It appeared that Linux would be a leading game platform a few years back, attributing Valve and Steam for the potential development – but it did not fall into place in the end. However the pending threat at the time may have been a catalyst in Microsoft’s decision to make improvements to its Windows game support.
In 2012 Valve’s CEO Gabe Newell said “Windows 8 is a catastrophe for everyone in the PC space.” Gabe’s answer to this was to move Steam to Linux. Although Alienware’s Steam Machine and its Linux SteamOS systems failed to prove very successful, they nudged Microsoft to enhance its gaming performance in Windows 10. The decision was fuelled by developer findings that an early version of Linux operates more quickly than Windows due to the “underlying efficiency of the [Linux] kernel and OpenGL”.
Newell went on to commence development of an exclusive, gaming-specific Linux distribution (Debian based), SteamOS, and gaming PCs, with Steam Machines to back it up. The reality however was that Valve and partners’, PC OEMs Alienware, Falcon Northwest and Gigabyte took considerably longer to make shipment of the Linux-powered gaming PCs, with the first two Steam Machines shipped in 2014.
In an interview Frank Azor, co-founder of Alienware, Dell’s gaming division, spoke to an early Steam Machine supporter, saying that, “The catalyst for the Steam Machine initiative was really around what Microsoft’s decisions were with Windows 8, and if you remember that operating system, it really stepped away from gamers in a big way. We were concerned as an industry that we were going to lose PC gamers on the Windows platform to any other platform that was out there, whether it was console, Mac OS X, Android.”
However, “Microsoft learned a very valuable lesson—a lot of valuable lessons—with Windows 8 and tried to correct those with Windows 10. It’s more gamer-focused, I would say. Every subsequent release has focused on gamers. Although their execution isn’t perfect, it’s definitely improved compared to Windows 8.”
That reality, along with time delays, meant that the market had less capacity for Steam Machines. Strangely though, the end result was that Valve backing up Linux encouraged Microsoft to take stock, according to Rich Geldreich, former Valve programmer and co-owner of Binomial (a video graphics startup). In his blog, Geidreich explained that once Valve revealed Linux was more efficient at support games, “some very senior developers from Microsoft came by for a discreet visit”.
“They loved our post, because it lit a fire underneath Microsoft’s executives to get their act together and keep supporting Direct3D development. (Remember, at this point it was years since the last DirectX SDK release. The DirectX team was on life support.) Linux is obviously extremely influential.
“It’s perhaps hard to believe, but the Steam Linux effort made a significant impact inside of multiple corporations. It was a surprisingly influential project. Valve being deeply involved with Linux also gives the company a ‘worse-case scenario’ hedge vs. Microsoft. It’s like a club held over MS’s heads.”
Steam for Linux and Steam Machines continue shipping, with Valve updating Steam for Linux, Windows and macOS software with the same regularity – seeing SteamOS 2.98 emerge at the beginning December 2016.
With all that said, it appears that early followers of SteamOS are disillusioned with the platform – evident in a recent description of the platform: “Valve was a half-assed SteamOS from the beginning. It is little more than Debian with a custom X session that boots into the SteamOS compositor.”
But on a positive note, although Steam Machines and SteamOS haven’t proven very successful, Linux had a part to play in improved Windows gaming.
Photo credit: Flavio Ensiki