The State of Linux Gaming with Valve’s SteamOS

Is a Linux-driven operating system enough?

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Meet SteamOS, a Linux-based operating system from Valve, designed for the living room, and therefore with clear designs on Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony’s turf.

Valve took the lid off yesterday, the first of three living room-related gaming announcements. The next one happens tomorrow afternoon, with the final presumably taking place Friday. One of these reveals may be the fabled Steam Box, a kind of living room PC-console ostensibly built and sold by Valve to carry its software digital distribution platform beyond the increasingly staid traditional keyboard-and-mouse paradigm. This is not Valve dipping a toe in the water, in other words; this is Valve taking full measures and diving in.

That said, we don’t know a lot about what SteamOS is, exactly. Not yet anyway. We know it’ll be freely distributed because Valve says so in plain language, but then so is the Steam client, and that’s been the case since its inception. We don’t know if we’ll be able to modify SteamOS in the same sense that one can modify Linux. In what sense will SteamOS manifest, in Valve’s words, “the rock-solid architecture of Linux”? SteamOS is derived from Linux, sure, but not, one assumes, another Linux distribution with the Steam-for-Linux client folded in.

Here’s a question we can answer in part now: What would gaming on SteamOS (vis-a-vis Linux) be like today? We already know what Steam’s like on Linux — have known since Valve rolled its inaugural Linux client out last February. Forget SteamOS’ ability to stream Windows and Mac games from separate Windows or Mac systems to a SteamOS box for a moment. I’m interested in that technology, but no one knows what it’ll be like, or how tenable, latency-wise (on the PC gaming side of things, players are even less forgiving when it comes to even slight deficiencies in the latter column). Let’s talk instead about Linux games on Steam.

Most of you have no idea what Linux gaming is like on Steam because most of you don’t run Linux. But what if you did? What could you play natively?

Valve maintains a catalog of Steam games online, including one sorted according to Linux support. The latter list’s appeal depends on your gaming proclivities. Do you like strategy games? You’ll find two of Paradox Plaza’s finest here: Europa Universalis IV and Crusader Kings II. Ambient first-person horror puzzlers? See the recently released Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs. Sprawling, hardcore space flight sims? Egosoft’s X series remains unsurpassed. Top-notch MOBAs? Try Valve’s own Dota 2. Indies galore? There’s Legend of Grimrock, Castle Story, Trine 2 and dozens more.

On the other hand, you’re looking at a relatively small catalog in total, most of the games showing their age, like Valve’s own five-year-old Left 4 Dead 2, or Wizardry 6 and 7 — solid roleplaying games in their day, but fresh two decades ago.

What you won’t find are games like the following, released this year for Windows (and a few doubling up on OS X): BioShock Infinite, Dishonored, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Saints Row IV, Far Cry 3, Tomb Raider, StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm, Football Manager 2013, Civilization V…need I continue?

If Valve wants to woo gamers — a super-powered, open-source-inspired, ultra-reasonably-priced Steam Box or no — it’ll need a stable of developers developing games natively for Linux, or at the very least, with cross-platform support. It’ll need to throw its full weight behind SteamOS, just as Sony and Microsoft and Nintendo do behind their respective operating environments and SDKs. If Valve wants SteamOS — and by proxy, Linux — to be the future of gaming in the living room, it’ll have to do more than pay lip service, or piggyback off other platforms vis-a-vis streaming workarounds.

Maybe that’s what’s coming in these next two reveals. Maybe tomorrow’s reveal is a list of developers signed up to fully engage with SteamOS. Maybe the final reveal is the platform itself (the so-called Steam Box). Or maybe I’m creatively stunted and Valve has far wilder, cooler things up its sleeves. I wouldn’t complain.

We’ll see. Shoe number two drops tomorrow at 1pm ET.