I am more excited for the Steam Deck than I think I have ever been for something before. It’s not often that a new product comes along that checks every box on what you want it to be. I’ve got that sort of pre-Christmas energy about it, like I’ve made a wish and I’m hoping it will be granted to me by the magical powers that be. It sure seems like a miracle that an open source powered handheld gaming device has come about at this time!
The gap has always existed
I’ve always been a PC-focused gamer. I’m choosing my words carefully here, as I’ve had my fair share of consoles over the years, mainly in the form of portable consoles. I got a PSP on the release year, and as I was dragged unwillingly between family events and shopping trips, I would bring it with me along with a few UMDs and it did plenty to keep me entertained. As early as that point in my life, I was eager to play my PC games on the go. I understood why I couldn’t – even at that age – with the basic understanding of hardware requirements I had. When I got a DS Lite, I got DOS working on it and was able to play a few games like Elite and Lemmings through a tool called DSX86. I had a lot of fun with the technical challenges of doing this. Looking back the process was quite simple, but to figure it out when I was like… 10? 11? It wasn’t as easy. This should’ve been a warning sign for friends and family, but alas, I’m a full blown nerd now.
Finally, the Steam Deck has come around to satiate my desire for a PC gaming device on the go. It feels like it has been a lifetime coming. Part of me wonders why it hasn’t happened sooner, but then again it’s only recently that laptop hardware even became on-par with its desktop counterparts. For me it is the right device at the right time, as not only do I want to be able to play games on the go as travel opens up again, but I haven’t been able to upgrade my computer over the last two years, and the Steam deck actually gives my GTX 970 a good run for its money in terms of performance!
The hardware is what matters now
This is my favourite part of the Deck. I have read and watched every bit of hardware news on the device since its announcement and not a single thing has put a doubt in my mind that the Deck is built to last. It’s like the Land Rover of portable tech - and I love Land Rovers, in case you haven’t noticed. Even though old Defenders are rare sights on the road that doesn’t stop thousands of people modifying them, thrashing them around off road, and generally using the trucks the way the manufacturer intended. The Deck shares these characteristics. I don’t need to worry too much about damaging it because I already know that parts will be available. As a result of that, I will certainly bring it with me as I don’t need to keep it in a display case on a shelf. With the release of the exterior design in CAD form, I’m looking forward to seeing what sort of accessories appear for it too, or what fun things I can think up printing myself.
Yet, how did Valve get it so right? This isn’t their first foray into hardware but certainly their first into full-fledged gaming devices. I’ve always dreamed of having a sort of portable, console-like device for PC gaming and the Deck ticks all those boxes. It seems to me that the Deck was designed by people who will actually use the device, and who currently use devices like it, and they have figured out how to make the whole package work. I’m hopeful the experience will live up to the hype.
Making the device repairable makes so much sense. It’s more than a show of solidarity with those working towards the right to repair bills, it’s a power play to guarantee the device’s success post-launch, in lieu of any unforeseen consequences. If there is a technical issue with the device discovered after launch, they can avoid recalls in all but the worst of cases whilst also keeping customers happy with the device they got. It would be foolish to assume that every component produced will be flawless, and Valve certainly doesn’t have the distributor or support network to manage that process right now.
This begs the question then, what software do you pair with hardware built to last 5, maybe even 10 years?
Linux was the only choice, really
It’s great to see Valve went all-in on Linux for the Deck, and I really believe this was the only solution that could last as long as the hardware itself. Had Windows been chosen they would be burdened to keep drivers up to date on their own as well as follow the Windows release cycle should the Deck really last as long as it should. That’s a lot to ask of a company that has so many projects ongoing with a relatively small team. There is already a subset of the Linux gaming community ready to tackle keeping their Decks running in top form. Additionally, I’ve no doubt that there will be a half dozen Deck-specific distributions in the months following, like maybe a Deckian or a Deckbuntu (you can have those names for free). The Deck’s effects on Linux gaming have rippled far and wide. As I wrote in a previous blog post, I never thought I’d see the day where client side anti-cheat systems actually worked on Linux, yet here we are!
Valve is a highly trained professional, you don’t need to hear all this, but the chance of a user experience cascade is extremely unlikely. As much as I like to think this device targets crazy Linux gamers exclusively, I would suspect that game compatibility was second to user experience in light of the mass market being forced onto a Linux based gaming device. What good are all those Deck Verified games if no one knows how to run them? At the time of writing the Deck software review embargo wasn’t lifted (and I don’t have an early unit) so I don’t know what it’s like, but I imagine they have taken a stab at making the big picture mode as easy as possible for this purpose. If it’s Linus proof (you know which one) then it should be pretty successful in the hands of most people.
About that LAN party thing
LAN parties are a great way to enjoy games with other people, but they are hard work. It’s something you organize over a holiday or other special occasion, with weeks of planning - checking that everyone has got power cables, ethernet cables, desk space, food and beer. Everyone has their own gear and is in top form for the night ahead, but alas you inevitably spend 1 hour getting on the network and discussing what game to play, 1-2 hours copying the game and fighting to get it to run on every machine, and then spend the rest of the night actually playing the games. The Deck solves a lot of issues here.
Now all I will need is a seat, and maybe one plug for charging. That’s not to say I can’t use external peripherals, it’s just a lot more convenient to get used to the Deck’s own input devices for this purpose. If a friend comes around unprepared and we want to have a LAN party at my house, I can now just pull out the Deck as the extra device and they can play on that. Likewise I can be a lot more spontaneous about just visiting someone for a few games too, heck maybe not even at someone’s house. If I was still in university, I would totally bring it in to play between lectures. Albeit, I would have probably ended up with a lower grade in that case!
Plenty of games
Sometimes a lack of choice forces you to be a bit more creative. I have so many unplayed games in my Steam library because I find myself addicted to only a small subset of the games I own when I sit down to play something. It’s definitely a fallacy, but I am very excited to play some new games on the Deck that I already own! However, I am equally excited to try my hand at running older and non-Steam games on it too, as I enjoy the technical challenge as much as the games themselves. I’m quite adamant about forcing myself to try new games first instead of playing familiar ones – and really enjoy the experience the way it was intended – instead of doing whatever it takes to get Command & Conquer Zero Hour to run on it.
Some games don’t lend themselves well to keyboard and mouse controls, like most rouge-lites and racing games, and I’m planning to focus on trying these out on the Deck. Hollow Knight would be a good example, where I own it and have played it for a few minutes, but it just wasn’t a game I could get into given all the other options I have when I’m at my PC. It will be a nice change of scenery – and I have spent a lifetime on keyboard and mouse – so getting used to the controls will be a fun challenge in itself.
It’s not just about making local play more accessible, it’s about empowering it on a technical level as well. It’s great if I can visit a friend to play games, but I’m still living in a part of the world where > 100mbps internet connectivity is the exception rather than the norm. I have been thinking long and hard about how to solve this with the Deck.
I’ve had an idea for a tool that I am going to try build for the Deck. It’s inspired by the PSP’s Gameshare system. This worked by allowing you to share a portion of a game to another PSP so that you could play multiplayer games. It would persist until the game was closed and was generally limited to providing the client side experience only for the multiplayer portion on the shared copy. The main thing I liked about this system was that there was no need for an internet connection - you could play multiplayer games ad-hoc in a matter of minutes with ease.
I’ve already got a network file system set up between my own computer, my dad’s and my brother’s PCs. There is 3.8 terabytes of games installed on it, all of which are playable on all the PCs. This saves us days of time downloading and re-downloading games when we want to play them, and also saves us that amount of disk space per computer storing copies of the games. It would be great to have a similar system on the Deck, with a more user friendly interface. What I want to create is a game sharing system that allows you to share the steamapp data with multiple Decks over a local network, so that you can quickly play games with friends without needing to download the game onto each device. This could be extremely appealing for 64gb Deck owners as they would not be sacrificing the little space they have. I imagine it would be of great use on car journeys or long flights. I once tried to set up a game of modded Factorio between myself and a friend using laptops on a flight, and we just about got it working before we landed. Of course, none of this circumvents the fact that each person must actually own the games you plan to share - it would only avoid the need to redownload them.
I’m aware of systems like LanCache but the downside there is you would still be storing a copy of each game on each device, let alone the hell that might ensue trying to offline proxy Steam entirely to make it accept the cache files. This would be a network file system of sorts designed for ad-hoc, ephemeral shares of data that won’t change for the short lifetime they exist for. I have already begun work on this, writing my own FUSE filesystem in Rust and utilizing QUIC as the transport protocol. I’m hoping to get something working in the next few months that I can share on my GitHub - so if you’re interested keep an eye out for that!
I am hoping I get a spot in the queue to buy a Deck early enough. I have had no luck buying new PC components over the past two years, hence my stagnation on the games I play, so I really want the Deck just to freshen things up, on top of my overall excitement for the device as a whole. I might try 3D printing my own accessories for it too - custom keycaps would be a neat starting point.
The best place to find my activity with the Deck on the regular will be Twitter but who knows, maybe I’ll write another blog post in less than a year from now! ;)