With CES behind us and loads of new information about the Steam Box, it seems to have left a lot of heads spinning. One of the more troubling (or positive) bits of news is Gabe Newell stating that the Valve version of the Steam Box will be based on Linux. With Gabe Newell being very vocal about his overall disappointment with Windows 8, it doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to see why Linux would be his first choice for Valve’s new console.
Windows and Linux are two separate beasts, both with their strengths and weaknesses. One thing remains constant, they are not compatible with each other. As an example, I cannot take a Windows game, and install it on a Linux computer and expect it to run. So it’s easy to fear that one would lose their library of games that have purchased through Steam, if we buy a Linux based Steam Box. In looking back at some of Gabe Newell’s interviews, All Things D had a chat with Gabe and learned that he’s seeking the easiest way to move Windows games to Linux:
We want to make it as easy as possible for the 2,500 games on Steam to run on Linux as well. It’s a hedging strategy. I think Windows 8 is a catastrophe for everyone in the PC space. I think we’ll lose some of the top-tier PC/OEMs, who will exit the market. I think margins will be destroyed for a bunch of people. If that’s true, then it will be good to have alternatives to hedge against that eventuality.
Since we don’t have any clues on how Valve will achieve this goal, we’ll take a look at some hypothetical paths that can get us there. After all, if it runs on Linux, it also runs on Valve’s Steam Box.
Dual Boot Scenario
Given the openness of the Steam Box, companies like Alienware, Xi3, and gamers will be able to customize their Steam Box by installing Windows. This would be the quickest way to allow gamers to maintain their libraries. The problem is, this creates a dichotomy with gamers and developers alike. It’s likely that only the tech savvy Steam Box gamers will be dual booting, switching between Linux and Windows to access their full library. Developers would also need to decide which group to please, the Linux customer or the Windows customer or both.
The second option, and in my humble opinion, and the least likely is to ask developers to port their games to Linux. Valve is no stranger to porting over two of their titles to Linux. All it takes is a quick read of their blog to discover that optimizing Direct3d games for OpenGL is no small task. From a business perspective, this doesn’t make sense either. Why would a third party developer spend time porting a game for a customer that won’t pay twice? Given the large number of titles, this appears to be an insurmountable task for customers and developers.
Lastly we have WINE for Linux. WINE is an open source compatibility layer capable of running Windows applications including games using DirectX, while running on Linux. WINE is not an emulator, but rather an application layer that quickly translates the Windows API to POSIX (Linux/Unix code) on the fly. This allows for most programs that are written for Windows to seamlessly operate on Linux, with a small performance hit. If Valve were to take this route, we could see our existing game libraries migrate to Linux quickly.
Even though Valve is familiar with WINE, there are a few hurdles necessary to get to that point. For one, DirectX 10 and 11 are not supported, although there are code commits that head in this direction. With a little muscle from Valve, it could be possible. The benefits of a fully compatible DirectX WINE would open Linux Steam, and Valve’s Steam Box to most if not all Windows games on the Steam store.
What are your thoughts? Are there any other possibilities? Let me know what you think in the comments below.