddenly be playing Linux from December – and if in doubt they won’t even notice anything. Because gaming under Linux is no longer a big deal – if you don’t want to play AAA titles with anti-cheat software, of all things. So the question arises: what is possible and what are the limitations?
The Steam client for Linux has been available since 2013, and Valve ported all of their own games such as Counter-Strike: Source, Left 4 Dead 2 and Portal to Linux shortly thereafter. With the development of the Wine fork Proton, which has been integrated into the Steam client since 2018, the Linux game world has become much bigger: What was previously fiddly, now runs with a click of the mouse in the Steam client.
A lot has happened since then: In the meantime, many Windows games can be played under Linux; only one or more dialog windows during installation indicate the use of the compatibility layer. However, there are still a few exceptions: For example, anti-cheat software such as BattlEye and Easy-Anticheat (EAC) prevent gaming under Linux. For the battle royale shooter Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG), Linux gamers have so far had to switch to cloud gaming services such as Google Stadia – a possibility that the Steam Deck also offers. Valve has announced, however, that anti-cheat software such as BattlEye and EAC will run with Proton until the Steam Deck is released.
It almost seems as if Valve had planned the move to the Linux console Steam Deck long in advance. It is certainly not quite like that, because originally Steam was supposed to bring the games to the television via a big picture surface in the form of the steam box suitable for living room. Alternatively, the Steam Link streaming box could have made the arc from the gaming PC to the television. Both products flopped.
The Steam Deck now benefits from the experience Valve has gained with SteamOS, Big Picture and the Steam Controller. The controller-compatible big-picture surface has been given a decent facelift for the steam deck. And the trackpads of the Steam controller can also be found in a heavily modified form on Valve’s announced game console.
The SteamOS developed for the Steam Box is being put on a new footing for the Steam Deck. Instead of Debian as before, the system will be based on Arch Linux. This has several advantages: Arch Linux is a rolling release system that is kept up to date via the package management. There is no upgrade to a newer version, new software versions are delivered gradually and are not held back until the next major upgrade.
This carries a certain risk, as the test phase is not as long as with other distributions. If you don’t tinker with the system, there are hardly any problems in practice. The Steam Deck software should therefore always be up to date and not require a major update. Another plus: The graphics drivers on Arch Linux are always up to date.
Valve’s compatibility software Proton is based on the one that has existed for many years Wine-Projekt. Valve has been working on improvements for the software since 2016, for example on a Direct3D 12 implementation based on Vulkan, speed improvements for Direct3D 9 and 11 and the “esync” patchset for improved multi-thread performance. CodeWeavers, which is known for its CrossOver Linux compatibility software, is also working on the software.
The integration of Proton has huge advantages for Linux gamers: Ideally, a click on the “Install” button in the Steam library is enough to set up a Windows game on Linux. The announcement of a Steam Deck running with SteamOS now provides a complete picture of the Steam operator’s longstanding commitment to Linux.
How well are the games going?
To find out whether a game runs under Linux with the help of Proton, it is worth taking a look at the community database Protondb.com, which collects testimonials and also lists which Linux distribution, which graphics driver and kernel were used in the test. The test reports also provide helpful Steam start parameters and other tips. Sometimes the testers come to very different results, but the reports also list which Linux distribution and which graphics driver were used. To assess whether a game will run on the Steam Deck, you should therefore look for reports under Arch Linux or Arch derivatives such as Manjaro. The number of reports submitted has skyrocketed with the announcement of the Steam Deck.
The English-language website divides Windows games into five categories from “Borked” (does not work at all) to “Platinum” (runs very well), with many of them somewhere in between. It provides a good overview of how good the Linux support is now and how much work is still ahead of Valve.
c’t zockt collects the gamers of the c’t magazine and of heise online. We play games across the board, like indie and early access games, have a heart for retro titles and occasionally venture into virtual reality. We stream live LAN parties from our video studio on YouTube and also regularly publish new videos there on everything to do with games. Have a look: youtube.com/ctzockt
The editors already have a number of in the c’t-zockt-YouTube-Channel Windows games on Linux tested, a separate playlist lists them collectively.