Where's Valve going with Linux?

Where's Valve going with Linux?

Summary: It's becoming increasingly apparent that video game development and online distribution company Valve is serious about Linux. But desktop Linux has a 1 percent usage share. Surely there's more to this development effort than meets the eye?


There's no doubt that video game development and online distribution company Valve is looking to broaden its horizons and adding Linux to its list of supported operating systems. But Linux has a usage share of about 1 percent, so what's Valve's plan for Linux?

Credit: Valve

It's clear that Valve isn't happy with Microsoft.

Gabe Newell, Valve co-founder and managing director, labeled Windows 8 "a catastrophe for everyone in the PC space," fearing that the introduction of the Metro user interface and the new Windows Store -- which will be the only place users can buy Metro apps -- will make Windows even more of a closed platform. This, he fears, will have a serious knock-on effect of Valve's business.

Valve's also been busy optimizing its games for Linux, and claims to have Left 4 Dead 2 running faster on Ubuntu than on Windows 7 -- and not just a little faster either: over 16 percent faster. Considering how much time and effort Valve has spent developing for Windows, that's quite an achievement for Linux.

The word now is that Valve's official Linux push will kick off February 2013, and that this is when a beta of the Steam client for Linux will land. Hit titles such as Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Team Fortress 2, and Half-Life 2 will be available alongside Left 4 Dead 2.

About the only person unhappy with Valve's move to cover Linux is free software stalwart Richard Stallman, who claims that "non-free programs" are "unethical."

However, I keep coming back to that 1 percent usage share. After all, I doubt that Valve offering games for Linux is going to push that usage share up even a fraction.

The reason why comes down to a single issue: compatibility.

When people buy a Windows license, they're not just buying the right to use operating system on a specific piece of hardware; they're also buying a warm and fuzzy feeling of security that most of the hardware and software they ran on the old operating system will continue to work on the new operating system.

So, what's Valve up to?

Two things spring to mind. First, rumors and job postings suggest that Valve is working on gaming hardware. Given the harsh criticisms of Windows and Microsoft, it's unlikely that any Valve-branded hardware is going to run Windows. That leaves a Linux distro as the obvious alternative because Valve would be free to tweak and customize the operating system to their heart's content.

If Valve plans to use Linux as the base OS for a games console, it needs to get its games working on Linux. All this desktop Linux talk could just be a handy smoke screen.

Another possibility is that Valve is planning to offer a customized Linux distro that users could install on their PCs either standalone or as a dual-boot OS. The idea of a streamlined OS dedicated to playing games appeals to me because a day-to-day Windows installation is not the ideal platform for gaming because of all the unnecessary detritus -- unnecessary to gaming at any rate -- running in the background.

Success of failure seems to hinge on how many Linux-compatible games Valve can come up with. Valve has some popular titles, but I don't see the likes of Left 4 Dead 2 et al being enough to encourage people to buy a Valve console or use Linux as a gaming platform.

Whatever the plan, Valve needs the support of other game developers. If Valve can get that -- and if there's one company that can herd the gaming industry, it's Valve -- then maybe Microsoft needs to start worrying, because while the most important sector for Microsoft as far as Windows revenue is concerned, is the enterprise market, it's not the most influential.

The sector that drives the greatest innovation, and which offers the OEMs the best chance of selling hardware with a decent profit margin is the gaming sector. And Valve could be getting ready to disrupt that sector.

Topics: Linux, Hardware, Operating Systems

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  • Where's Valve going with Linux?

    Absolutely nowhere. This company will be bankrupt within 2 years if they continue to support linux and not Microsoft Windows 8. This is going to go down as one of the biggest failed ventures by a gaming company. There is just going to be too many compatibility issues since applications on one distro will not work on another. The driver issues is another problem with sound skipping, video being 2D. This has disaster written all over it and I would stay far far away from this company.
    Loverock Davidson-
    • it isnt Valve causing the problems, its MS

      It sounds like they wouldnt mind working with MS, but MS is locking them out of their OS. Even Apple doesnt force you to only use iTunes to download apps and software to their laptops. Maybe if MS was more open, companies wouldnt have to do this type of thing. And if they are able to implement a dual-boot OS, i can see many gamers doing that to their system, optimizing it for graphics and speed versus all the other junk that runs under the hood for MS
      • Locked out?

        I don't understand how you think Valve is locked out of Windows. Most of Valve's customer base knows a fair amount about Windows - certainly enough to be able to get to the desktop in Windows 8 and install Steam to buy and launch their games.

        The "Metro" (or whatever we're calling it today) interface - mark my words - is going to be relegated to second string on the desktop.. either via service pack or update that allows it to be disabled and for us to get a real start bar. I'm fine with them keeping their app store, but they're going to have to back off of crippling Windows to do so.
        • not likely

          Not happening man. I've been running Windows 8 for the past 3 months and have actually got used to it. The desktop is actually a Metro app. It runs inside Metro and works like a Metro app.

          Actually I see this as going down to be the worst decision Microsoft has ever made. Having got a feel for this new windows I can say it feels like this windows is made for teenage girls and mothers. Power users beware.

          Additionally on the linux thing, I see it as a great move by Valve. Personal feelings aside about operating systems and not getting emotional about it the decision comes to the open nature of Linux and the near immortality of it. An open operating system is good for software manufacturers since it allows them to do what they want and how they want it. Also if there's a problem with some API they can immediately fix the problems themselves.

          As for the immortality comment. It's an OS made and controlled by users. No one organization. It's like a bacteria. The only way to kill linux would be to make using it illegal, which will never happen. There's no company you can buy out and no lawsuits you can do. You'd have to go after millions of users and fight the corporate users face to face like IBM or RedHat. It's not going anywhere and will continue to evolve. I'd place my bet in the unkillable one too.
    • cool...

      cool, your vote against anything means its probably worthwhile... maybe I'll start gaming in Linux now.
      • Hmmm... 22 votes

        Sounds like you touched a nerve!
    • Please

      If you think that Valve is abandoning Windows entirely, you're delusional. Most of their revenue has nothing to do with Valve developed games. Steam is a distribution platform for third party games of all shapes and sizes. That hasn't changed. As long as games are being developed for Windows, Steam will stay on Windows.

      Seriously, Valve could leave Steam exactly as it is and it would still rake in cash by the bucketload. Just because they're moving to also support Linux (You know, like they also support OS X) doesn't mean a damned thing.
      • it does

        if they are being locked out of the Metro UI
        • One, they're not locked out of Metro UI

          They're afraid that integrated Xbox Live is an unfair advantage. Regardless, Steam has always been a desktop application. Who the hell cares if it's not on Metro? It runs on the desktop just fine. It's not like Steam is going to be distributing metro applications any time soon, as that would be outright redundant and stupid. Windows RT isn't really a concern either, since Steam doesn't deal with ARM at all, other than as a mobile chat client.
          • sounds like

            MS and installed IE
          • They're afraid that integrated Xbox Live is an unfair advantage

            Why shouldn't they be afraid of that given their past history.

            That being said, I welcome development with Linux. It's about time gaming shared more than one platform anyway.
            Cylon Centurion
        • Modern UI May Be a Catalyst for This, but...

          Modern UI / WinRT programs may be a catalyst for these decisions, but Valve isn't going to pull out of Windows overnight. As long as Valve can continue to make money on the Windows client, they will have to be pushed out kicking and screaming before they abandon it.

          The bottom line is that Valve is putting effort into Linux because they think they can make some money there at some point. Exactly how that might be the case is open to debate. Linux desktop use has grown, but it is still not high (albeit that NetMarketShare is far from a reliable source for the numbers). In Valve's market, there is reason to believe it's not more than 2% at the moment. Of course there is a higher percentage of geeky types among gamers, so that might figure in as well (i.e., it's possible that 2% of desktop users may mean 3 or 4% of the gamer crowd, or something like that).

          Of course, Valve's own system, but it the whole thing or just the software, is a reasonable suspicion considering the current state of affairs.
          • At a glance, it looks like the money is there.

            I've been following the Humble Bundle folks since they started, and they've got a handy chart that lists average donations by platform (Windows, OS X, Linux).

            Ever since they started offering Linux versions as part of their game bundles, the average Linux donation has been consistently higher than either Windows or OS X. They don't provide the number of buyers per OS, but the pie graph from their recent sale indicates that Linux users made up approximately 20%-25% of all buyers. This data tells me a few things:
            - There is a demand for good Linux games
            - Linux gamers are willing to "put their money where their mouth is"
            - Software doesn't has to be free (in either "beer" or "speech" sense) to be a success on Linux
            - Cross-platform development tools have become very sophisticated/mature
            - Either:
            - - Linux gamers are willing to pay more than other OS gamers
            - - There are some generous "whales"
            - - Linux gamers are more charitable / more inclined to support the developers

            I think Valve is making a smart move - they garner a lot of good will, expand their market, and become less reliant on a single OS. And because of how all of their current self-developed games share the same game engine (Counter-Strike, Left 4 Dead, Half-Life 2, Team Fortress 2, Portal, Dota 2), they should get a decent ROI on their Linux-focused expenses. (Plus, they've already done a good chunk of the Linux work from when they ported Steam and the Source game engine to Unix-based OS X.)
        • Why would they want to use the Metro UI??

          For high-end games the only advantage in using WinRT would be the streamlined install / update mechanism but once you've installed the game they will both have a tile on the start screen and will both go full screen when they're launched.

          As said by others they aren't locked out of Metro UI except for the steam client and this would only have an effect if they wanted to release for ARM based devices, which won't have the power for the high-end games anyway.
    • Love, Once again no evidence to what you claim to be true

      “The driver issues is another problem with sound skipping, video being 2D”.

      Just another sound bite for a tired and dying FUD campaign.
    • @Loverock Davidson-

      You're predictable at least. Any story even remotely Linux related brings you out to sing the choir for Microsoft and denigrate Open systems. It may be too late, but, perhaps you can try to take off your hate glasses towards Linux and see the obvious the article points out?

      Valve is worth billions, yes - your "bankrupt in 2 years" is laughable, and if they decide to pursue a vertically orientated "Valve Box" then, of all players, they have the greatest chance to succeed. By controlling (vertically orientated) both the hardware and software or such a mythical box they would negate practically all performance issues on practical Linux systems. Left 4 Dead 2 already runs faster on Linux than it does on Windows in Valve labs: if their boxes were theirs to configure then it would run even faster. As a side-effect other Linux distributions would have a very good shot at compatibility with Valve titles as well, however I don't think they would be able to eek every percentage of performance as well as specialty built Valve hardware. Linux keeps costs down both in selling these possible boxes and also expensive development of modern infrastructure that said Linux kernel would provide for Free.

      Then there is also the Android route: Linux kernel but instead of a GNU userland built on top of that you build your own userland. The would give Valve both the benefit of a modern kernel developed for Free and also the ability to build a high performance graphics system on top of that. However, a Valve userland is less likely as it would cost more money and a traditional userland already provides enough performance.
    • You are high.

      Console gaming is where all the money still is even though that current hardware is 6 years old. PC gaming has picked up a little because of aging console hardware but look at any of the big tittles (MW3, BF3, Skyrim...etc) and all of them do 10 to 1 if not more sales on consoles.

      Linux is used in everything that is an appliance....everything. Building a game console that runs Linux is trivial. I have a Windows PC for one reason, gaming. I am a steam customer and I care about steam and the games I play way more than the OS on the box.

      Imagine steam attacking this in two ways. A console version and a dedicated distro version for PC's both of which run the same OS with greater driver support for the PC version. Games run on both.

      For lovers of all things Microsoft and Windows, if that happened and did well......Windows would be toast.
      • No ideia

        Given the cost of entering the console hardware market, I don't see how Valve could do it.
        On the other hand, a OS specifically designed to run games on a PC would be pretty cool.
        On the yet other hand, there's the hardware support thing. One of the reasons Windows is "bloated" when compared to, say, OS X, is because it runs on a gazzillion different PC configurations while OS X doesn't.
        Carlos da Fonseca
        • Hmmm...

          Wonder how my post ended up here!

          Oh well!

          Also, I forgot to say, Valve is probably scared of one thing: with the Windows 8 Store to sell, distribute and update their games, a store app users don't have to know about and actively install, games developers no longer need Steam.

          If I were Valve I'd be seriously worried about that, too.
          Carlos da Fonseca
        • About that gazillion different PC configurations

          Linux also "runs on a gazzillion [sic] different PC configurations", too, and yet it's not nearly as bloated. Hell, Linux runs on even more PC configurations, if you consider that Linux supports x86, x86_64, PowerPC, SPARC, ARM, and many, many more CPU architectures.