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SteamOS: interviews and review

The future of gaming is tied to the future of Linux


After years of rumours, months of teasing and weeks of waiting, SteamOS is finally here. The beta release of the gaming distro signalled the start of Valve’s tentative entry into the hardware market. The same day as the release, the first wave of Valve’s own Steam Machines went out. These beta units, while never truly meant to grace store shelves, are the first examples of many more third-party offerings to come. This massive step from Valve is making waves around the tech and games world, so we decided to talk to a few of the people that could help us truly understand the position Valve is in, and what their next move might be.

Expert profiles

  • Ron Gilbert, game industry veteran; the man behind the Monkey Island series, Ron Gilbert has been in the industry for 25 years. Last year, The Cave became the first of his games to be released on Linux. He now runs the indie studio Beep Games, Inc, currently making mobile games.
  • Ethan Lee, Linux porter; an important name behind the scenes of indie gaming, his fork of MonoGame is one of the most important tools for bringing games over to Linux. He helped port some of the biggest names in indie games last year, including Fez, Rogue Legacy and Super Hexagon.
  • Johnnemann Nordhagen, indie game developer;  a co-founder of the Fullbright Company and former employee of 2K Marin. Johnnemann was one of the minds behind 2013’s indie hit Gone Home. He’s a game programmer and is currently backpacking the world before getting on with his next project.

“I’m working on the Android version of that iOS game I made, Scurvy Scallywags” Ron Gilbert said as we greeted him on the phone. We’d managed to catch him one morning to chat about SteamOS, interrupting his ongoing work to port his latest game. Having a background in programming, Ron was mainly doing it himself as a learning process, his plan to make sure the next title he made would be more cross-platform friendly. The topic quickly changed to Linux as a way to play videogames.

“I think it’s an interesting platform,” he told us. “Not that I want it to come out bad, but there isn’t anything special about it. I think that the more places people can play games is good… so I think getting games onto Linux is great, because people can run a desktop platform that they really want to run and they can play games without having to dual boot into Windows or any of this other junk that I certainly don’t want to do.”

We asked him to clarify exactly what he meant by Linux not being special, assuming he meant how it’s not particularly different from a technical standpoint. “Building a game for Windows or the Mac or Linux is very, very similar. Sure, you have OpenGL versus Direct X, and you have that to deal with. But hopefully people are writing code that has layers, platform layers, anyway between the code and the hardware.”

With the recent rise of indie games and the Humble Bundle, Linux gaming is invariably on the rise, however Steam’s entry into Linux has helped as well. “Steam has really embraced the Linux platform and it’s made it a viable platform to actually develop for. And you see games that actually get dinged if they’re on Steam and they don’t have a Linux version, and so it just causes people to go that extra effort to go ahead and produce a Linux version of the game.”

This is where Ethan Lee comes in. We’ve spoken to him before; he’s been porting games to Linux for roughly two years now, and demand for his skills has been increasing over the past year with the idea of Steam for Linux as a serious contender for gaming becoming more accepted.

“Right around the time that Steam for Linux came out is when I started really pushing a usable version of MonoGame. The version that works,” he told us, not sure if Steam or his MGSDL2 solution was the cause of this. “So, basically around the time that Steam for Linux became serious, MGSDL2 happened… before April I only had two ports out. From April to December I shipped nine more.”

And Ethan revealed that things didn’t seem to be showing any signs of slowing down. “I said in January, ‘Oh this year I’m not going do 11 ports in one year’. And now I have seven in January and I think ‘oh’.”

SteamOS quickly came up in our conversation with Ron, Ethan and even Johnnemann Nordhagen. Johnnemann told us himself that while it was the ease of porting Unity games that got Gone Home on Linux, they were surprised by the number of sales on it.

“They’re not huge, but they’re not forgettable, either,” he said before clarifying that about three per cent of their sales on Steam were made on the Linux version. This doesn’t count the users buying it on other platforms before playing it on Linux, and he believes that the Humble Bundle Linux numbers are higher still.

“As a developer I think having a standard distribution to develop and test against is a great thing!” he said about SteamOS. “One thing we’ve found while doing technical support is that the variance in distributions definitely creates some unforeseen issues (and Unity technically only supports Ubuntu)!”

Just to get a picture of how the PC is split up these days, Johnnemann told us that 90 per cent of their overall Gone Home sales were via Steam. Other developers in the past have hinted at similar numbers, and it points towards just how much Steam dominates the PC market.

Ron’s initial reaction to SteamOS, though, was not as positive: “It was kind of… odd. It was a little bit of like ‘Does the world really need another console?’ and it seems we’ve had this influx of these other consoles. Ouya and the like. Do we really need another one? Is that just more fragmentation?” This is before we talked about the then 13 different Steam Machine offerings.

“Do you remember the 3DO machine?” Ron replied when we told him about the Steam Machines that had been revealed. The price was high, and there was a lot of variety – possibly more than most consumers would be able to meaningfully parse. “That was their problem,” he continued with his analogy. “Because they built this really nice, interesting hardware. And then they just had third parties make it. Phillips made one, Samsung made one, all these other companies made them and I don’t think they had any consistent control over anything.”

controllerStill, Ethan didn’t think that the fragmentation would be too much of an issue: “That was really the concern. The weird thing is because people were thinking about a Steambox and not SteamOS along with it… people think Valve is trying to solve a hardware problem first. And while they do have Steam Controller that they probably spent a lot of time on, the fact is I’m not really sure they care too much about the hardware. They’re really just saying, ‘Look we’ll just let OEMs do it’ and then we’re going to solve the software problem, which is a significantly bigger threat right now. A Steam Box would be complete crap if it had to have Windows 8 on it.”

On the subject of price though, everyone agreed that they needed to be priced similar to consoles, and not just the low-end ones. “I really don’t even have a guess!” Johnnemann replied when we asked him if he had an idea on how much Steam Machines should cost. “PC gaming isn’t as expensive as it used to be, but it’s still pricier than consoles. Obviously getting it below that point would be a killer blow, but I don’t know if Valve is even thinking that way.”

“It’s one of those things where if I had been presenting it, I would have suggested that this is the initial high-end market.” Ethan told us, further clarifying the point that Johnnemann was making. “The fact is I look at the specs and I think you could do a lot less and have a cheap version of it, but they don’t have it because [of the early adopters]… they’re going to be the first to buy this, and probably don’t care about the cheap version. The problem is they presented it as wide variety. The fact is they only wanted to make an emphasis on ‘We can have multiple Steam Boxes’ it didn’t really say ‘We can have a box that is cheaper than an Xbox One’.”

It’s also worth remembering that one of the reasons Microsoft and Sony can sell their machines at a relatively low price for consumers is because they treat them as loss leaders, as Ron explained: “Sony and Microsoft, they sell their machines at a loss. Just so they can make the money on the software sales. You would think that Valve would be able to do that too, because they sell the software. But if they’re licensing it out to these third parties then they’ve lost the ability to do that… that seems like kind of a mistake.”

So while our panel of experts think that there may be a few issues to iron out at the moment, they all appear to be generally positive about the future of SteamOS and gaming on Linux in general. The industry itself is slowly beginning to accept the idea of Linux as a gaming platform, however some of the culture needs to change. It goes back to Ron working on his Android port and learning from that.

“If I ever want to make anything for Steam I certainly want to be able to support Linux as well,” he said. “Yeah, I may hire somebody to do that initial Linux port but then I want to pull all their code back into my codebase, so I can just build Linux versions of stuff much easier. And I don’t see ever doing a game for Steam that doesn’t include a Linux version.”

SteamOS 1.0 Alchemist – review


Linux gaming distros are few and far between – however, they do exist in varying forms. SteamOS is definitely the first of its kind though, offering a pure gaming experience designed to be used in the living room thanks to Steam’s native ten-foot display mode. As the name suggests, it’s designed to boot straight into Valve’s Steam distribution platform, allowing you to download games from your library of content, and purchase more games via the store.

SteamOS is based on Debian 7.0 and at the moment you’ll be seeing some of this core while setting up your own Steam Machine. Specifically, you’ll be forced to log in to a GNOME desktop in order to complete set up, and while this is only a very brief thing, it can be quite confusing for newer users as Colby tells us: “The Debian desktop [GNOME] is nice, but you definitely need to have a background in Linux to use it. I’m certain that most of your readers do, but I’m a recent convert and I found it difficult at first.”

You only get to this point after installation though. For now, there are some fairly strict limitations on how and where SteamOS can be installed – decent hardware aside, the biggest limitation right now is that you’re forced to use UEFI to install it. This has its advantages in terms of booting straight into SteamOS, as well as making sure people generally have newer hardware, however it’s not entirely common just yet. The installation also requires a wipe of your system, so dual-booting is a little more tricky than just installing alongside – however, you can dual-boot after it’s completed.

Once you’ve gone through the entire installation ordeal, you’ll finally be dropped into SteamOS. More specifically, Steam’s Big Picture Mode, the aforementioned ten-foot display option. Text is larger, and menus are simpler, allowing for people to easily navigate the Steam interface with a controller from their sofa. Colby mentioned to us that he finds it somewhat clunky, and there should perhaps be a tutorial to help you around the interface. Compared to the standard Steam interface though, admittedly used with a mouse and keyboard, Big Picture Mode can be a little jarring.

The selection of games right now is just over ten per cent of the full collection of Steam games. More titles are being added every week, and there’s a steady stream of indie games being released to Steam for Linux even if the AAA titles are rarely coming over. Most of the compatible games work at full capacity but, thanks to the nature of Steam, patches can be added and games updated incredibly quickly. This gives it an advantage over consoles, which require a lengthy and costly approval process.

It’s overall a fantastic first start for Valve, even despite some of the typical beta limitations. The limitations on graphics cards were quickly lifted, and development seems active enough that any major issues with it are being dealt with and added to future patches. As a console replacement, it’s still missing some media capabilities, such as streaming movies and music either from online services or within a local network, but for what is basically a port of the current release of Steam for Linux, it’s a very promising beginning.



Colby tells us he’s liked it, and we have to agree. Even with the installation problems and hardware limitations, the power of Valve and Steam is really shining through. If this is the beta release, then we cannot wait for the full release by the time the hardware is launched.


If you fancy installing and dual-booting SteamOS, check out this guide.