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[personal profile] haggholm

Recently, Valve announced that they are working on a Linux version of the Steam client, along with a port of Left 4 Dead 2. Rumours of plans for a Linux version of Steam have floated around since roughly the dawn of time, but now it is official; now it is real.

Reactions are mixed, from gung-ho enthusiasm to RMS-style caution. Personally, I am enthused. This is partly because I am not a free software purist, and partly because I regard this as a win-win scenario.

Cards on the table: I run Steam, and I own games on Steam. Their DRM is not a deal-killer for me. That said, I prefer DRM free software, and I would rather buy games via Good Old Games, who are entirely DRM free. (If a game is available via both services, there is no contest: GOG every time.)

However, I think that this move can only be good for Linux. Even if you never run a Steam game in your life, this is a good thing. One possibility is of course that this effort of Valve's fails, in which case nothing really changes. But consider what happens if they are at all successful:

  1. Currently, there is no significant market for games on Linux, because gamers all run Windows (or, I suppose, OS X); and gamers all run Windows (…) because there are no games for Linux. It's a chicken-and-egg situation; there's no supply because there's no demand, but there can be no demand because there's no supply to demand from. Launch a few AAA titles on Linux and suddenly there will exist a games market. It may thrive or it may fail to thrive, but this kind of effort gives it a real fighting chance.

  2. Games are important. Gaming is a big piece of what computers are used for, and probably the only piece where the average consumer currently has any reason at all to go with Windows over a user-friendly Linux distribution. Having a games market will be good for Linux adoption.

  3. It will be good for indie developers. Even if, initially, only a few AAA games are ported, and only a few AAA developers care about the Linux games market, Steam remains a powerhouse delivery vehicle for games, now to a potentially new market. This should leave a lot of room for indie developers to exploit this new space in a way that cannot currently be done without a good way of reaching consumers.

    As a bonus, I expect indie developers are much better situated to port software, because they don't have massive, hard-to-port codebases to deal with (because indie games are smaller), and because they don't have bleeding-edge graphics and so don't need to worry quite so much about performance; thus a penalty from using a less-efficient cross-platform library, or a performance hit from a less-than-perfect port, is more affordable.

    And I gather that the Humble Linux Bundle proved that Linux users are quite willing to support indies, whose ethos more easily aligns with OSS mentalities than AAA corporations.

    So I regard this as Valve breaking the ice with Steam and an AAA title, whereupon indies will have the powerhouse delivery vehicle of Steam, along with a few larger players, to expand the market. Hopefully more big names will follow.

  4. As this market grows, so will the demand, now backed by real money, for better and better video drivers. The Valve team have already collaborated with Intel to improve OpenGL performance. And big players like Valve are well placed to put some pressure even on giants like NVIDIA and AMD if and when there are problems.

  5. Even if you hate DRM with a burning passion… If a games market is once established in the Linux world, there will be more room for niche players (like Good Old Games) to edge in. It may sound paradoxical to suggest that Valve moving into a virtual monopoly with Steam would improve GOG's position, but I think it may be so. Right now, there's no reason for GOG to target Linux because there is no market, and there are very few games. If a cultural shift of any statistically significant magnitude occurs, then there will be a market (ergo consumers to target), and game developers will be more motivated (and better equipped) to produce Linux versions of games.

We'll see how the ports actually work out, but I for one wish Valve the best of luck and regard the whole thing as a positive development.

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Petter Häggholm

April 2016

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