I Want to Believe In the Steam Deck

But I’ve been burned by Valve before.

Eric Ravenscraft
Debugger
Published in
5 min readJul 16, 2021

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Valve

Today, Valve announced its upcoming portable gaming PC, the Steam Deck. Physically, it’s reminiscent of the Nintendo Switch, but inside it runs a new version of SteamOS, a Linux-based operating system Valve designed for its games. The idea is that gamers will be able to play their library anywhere.

I just wish I could believe it.

What Valve claims it’s doing is nothing short of herculean. The dedicated site for the device promises that “Steam Deck runs the latest AAA games” and, realizing how lofty that promise sounds, reassures, “and runs them really well.”

Right off the bat, this feels like the kind of promise that needs qualifications. For example, one recent AAA game, Cyberpunk 2077, doesn’t even run well on the consoles it was (allegedly) designed for. That’s more a failure on the part of developer CD Project Red than it is on the console, but it highlights an important fact: even in ideal circumstances, where you know years in advance what hardware a game will be running on, optimizing performance is complicated.

Running a game on a platform it wasn’t designed for, however, is never the ideal circumstance. When Valve tried before to make SteamOS, it didn’t go well, in no small part because it required effort on the part of developers to support Linux. Without games, no one wanted to buy the hardware (and why should they, buying a PC is equally easy, tons of players already had one, and it supported all of Steam’s games). Without hardware buyers, no one wants to port their games and on it goes in a descending spiral of failure.

This time around, Valve badly wants to convince you that it will be different, baby. It touts “a new Steam operating system” (this version of SteamOS is based on Arch Linux, as opposed to the older version based on Debian, if that matters to you) that uses a compatibility layer called Proton to run games without needing developers to port the game to Linux.

That sounds nice in theory, but how well it works can depend on the game. The community-run ProtonDB site collects user reports for various games running on different hardware and the results are promising but not absolute. If you stick to some of the most mainstream…

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Eric Ravenscraft
Debugger

Eric Ravenscraft is a freelance writer from Atlanta covering tech, media, and geek culture for Medium, The New York Times, and more.