Looking only at the spec sheet, the just revealed $ 399 Steam Deck gaming laptop should be a winner. Valve’s PC-centric Nintendo Switch rival features a large 7-inch touchscreen, plenty of control inputs, a fully AMD chip based on the same hardware inside the Xbox Series S | X and PlayStation 5, and the ability to double as a full-fledged Linux PC. But forget about the hardware. While impressive indeed, the Steam Deck will sink or swim depending on its software, which means Valve Awesome Proton technology is about to be in the spotlight.
The Steam Deck will sprint to a larger software library than most gaming handhelds, as you’ll be able to tap into decades of existing PC games through your Steam account, rather than having to wait for new releases specifically designed for the new material. But most of these games were made for Windows, and Steam Deck runs on Valve’s Linux-based SteamOS operating system instead. Proton (via Steam Play) allows Windows games to run on Linux. It works very fine most of the time, but it’s not perfect – and the success of the Steam Deck probably hinges on how much Valve can tweak Proton before the handheld launches in December.
Here’s a high-level look at what you need to know about Proton, the Steam Deck’s secret software sauce.
What is Steam Proton?
At a high level, Proton is a compatibility layer that allows Windows games to run on Linux-based operating systems (such as SteamOS from Steam Deck). In the past, to play PC games on Linux, you had to run Steam games through software called Wine (an acronym for “Wine is not an emulator.”). Valve worked with the developers at CodeWeavers to create Proton as a fork of Wine, then brought the technology directly into Steam as part of Steam Play, the “buy once, play on any platform” initiative. PC ”.
Valve created Proton after its salon-focused Steam Machine initiative failed, in part because of its reliance on the much smaller Linux game library. “There’s always been that classic chicken-and-egg problem with the steam engine,” designer Scott Dalton told IGN. “It got us down this Proton path, where now there are all these games that actually work.”
How to configure Steam Proton?
Currently, Steam for Linux does not not go back to Proton by default. You have to turn it on manually or stick to games that offer a native Linux port. Considering the few games offering native Linux versions, we very much hope that Valve will enable Proton / Steam Play on the Steam Deck by default, otherwise there will be a lot of unhappy customers.
If you are already using Linux, you can activate Proton by opening your Steam settings and clicking on the “Steam Play” option at the bottom of the navigation pane. (The option will not be visible on Windows PCs.) There you will see a box that you can check for “Enable Steam Play for Supported Titles”. This activates Proton for games confirmed to work well with the technology, whitelisted by Valve. You will also see an advanced option for “Activate Steam Play for all other titles”, which will activate Proton for everything after restarting the client.
Will all my games work on Steam Deck with Proton?
Will all games work? That’s the million dollar question.
Valve has been continuously improving Proton since its launch in 2018, and many—more, even — Windows games run fairly well through Steam Play with little to no tinkering. Your best resource for determining how a game works is the utterly fantastic ProtonDB, a community-created treasure trove of information that currently tracks nearly 19,000 games, of which over 15,000 run Linux. The site also maintains a very Helpful troubleshooting faq for Proton games. (Be sure to leave your own reports if you are using Proton and Steam Play!)
As these numbers indicate, some games are just “stuffed” on Linux, to borrow ProtonDB’s term. The most common victims? Unfortunately, the most popular games are battle royale games and esports titles. Proton’s compatibility layer tweaks do not work well with anti-cheat software deployed in widely played online games. Valve made sure to have their own Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Team Fortress 2 running Linux, but big hitters like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, Rainbow Six Siege, Apex Legends, and Destiny 2 will not work.
This is a huge bummer, and as you can see from ProtonDB’s game compatibility stats above, that means many of the world’s most popular games cannot be played on a Steam Deck. currently. (Notice how much, much, much higher the percentage of red “borked” games in the top ten than in the top 100 and top 1000 – it’s because these multiplayer games dominate the most played charts. )
Valve apparently understands how much of a hindrance this could be. In a Steam Deck FAQ for developers hoping their games will perform well on Proton, Valve states that “We are working with BattlEye and EAC to get support for Proton ahead of launch.”
If Valve manages to get BattlEye and Easy Anti-Cheat to play well with Proton, the Steam Deck will launch with its biggest hurdle already cleared, and Linux gamers around the world will rejoice. Otherwise, however, the Steam Deck will likely be relegated to being a device dedicated to single-player and indie games, or only useful for people wanting to install Windows instead – not a bad niche, of course, but not one that will set it on fire. in the world either.
All the cool hardware and equally cool prices won’t matter if PC gamers can’t play their favorite games on Valve’s handheld. As a mainstream device, the Steam Deck will live or die on Proton’s back – and if Steam Play can actually persuade anti-cheat makers to support it. Crossed fingers.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on July 16, but has been updated to include Valve’s comments on how the failure of the steam engines inspired the creation of Proton.