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Valve's six tips on optimising your game for Steam Deck

Alden Kroll and Erik Peterson share tips for developers looking to make their titles compatible with the handheld gaming PC

Steam Deck, Valve's portable games device, launched earlier this year and gives players a Switch-like experience for playing PC games.

After months of long wait times for anyone who ordered, Valve has announced the Steam Deck is now readily available for purchase – so what better time to ensure your PC titles are compatible with it?

At GI Live: London last month, Valve designer Alden Kroll and business development head Erik Peterson answered developer questions and gave advice on a range of subjects, including how to optimise your game for Steam Deck.

We've previously covered everything you need to know about publishing to Steam, but for this article we will focus specifically on the Deck.

To start with, Peterson says the process is far less daunting and requires less extra work than you might think.

"For the most part, what we're hearing from developers is [that] their games actually just works on Steam Deck anyway, without any kind of additional work," he told attendees. "That was the intention of Steam deck from the start. Using Proton [the compatibility layer that allows Windows games to run on Linux, the operating system for Steam Deck], it runs the Windows build of your game and it should just work across the board now."

However, he added a few suggestions on how to make the Steam Deck experience for your players even better.

1. Getting your game verified

Valve classes all Steam Deck games under four compatibility ratings:

Verified: For games that pass all compatibility checks, with users not required to do any configuration work to access all in-game functionality.

Playable: For games that do function on a Steam Deck, but may require some manual work from users to access all functionality, such as bringing up an onscreen keyboard or navigating a launcher.

Unsupported: For games that do not function on a Steam Deck. This could be because they're incompatible with Proton, or because they require specific hardware components.

Unknown: For games that have yet to pass the compatibility review.

Any previously released games that "meet certain automated heuristics" are automatically added to the review queue. Some developers are able to manually request a Steam Deck Compatibility review, with Valve opening this option to more studios over time, and Valve itself will add games it believes will be important for Steam Deck customers.

"I am 100% certain there will be a sale on Steam Deck Verified games at some point"

Alden Kroll, Valve

Peterson adds that Valve is working to improve its ability to process verification reviews for games on its marketplace.

"There's a lot of games... It's actually over 30,000 games on Steam, so you know obviously we have a big task to try to review all of those and it will take a really long time, but you know we're improving the process and trying to make that as quickly as possible for developers, so stay tuned on kind of improvements on that front."

Valve designer Alden Kroll adds that another reason developers and publishers will want to get their games Verified on Deck is this will likely be a tag used in future – especially when the install base is larger.

"There is still a bit of a backlog, so we want to make sure that enough customers can get their hands on the Deck if they're super excited about a particular game," he said. "We're continuing to scale that up and work towards that and I am 100% certain there will be a sale on Steam Deck Verified games at some point. I don't think we have announced that yet, and I actually don't even think that we have put a date on the calendar for that yet, but that that is definitely something that will come along at some point."

You can find more information on the Steam Deck Compatibility Review process here.

2. Add controller support

One look at the device should tell you that it's geared around console-style controls. Peterson emphasised that Steam Deck is essentially a "handheld gaming PC with a controller built in" adding that this makes controller support "really, really important."

According to the official Steam documentation, Valve recommends that all in-game functionality should be accessible to players via the default controller configuration – in fact, this is required if you want your title to be given the 'Verified on Deck' badge.

If your title doesn't natively support controllers, you should consider creating a controller configuration for any map or keyboard inputs (doing so for mouse should be aided by the fact the Steam Deck has two touchpads).

3. Avoid using launchers

Peterson emphasised the importance of "making sure there isn't a launcher that would prevent a user from being able to access the game from a Steam Deck."

All functionality for the game should be put into the game client, rather than requiring another program. In its documentation, Valve explained that this is because launchers often rely on platform-specific frameworks that are more difficult to use on a smaller screen using a controller.

"You want to make sure that your text isn't too small to read at the 800 x 600 resolution"

Erik Peterson, Valve

However, the company adds that there is a SetGameLauncherMode API for any games that require native UI launchers. This automatically translates controller input to keyboard and mouse, and there's a guide on how to do this on Steam's partner site.

4. Enable cloud saves

At this early stage of the Steam Deck's life, it's highly likely the majority of owners will be established PC players. Not only will they want to access their library of Steam games on their Deck, they will want to continue their progress when they switch between machines.

Naturally, Valve's documentation highly recommends using Steam Cloud to handle automatic transfers of save data. It also recommends against syncing game configuration settings – such as display resolution – as this may cause issues when switching between devices.

While Valve encourages developers to use its own service, it does add that there are third-party services that can tie server-side save files to a game or publisher-specific user account.

5. Let users play offline

While multiplayer games will inevitably require an internet connection, Valve urges developers to avoid this for single-player content. You should also test your game and any offline content without any online connectivity to ensure that it works. This is because, while the Steam Deck has online compatibility, the nature of being a portable device means you can never guarantee a stable internet connection – or that there will always be one available.

6. Check your text legibility

Most PC games are designed to be played on a relatively large monitor that is often not too far from the player's face. The Steam Deck is a smaller screen, and will likely be further away, so any text needs to be not only visible but legible.

"You want to make sure that your text isn't too small to read at the 800 x 600 resolution," Peterson recommended.

On the subject of text, Valve's documentation also recommended (and requires for that Verified on Deck badge) that games automatically bring up an onscreen keyboard whenever the player is required to enter text.

The Steamworks SDK already offers two onscreen keypower APIs: ShowFloatingGamepadTextInput, which will send direct key inputs, and the callback-based ShowGamepadTextInput. Again, guides for each can be found on Steam's Partners website (as linked to above).

Kroll and Peterson covered wider questions about Steam in their talk, including how to what to do if your game is 'review-bombed' and which languages you should ensure you support. You can watch the full session below:

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James Batchelor

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James Batchelor has been a journalist in the games industry since 2006, joining GamesIndustry in 2016, and also runs Non-Violent Game of the Day (@NVGOTD). He does play violent games, but always on Story/Easy mode.