The Steam Trade-off as a Linux User

With the excitement around Epic launching their own store and the advent of fresh competition for Valve’s Steam, here are some thoughts from a Linux gamer perspective.

First, what is the meaning of Steam or any storefront? They are a middleman, providing a marketplace for games to be bought and sold. But they are also a steward of that market, providing a common tissue for the delivery of the games, for the discussion and discovery, and all these other features. Some have more popular off-platform competitors. Others are too ingrained in the platform to be competed on without an alternative platform.

But one of the thing that Valve is doing with Steam, which it seems unlikely that Epic or any of the newcomers will do, is to spend resources in the interest of Linux-based gaming. They have supported Linux for several years now, including for their own games. They are doubling-down on this support with the SteamPlay/Proton integration that allows for Windows games to be run on Linux through an implementation of the Windows APIs.

Part of what you pay for when you pay the “Steam tax” (or the “Epic tax” or any other share of a sale that goes to an intermediary) is for the other activities a platform or marketplace delivers. Whether that’s Linux support or community forums or ARGs, the business decides what to deliver and thereby justify their fee.

The option of going to Epic’s store, or to other stores, is weaker for Linux due to lack of support. Steam deciding to make Proton such a first-class offering only makes that proposition weaker. For Linux gaming at the moment, Steam is the most attractive option, and there are no signs of that changing soon.

Steam currently supports gaming for Linux, but if they didn’t, Linux gamers would keep using WINE directly, as we did before 2013. As long as Valve is investing in Linux, though, their tax seems like a fair deal for Linux users, when the alternative is Epic’s lower tax but nothing for Linux.

Steamworks’ Announced Changes for 2019

Steam: Steamworks Development: 14 January 2019: “2018 Year in Review” announced some expected changes in 2019, including:

  • Steam Library Update—A refresh of the Steam client akin to the refresh of the Steam Chat that occurred in 2018.
  • New Events System—A way for games (and groups?) to announce non-release events to their followers.
  • Steam Chat for Mobile—Apparently a separate app that includes the upgrades to Steam Chat on the client.
  • Steam Trust—A provider-side reputation system that helps games moderate their players better.

Valve-time being a thing, we’ll see if these rollout this year (there were others, but these were the ones that interested me).

Library update

The Library refresh has been pending for several years and is long-expected and desired (though undoubtedly subject to backlash by a vocal minority). Games have changed a lot over the years, but the Steam Library view has stayed the same, so it will be interesting to see what this ends up looking like. It will also be interesting to see if there’s any visual-crossover between the refresh of the Library and Big Picture Mode.

At least some of the facilities mentioned in my recent post about instrumenting games for streaming could be useful for a future version of the Steam Library. For example, logging capabilities in games could easily populate the game-view in the library with details from your last game session.

Events system update

The events system is primarily an opportunity to let developers remind players about their game over time, in ways they largely already do on Twitter, but where many players may not see them. It’s not clear if the event system will apply to groups as well. Groups have been able to announce events for awhile, but if they’re granted the same abilities under the new system, it could be a shot in the arm for social-on-Steam, particularly when many gamers are far more reliant on Discord.

A full-featured event system could even let non-group events happen in the vein of “bowling night” among friends. If a group of friends likes to play together at a set time every week, Steam could enable that without them needing to create a full-on group. If game makers wanted to encourage that among players, they could also be empowered to do so.

Steam chat for mobile

The advent of a separate app for chat seems unwise (the language in the announcement is: “We’re going to ship a new Steam Chat mobile app…”). Hopefully they mean that they’ll ship a new version of the Steam app that includes chat upgrades. If not, oy. There’s a new contender to replace the old law that all applications expand to encompass e-mail: all providers expand to release a mobile chat application.

Steam Trust as a service

And Steam Trust will be welcome to the extent it helps reduce griefing and cheating in multiplayer games.


The Steam Client Beta for Linux added a force-Proton option on 17 January 2019, which is great news and shows that Valve is hitting the ground running this year. The option allows Linux gamers to choose to run the Windows version even when a Linux version exists, which may help in some circumstances:

  1. Bad ports—Not all Linux ports of games are up to snuff.
  2. Upstream bugs—Whether in the game’s engine or a video driver, sometimes bugs in other places break the native version, but not the Proton version.
  3. Missing features—Some ports are great, but for whatever reason miss a feature or two. Being able to use the native version for just those cases is a great option to have.

There are arguments about whether Proton diminishes the desire of developers to write Linux-native games or to invest in ports to Linux, but Valve’s strategy is two-fold:

  1. Get people playing on Linux, especially those who already love Linux but feel bound to Windows for a few games.
  2. Invest in Vulkan and other technologies that lower the cost of writing cross-platform games.

The latter is especially important, as games that aren’t written for Windows-specific APIs are much easier to port to Linux. It’s a longer-term strategy, but it should pay off both in better game performance generally and in portability.

Streaming, Game Instrumentation, and Better Experiences

Happy New Year!

I’ve been watching a bit of video game streaming of late, and one thing that’s struck me is that most games aren’t instrumented to accommodate stream integration. I couldn’t find much information on the subject, so I thought I’d scratch out a few thoughts.

Streamers may want to track in-game deaths. That should be trivial with an API (and it may already be possible with game mods). Games should absolutely provide some kind of event stream that can easily be integrated into streamers’ on-screen displays. There are a wide variety of possibilities this opens up, including better multi-stream races (where the programmatic reporting of milestones can be plotted on a simple race chart) to better and automated tagging of stream clips (e.g., automatically linking to significant in-game events).

The Steam platform has added some game-tracking for their social component, so that you can see what your friends are playing with a little more detail, but that’s only a baby step. Valve’s own games also feature statistics, and with the advent of GDPR customers can see more of that data than ever, but there’s a lack of tools to connect that sort of data into something that would improve game streaming.

What else? How about viewer experience? The visual environment of the player can and should diverge from the viewer in some ways (with the viewer still having the choice to watch the game footage or the enhanced version). For example, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive has a spectator mode that shows all players, shows grenade ballistic arcs, etc.

At some point, it may even go the other direction, with viewers being able to influence the experience of the streamer by causing enemies to spawn or such. Watching a charity stream earlier in the year, they played some Jackbox Party Pack 5 which lets viewers interact through a website/per-game password combination (rather than directly from the stream chat) in order to avoid the streamers seeing the viewers’ answers. There are also a few games like “Marbles on Stream”, which let viewers “play” by assigning their name to marbles in a physics simulation/marble racing game and see whose marble wins.

The interaction model may have to change a little, such as having streamer-blind chats for the purpose of letting viewers have more control without “stream sniping” (when someone can gain advantage by watching a stream or chat).

Some work on stream-and-chat interactions have already been done with the famous Twitch Plays Pokemon and the like. This seems like very fertile soil, and it seems reasonable to expect that game makers will start to implement things to let it develop and mature.

Review of Pyro Changes in Team Fortress 2: Jungle Inferno

Ten years on, Team Fortress 2 continues to receive new content. The latest is a new campaign and new weapons for the Pyro. This review assumes you are familiar with the game.

Here be not Flyros

Prior to the update, but after the announcement of the new weapons, there was widespread memery about the Flyro, which was a flying Pyro that was speculated to be utter havoc. The reality of the Thermal Thruster isn’t quite what was pondered. It grants some mobility, to be sure, but the delay in switching off to a flamethrower is such that the threat is mostly limited to Pyro being in places that one does not normally expect.

This is still a solid addition to the Pyro toolbelt, even if it denies the prospect of airborne combustion-based death-swarms. You can get places you couldn’t, and that plays into the flanking-style of Pyro. You give up a secondary weapon, though, which is quite painful as the Pyro already lacks range of attack.

They have awoken a sleeping dragon

The Dragon’s Fury feels like a combination of short-range rocket launcher and flamethrower. It packs a punch, is difficult to reflect, and can even light up other Pyros. But it is still range limited, which means Pyro still relies a lot more on position than some other classes.

One of the keys to this weapon seems to be its overwhelming force. It feels like classes that were used to taking Pyro down have at least a touch of fear to them now.

Upload them to the cloud

The Gas Passer has downsides. You don’t start with it, it has a slow recharge, and while you can recharge it through damage, it feels weird to give a player no secondary to start. But it is also versatile. It is a weak smoke grenade, it is a team-support weapon, making enemies easier to kill, and (people seem to forget) it’s a finisher. You can hit afterburning players with the gas, and the afterburn damage will itself light them up some more.

Of these three, it’s my least liked because of the downside of not starting with it. That feels like a cop-out. Other than the Soldier horns, this is the only item you don’t get an immediate benefit for running (and even there, the Concheror gives healing). It feels like it should at least have a passive effect or something else to make up for the delay in use.

That melee weapon

The melee category is all over the place, with some items giving great help and others just leaving you scratching your head. Most melee weapons are situational to begin with. So the Hot Hand isn’t really a big departure or disappointment. The main difficulty I found is that the speed burst is very short-lived, making it difficult to capitalize on. By the time you realize you landed a hit and got a speed boost, it’s already wasted.


Pyro is improved, both with these weapons and the other changes to flamethrowers. The sticking point for my own play remains sentry guns, and Pyro remains unchanged on that front. You can try to move around them, possibly with the Thermal Thruster, or you can search for a spot to flame them from cover, but you don’t have the sentry-busting capacity of Demoman or Soldier, and so ultimately you have to change classes to deal with sentries.

My choice for how to balance Pyro vs. Sentries would be to reduce the sentry’s range against Pyro. Lore-wise, the argument that the flame-retardant suit makes Pyro harder to track is plausible, and the change can be made in a way that Pyro has an easier time moving past sentries while not making them much easier to destroy.

The Valve Mod Marketplace Fiasco ARG

So I’d written a piece that painted the paid mod controversy as a new alternate-reality game by Valve. But since the whole thing is on hiatus, I guess it won’t work.

What can be said, instead?

I think Valve is right about the inevitability of paid mods and having a more fluid system for moving works online from free to paid. They just didn’t have a very successful rollout. Part of that was the 75% rake between Valve (30%) and Bethesda (45%), leaving the mod maker with the smallest share (25%). Sure, the money spends for a mod maker that would otherwise get none, but it rubs the buyer the wrong way.

There’s a lesson in that. If other semi-predatory industries like the music industry had a more prominent display of how little the artists get out of your $15 album purchase, it could shake things up a lot. And that goes for other industries like farming, clothing manufacturing, and so on. If people know that workers are getting screwed, they’ll at least make a stink. If they can just ignore it, because it’s not in their face, they’ll tend to ignore it.

There were issues with misappropriation of others’ mods. Valve will have a hard time working out a perfect model for derivatives and dependencies on the legal side of the issue. But they can at least push for better technological integration of mod dependencies in games.

And Valve is right to glimpse a future where games themselves might be seen as a greater-than-the-sum-of-their-parts assemblage of mods. Something like a patchwork quilt that you play on a computer. That future will come to pass in time. It won’t be exclusive, other non-mod-based games will exist. But it will live alongside those games, both feeding off them and feeding into them.

In the meantime, it appears that the factions I’d described in the hypothetical ARG seem to be here to stay. We will probably see mods that will license themselves only for use with free mods, for example. While others will say they’re happy to be used by paid mods.

But paid mods do give modders an incentive to work and a mechanism to buy work from others to make their own mods better. If you’re doing free mods exclusively, you might want to get some better textures or models, but have to take what’s free. If you sell the mod, however, you can afford to hire professionals to augment your abilities (e.g., if you’re writing code, you can pay other professionals can do the art) make that mod a bit better for customers.

The other thing this whole incident reminds us of is that we will undoubtedly see other monetizations come forward. You might earn gametime or rewards in future games by helping new players out (as a guide would through a dangerous environment in the real world), for example. Or you might earn real money for doing so, as some already do by streaming their gameplay.

The nature of gaming is so digital that it provides a key ground to try things that might not fly in other industries, and although Valve didn’t get it right the first time, I hope they keep working on it.