When the Steam Deck preorders went live, I went nuts. I was standing in my living room with an iPad, laptop and phone ready to go. Thankfully I got my order in quickly and I'm one of the lucky ones that gets to enjoy the Steam Deck in December of 2021. As someone who doesn't play a ton of PC games, mostly indie titles, I was asked by a few friends "why bother with a new console".
It's a good question, especially coming from a company like Valve. While I love them, Valve has been attempting to crack this particular nut for years. The initial salvo was "Steam OS", a Debian fork that was an attempt by Valve to create an alternative to Windows. Microsoft had decided to start selling applications and games through its Windows Store and Valve was concerned about Microsoft locking partners out. It's not crazy to think of a world in which Microsoft would require games to be signed with a Microsoft client certificate to access DirectX APIs, so an alternative was needed.
So SteamOS launches with big dreams in 2014 and for the most part flops. While it has some nice controller-centric design elements that play well with the new Steam Controller, these "Big Picture" UI changes also come to Windows. Game compatibility is bad at first, then slowly gets better, but a lack of support for the big anti-cheat tools means multiplayer games are mostly out of the question. Steam Machines launch to a fizzle, with consumers not sure what they're paying for and Valve making a critical error.
Since they don't make the actual pieces of hardware, relying instead on third-parties like Alienware to do it, they're basically trying to have their cake and eat it too. Traditionally game consoles work like this: companies sell the console at cost or for a slight profit. Then they make money on every game sold, initially through licensing fees back in the day. Now you make it through the licensing fee plus the cut of the console store transaction as games become more digitial. Steam as a platform makes its billions of dollars there, taking around 30% of the transaction for every digital good sold on its store.
So if you look at the original Steambox with SteamOS from the perspective of a consumer, it's a terrible deal. All of the complexity of migrating to Linux has been shifted to you or to Dell customer support. You need to know whether your games will work or not and you need to be in charge of fixing any problems that arise. The hardware partner can't sell the hardware at the kind of margin consoles usually get sold for, so you are paying more for your hardware. Game developers don't have any financial incentive to do the work of porting, because almost immediately the steam machine manufacturers shipped Windows versions of the same hardware, so chances are they don't care if it doesn't work on SteamOS.
The picture doesn't get much better if you are a game developer. Valve is still taking 30% from you, the hardware isn't flying off the shelf so chances are these aren't even new customers, just existing customers playing games they already paid for. You need to handle all the technical complexity of the port plus now your QA process is 2x as complicated. In short it was kind of a ridiculous play by Valve, an attempt to get the gaming community to finance and support their migration away from Windows with no benefit to the individual except getting to run Linux.
Alright so why is the Steam Deck different?
- The Steam Deck follows the traditional console route. Valve is selling the units at close to cost, meaning you aren't paying the markup required to support a hardware manufacturer AND Valve. Instead they are eating the hardware cost to build a base, something everyone else has already done.
- We know this form factor works. The Nintendo Switch is a massive hit among casual and serious gamers for allowing people to play both a large catalog of Nintendo titles on the go (which obviously the Steam Deck will not be able to) and a massive library of indies. Given the slow pace of Nintendo releases, I would argue it is the indie titles and ports of existing PC games that have contributed in large part to the Switches success.
- Valve has done the work through Proton (a fork of Wine, the windows not-emulator) to ensure a deep library of games work. They have also addresses the anti-cheat vendors, meaning the cost to consumers in terms of what titles they will have access to has been greatly reduced.
- They switched away from Debian, going with Arch. This means faster access to drivers and other technology in the Linux kernel and less waiting time for fixes to make their way to users. There is obviously some sacrifice in terms of stability but given that they have a hardware target they can test again, I think the pros outweigh the cons.
- A common CPU architecture. This is a similar chipset to the current crop of Sony and Microsoft consoles, hopefully reducing the amount of work required by engine makers and game developers to port to this stack.
Who Cares, I Already Have a Switch
The reason the Steam Deck matters in a universe where the Nintendo Switch is a massive success is because Nintendo simply cannot stay out of their own way. For long term fans of the company many of their decisions are frankly...baffling. A simple example is their lack of emphasis on online play, considered table stakes for most services now. Their account system is still a mess, playing with friends and communicating with them still relies on you either using your phone or using apps not owned by Nintendo and in general they seem to either hate the online experience or would prefer to pretend it doesn't exist.
Dan Adelman, former Nintendo employee who worked a lot with indie developers shed some light on their internal culture years ago which I think is still relevant:
Nintendo is not only a Japanese company, it is a Kyoto-based company. For people who aren't familiar, Kyoto-based are to Japanese companies as Japanese companies are to US companies. They're very traditional, and very focused on hierarchy and group decision making. Unfortunately, that creates a culture where everyone is an advisor and no one is a decision maker – but almost everyone has veto power.
Even Mr. Iwata is often loathe to make a decision that will alienate one of the executives in Japan, so to get anything done, it requires laying a lot of groundwork: talking to the different groups, securing their buy-in, and using that buy-in to get others on board. At the subsidiary level, this is even more pronounced, since people have to go through this process first at NOA or NOE (or sometimes both) and then all over again with headquarters. All of this is not necessarily a bad thing, though it can be very inefficient and time consuming. The biggest risk is that at any step in that process, if someone flat out says no, the proposal is as good as dead. So in general, bolder ideas don't get through the process unless they originate at the top.
There are two other problems that come to mind. First, at the risk of sounding ageist, because of the hierarchical nature of Japanese companies, it winds up being that the most senior executives at the company cut their teeth during NES and Super NES days and do not really understand modern gaming, so adopting things like online gaming, account systems, friends lists, as well as understanding the rise of PC gaming has been very slow. Ideas often get shut down prematurely just because some people with the power to veto an idea simply don't understand it.
The last problem is that there is very little reason to try and push these ideas. Risk taking is generally not really rewarded. Long-term loyalty is ultimately what gets rewarded, so the easiest path is simply to stay the course. I'd love to see Nintendo make a more concerted effort to encourage people at all levels of the company to feel empowered to push through ambitious proposals, and then get rewarded for doing so.
None of this is necessarily a bad culture, in fact I suspect this steady leadership and focus on long-term thinking is likely the reason we don't see Nintendo fall victim to every passing fad. However it does mean that the things we don't like about the current situation with Nintendo (locking down their hardware, not playing well with online services, reselling old games instead of backwards compatibility) is unlikely to change.
On the flip side it also means we know Nintendo will make truly mysterious decisions on a regular basis and will not react to or even acknowledge criticism. On my Nintendo Switch I've burned through three Joy-Cons due to drift. I'm not a professional gamer and I play maximum an hour a day. If I am burning through these little controllers at this rate I imagine that more serious enthusiasts have either switched to the Pro controller a long time ago or are just living with tremendous problems. Despite two new models coming out, Nintendo hasn't redesigned their controllers to use better joysticks.
Even though the hardware supports it, the Switch doesn't allow me to use a bluetooth headset. Online play for certain games either doesn't work or is designed in such a way as to be almost user-hostile. Splatoon 2, a flagship title for Nintendo has largly abandoned its online community, just stopping their normal rotation of activities. Animal Crossing, maybe the biggest game of the COVID-19 lockdown, is a perfect game for casual gamers to enjoy online. You cannot enjoy a large community of other gamers island without the heavy use of third-party tools and even then the game is fighting you every step of the way.
So with a company like Nintendo, while I currently have a good experience with the Switch, it increasingly feels like it was a fluke. I'm not sure if they know why its so successful or what is currently holding it back, so it becomes difficult to have a lot of confidence that their future versions will prioritize the things I value. It would not surprise me at all if the Switch 2 didn't have backwards compability with previous games, or if there wasn't a Switch 2 but instead a shift back to a traditional box under the tv. I just can't assume with Nintendo that their next decision will make any sense.
What Challenges does the Steam Deck Face?
Loads. The Steam Deck, even with the work Valve has already put in, faces quite an uphill battle. Some of these will be familiar to Linux fans who have run Linux at work and on their personal machines for years. A few of these are just the realities of launching a new console.
- Linux still doesn't do amazingly at battery life for portable devices. You can tune this (and I fully expect that Valve will) but considerable attention will need to be paid to battery consumption in the OS. With the wide range of games Valve is showing off, the Steam Deck is going to get a bad reputation among less technical folks if the battery lasts 30 minutes.
- Technical support. Despite its flaws the Nintendo Switch just works. There isn't anything you need to do in order to get it to function. Valve is not a huge company and games don't need to go through a long vetting process before you can launch them on the Deck. This means that when users encounter problems, which they will a lot at first, Valve is not going to be there to help. They simply have too much software. So its entirely conceivable you can buy this thing, launch three games in a row that crash or barely run and there is no number to call to help you.
- Build quality and QA. I've purchased all the hardware that Valve has made up to this point and so far its been pretty good. I especially like the controller, even though it is kind of a bizarre design. However a controller is a lot less complicated when compared to the Deck, and how Valve manages QA for the devices is going to be a big thing for consumers. You might love the Google Pixel phone, but their hardware support has been garbage compared to Apple and it makes a difference, especially to less technical users. How I can get the Deck fixed, what kind of build quality and consistency there is, etc are all outstanding questions.
- Finally is Valve going to support the machine long-term? Valve loves experiments and has a work culture that is very flat and decentralized. Employees enjoy a great deal of flexibility in terms of what they work on, which is...a strategy. I don't know if its the best strategy but it does seem to have worked pretty well for them. For this machine to be the kind of success I think they want it to be, customers are going to want to see a pretty high level of software quality out of the gate and for that quality to improve over time. If Valve loses interest (or if the Proton model of compatibility turns out to require a lot of hand-holding per title for the Deck) I could easily see Valve abandonding this device with the justification that users "can load their own OS on there".
In closing the Steam Deck is a fasinating opportunity for the Linux gaming community. We might finally have a 1st class hardware target for developers backed by a company with the financial assets and interest in solving the myriad of technical problems along the way. It could be a huge step towards breaking Microsofts dominance of the PC gaming market and, more importantly, bringing some of the value of the less regulated PC gaming space to the console market.
However a lot of this is going to depend on Valve's commitment to the device for the first 12 months of its life. Skeptics are going to be looking closely to see how quickly software incompatibility issues are addressed, consumers are going to want to have an experience similar to the Switch in terms of "pick up and play" and Linux fans are going to want to enjoy a lot of flexibility. These are hard things to balance, especially for a company with some hardware experience but likely nothing on the anticipated scale of the Steam Deck.