Tech Focus: The Evolution of Steam and the "Windows 8 Catastrophe"

Digital Foundry on why Valve is embracing Linux as a hedge bet against the new Microsoft OS.

Valve's Gabe Newell is no stranger to controversy. PlayStation 3 was "a waste of everybody's time" and a "total disaster on so many levels". Xbox Live was a "train wreck" and the Xbox 360 itself "doesn't make my life any better, and in fact, it makes it a lot worse" - and now, the latest gem: "Windows 8 is kind of a catastrophe for everybody in the PC space".

Quite why Newell believes that Windows 8 is such a disaster isn't entirely clear. Initially, he points to PC manufacturers exiting the market, and says that "margins are going to be destroyed for a number of people". Perhaps Newell knows something about Microsoft's licensing costs that we don't - he did work there, after all - but it's hard to imagine that the Seattle giant is going to hike OS costs to a degree that would bring about the end of its hugely lucrative OEM income. The mobile market isn't so clear-cut though and many believe that the future of computing will take on a more portable form: OEMs don't have to pay a penny to Google to use Android, and the introduction of licensing costs for a Windows OS on tablets and smartphones isn't going to go down very well at all.

"Windows 8 is all about the unification of tablet, phone and desktop, but the creation of the Microsoft Store effectively removes Valve and Steam from the mobile side of the equation."

Perhaps the biggest issue with Windows 8 is that it comes across very much as a product designed for strategic, business purposes that puts Microsoft's interests before its end-users': it seeks to unify mobile and desktop operating systems to an ambitious degree that not even Apple has (yet) attempted. This obviously has huge amounts of potential for Microsoft, but only a small minority of PC owners will experience that. For the average desktop user, innovations like the Metro interface have little "real life" usage in the here and now - touch-screens aren't the norm in the average office or study - and questions also need to be asked about the design of Metro itself. The multitude of "Windows 8 Challenge" videos on YouTube demonstrates the problems people have getting on with the interface.

In addition to that, the previously open platform introduces an element that is sure to rub Valve up the wrong way: the Windows Metro store is an iTunes App Store-style "walled garden", curated by Microsoft, with code running in its own virtual machine that allows for compatibility between mobile and desktop devices. Metro apps can run on all hardware running Windows 8, but crucially, non-Metro programs won't run on the mobile "RT" version of the OS. This is seriously bad news for Valve, as Steam is effectively locked out from the expansion of the Windows market as it moves into mobile territory. Bearing in mind the revenue Microsoft is likely to generate from its own "App Store", it's safe to say that the firm will do everything it can to entice developers and publishers to move there.

Valve's response? It is hedging its bets by supporting Linux - the open source OS that OEMs can adopt without incurring license fees, and which will never include an App Store-esque digital distribution channel. In the here and now, rightly or wrongly, Linux has a reputation as a nerd's OS with little mainstream interest and few of the refinements of OSX or Windows. Newell has the solution:

"We're trying to make sure that Linux thrives. Our perception is that one of the big problems holding Linux back is the absence of games," he said.

"I think that a lot of people - in their thinking about platforms - don't realise how critical games are as a consumer driver of purchases and usage. So we're going to continue working with the Linux distribution guys, shipping Steam, shipping our games, and making it as easy as possible for anybody who's engaged with us - putting their games on Steam and getting those running on Linux, as well. It's a hedging strategy."

That's Venturebeat's edited transcript of Newell's words, anyway - apparently conditions for audio recording weren't particularly great. This may explain why All Things D, also at the event, has an alternative take on what Newell said:

"The big problem that is holding back Linux is games. People don't realise how critical games are in driving consumer purchasing behaviour... We want to make it as easy as possible for the 2,500 games on Steam to run on Linux as well."

Venturebeat's version of events suggests that Valve will work with people making PC games to assist them in creating a cross-platform product that will run on Linux too. It's early days at the moment, but you can follow the progress of the Valve Linux team on their own blog now. The AllThingsD quote suggests something altogether different - that Steam will eventually evolve to run existing PC games on Linux, a situation that could potentially offer extraordinary money-making possibilities for Valve, developers and publishers alike - and change the nature of Steam itself in the process.

This may sound quite insane, but there is some precedent here. Technologies like Cider have been developed that convert across PC code to run on x86 Macs, while Wineskin sees the auto-creation of "wrappers" that runs an emulated Windows virtual machine within OSX, which in turn runs the game itself. Wineskin has proved so successful that both end-users and developers are now using it to get PC games running on Mac without the need for a direct, native port, and with the budgets and personnel at Valve's disposal, it's entirely possible that similar "wrapping" technology could be used to get a lot of those 2,500 games running on OSX - and indeed Linux (the core Wine emulator has its origins on the open source OS, of course).

As mentioned before in this column when addressing the Steambox rumours, the end-game may well be the creation of a Steam API - a layer that allows for PC games to be more easily portable to all the operating systems and devices Valve intends to support. Indeed, PC games may not be the best description for them as such by that point - they would be Steam games first and foremost, and in time they would be developed from the ground up for multiple platforms with the new API in mind.

"The end-game may well be a Steam API that allows developers to easily deploy their games across a wide array of devices and operating systems. Adding Linux support to Steam would be the first logical step here."

Regardless of whether Venturebeat or AllThingsD has the more accurate transcription of what actually went down at the Casual Connect game conference in Seattle last week, the overall message is clear. In the here and now, Steam is a predominantly PC-based system. Going forward, Valve wants to evolve the client into a full-on platform that will run independently of Windows - the ultimate hedge. Valve gets to protect itself against the threat of a fundamental shift away from the Microsoft OS, while the work also has clear value to the end-user too: the same game can run on many different devices, with Steam Cloud support allowing for persistence in game progression from one piece of hardware to the next. The only question really is whether full-on cloud gameplay streaming systems like OnLive and Gaikai will get there first with this level of functionality.

Whether video-stream gameplay takes root or not, the fact is that local technology continues to evolve at a rapid pace - especially so in the mobile space. Supporting Linux is the first step in getting Steam to run on a multitude of new devices - not just PC. By this time next year, NVIDIA and PowerVR will be running "next-gen" mobile graphics cores with the raw power to run a great deal of those 2500 Steam titles without breaking too much of a sweat. Indeed, Microsoft's Surface Pro tablet running the x86 version of Windows 8 uses a Core i5 CPU with Intel HD4000 graphics: out of the box, it should be able to handle the majority of the Steam library too - as good an indication as any of the kind of muscle mobile is moving towards. Next year's Intel integrated GPU promises to offer a 2x to 3x boost over the current Ivy Bridge chips; rest assured that the company won't stop there.

Clearly, the future is mobile and Steam represents Valve's best opportunity to monetise that - hence Michael Abrash's work on wearable computing, the firm's exploration into what it defines as the "post-touch" era, characterised as the interface that will supersede the touch-screen. With the amount of talent and money being put into this project, Linux support takes on a whole new dimension - it's difficult to believe that Valve would develop this hardware platform and then gift a new revenue stream to Microsoft, by relying on the Seattle giant for its underlying OS. In this respect, Linux is by far the better fit.

But all of that is in the future - in the far future if you take the time to read Abrash's latest, fascinating blog post on the practical challenges of implementing augmented reality. In the short term, the Linux strategy remains very much an insurance policy in case Windows 8 fails, and at the same time a rebellion against the concept of walled garden marketplaces encroaching onto an open platform.

"If people look at what they can accomplish when they can limit competitors' access to their platform, they say, 'Wow, that's really exciting'," as Gabe Newell puts it.

"Even some of the people who have open platforms, like Microsoft, get really excited by the idea that Netflix has to pay them rent in order to be on the Internet. That's not how we got here, and I don't think that's a very attractive future."

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Latest comments (17)

Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 9 years ago
Interesting read.

I will say that Valve have been looking at Linux compatibility for a long time now (something which isn't explicit in your article), and that, if Newell hadn't mentioned Win8 last week, such compatibility would be viewed very differently. Rather than being seen as hedging against MS's possible misuse of the Windows 8 OS, it would be seen as merely bringing games to a relatively dormant gaming sector.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Morville O'Driscoll on 1st August 2012 9:07am

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Mark Kennedy9 years ago
Half of the Eurogamer/GamesIndustry dev team run linux desktops and so this is all very exciting for us. I wonder if the humblebundle success on linux (1/6th of income roughly attributed to linux) has been any sort of trigger for Valve?

BTW, WINE = Wine Is Not Emulator

/runs away ;-)
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Patrick Frost QA Project Monitor 9 years ago
Linux gaming through Steam would be extremely nice but what breadth of support are we talking about? Are games going be compiled and available for a really broad range system, from Intel to Arm?
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Martin Klima Executive Producer, Warhorse Studios9 years ago
Well, but isn't the logic of the article flawed? If Valve is concerned about the Windows on tablet and mobile devices, how does a move to Linux help it? The Linux is even weaker on these platforms than it is on desktops (where it has about 5%).
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Paul Shirley Programmers 9 years ago
@Martin Klima: its not a move to Linux, they're adding Linux as a supported platform. At the simplest level that let's them build a Steam console without paying Microsoft for an OS, probably a more realistic option than expecting disappointed Win8 suckers to move to Linux on their PC.

The real advantage has nothing to do with Linux, it's the side effects of implementing Linux support - the possibility of truly OS agnostic games, games that just keep running whatever mess Microsoft makes of it's market.

Reality is more likely to be Win9 reverting back to sanity after Win8 fails in it's WP8/RT promotion purpose.
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Jay Weston Owner, Binary Space9 years ago
Perhaps everyone will just stick to Win7 for years like they did with XP when Vista came out?
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Pablo Santos Developer 9 years ago
@Jay - I would bet my 2 cents on that.
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Jay G Attorney, Perkins Coie9 years ago
I don't see myself upgrading to Win8 anytime soon. No reason to, especially if you're limiting your options.
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@Jay - not if you want to use a tablet. Mobile is the big deal in this context. Home PC power users have been a shrinking demographic for years.
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Curt Sampson Sofware Developer 9 years ago
Morville, I think the whole point is exactly that Valve has been looking at Linux compatibility for a long time, but just looking at it, and not doing it. Now, only after this whole Windows 8 thing comes along, does Valve get serious about doing anything about it.
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Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer 9 years ago
I smell hubris on Steam's part.

They think the world will follow them just because they are Valve.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Tim Carter on 2nd August 2012 2:22am

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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 9 years ago
@ Curt

I used "looking at" in the loosest sense: "Having reported in 2008 that Steam would come to Linux, after finding steam files relating to Linux bundled with Left 4 Dead"... "On 12 May 2010, the day of the Mac OS X client release, Phoronix reported that Valve Software had confirmed that Steam would be coming to Linux." ( )

You could argue that they were just building a certain layer of redundancy into L4D (why not bundle a few Linux files with the game?). But it does mean that they've been edging their way towards Linux for a good 4 years.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Morville O'Driscoll on 2nd August 2012 9:09am

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Curt Sampson Sofware Developer 9 years ago
Phoronix clearly isn't too reliable: they've said twice, in 2008 and May 2010, that Valve was going to release a Linux version, but even after that, in August 2010, Engadget reported the Valve marketing VP Doug Lombardi had said "There's no Linux version that we're working on right now."

I'm sure that Valve has had prototypes and experiments with Linux software kicking around from time to time, but I'd argue that the reality is, they've never been serious about releasing any sort of software on Linux until just now.
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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 9 years ago
Mmmm... Maybe. With Valve it's hard to say - look at HL3/Ep3. Everyone knows they're working on a sequel to HL2 Ep2, but what it is, they haven't said. Perhaps Linux is the same. Even with the self-awareness of Valve-time, they're astute enough to not announce or confirm what they're working on until there's a solid foundation to it.

Who knows. :)
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Lewis Brown Snr Sourcer/Recruiter, Electronic Arts9 years ago
@Tim I think you read the situation exactly I thought the same.
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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 9 years ago
Heh. What, like EA didn't think the same when they decided not to follow the Steam T&Cs for game DLC, and used BF3 to leverage Origin? Expecting people to follow them and move away from Steam.

People will follow companies they like, and brands they play. It's a fact of life (and not just for gaming, but for all consumables, from white goods to hi-fi amps). And there's no doubt that native Linux gaming is a tremendously untapped market. If Valve were to Steamplay their own Source titles onto Linux (like they do Mac games, buy one version, get it for the others), then it'll grab publisher's attention, and probably get them to do the same. Why wouldn't they? There's the cost of porting, sure, but as long as it's not too time-consuming, publishers would be up for it, I'm sure. Get publishers on-board, and you're all set.

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Morville O'Driscoll on 2nd August 2012 1:32pm

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Curt Sampson Sofware Developer 9 years ago
I don't think that at the moment getting Steam and some games ported to Linux is about getting Windows gamers to follow you there. It's about two other things.

One is opening up the relatively untapped market for Linux games. It's clearly there, and if the Humble Bundles are any indication, Linux users are happy to spend more than Windows users on games. (Or perhaps they just have so few games to spend the money on, they spend more.) How big this untapped market is, though, is hard to say. Clearly it doesn't appear to Valve to be large enough to alone make porting Steam and perhaps a few games worthwhile, since otherwise Valve would have done that long before now.

Another, and much more important, reason is as a hedge against Microsoft. Having a direct competitor (Microsoft not only makes games, but has a business unit whose primary purpose is to sell other publishers' games, many over an on-line storefront) control the base platform on which you distribute your products opens you up to some serious risk, as well as closing off potential avenues of business. (For example, Valve could never release a SteamBox that had a console-like UI because MS would never allow them to replace the Windows UI if they licensed Windows for it.)

That Valve has waited this long to see the issue and address does not speak well to their business planning. Especially for a company Valve's size, it would easily have been worth a few million dollars a year in development and support costs to have had Steam running on Linux (even if only selling the few games out there already ported to Linux). And any other platform they happen to see, for that matter. A company like Ouya might be quite happy to partner with someone who already has high quality software and systems available to run an online storefront and social networking system for gamers.
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