Looking at the spec sheet alone, the $399 Steam Deck gaming handheld should be a winner – and early Steam Deck reviews certainly suggest that Valve has it nailed on the hardware front. PC-centric Nintendo Switch rival features a large 7-inch touchscreen, plenty of control inputs, an all-AMD chip based on the same hardware inside the Xbox Series S | X and PlayStation 5, and the ability to double as a full-fledged Linux PC. But forget the hardware. While truly impressive, the Steam Deck will sink or swim depending on its software, which means Valve’s impressive Proton technology is about to come into its own.
The Steam Deck will sprint to a software library larger than most gaming handhelds, as you’ll be able to access decades of existing PC games through your Steam account, rather than having to wait for new releases specifically made for the new material. But most of these games were created for Windows, and the Steam Deck runs on Valve’s Linux-based SteamOS operating system instead. Proton (via Steam Play) allows Windows games to run on Linux. That works very fine most of the time, but it’s not perfect – and the Steam Deck’s success likely hinges on how much Valve can tweak Proton before the handheld’s February 25 launch. After all, the best hardware in the world is only as good as the software running on it.
Here’s a high-level overview of what you need to know about Proton, the Steam Deck’s secret software sauce.
What is Steam Proton?
At a high level, Proton is a compatibility layer that allows Windows games to run on Linux-based operating systems (such as Steam Deck’s SteamOS). In the past, playing PC games on Linux required running Steam games through software called Wine (an acronym for Wine is not an emulator.). Valve worked with developers CodeWeavers to build Proton as a fork of Wine, then integrated the technology directly into Steam itself as part of Steam Play, the company’s one-time purchase, play on any platform. – PC shape.
Valve created Proton after its living room-focused Steam Machine initiative failed, in part because of its reliance on the much smaller Linux games library. There’s always been that classic chicken-and-egg problem with the steam engine, designer Scott Dalton told IGN. It led us down this Proton path, where now there are all these games that actually work.
If you’re interested in the baseball industry, Proton and SteamOS also serve as a potential Windows escape hatch should Valve need it.
How to configure Steam Proton?
Hi Valve: It should just workwith Proton support enabled by default on the Steam Deck.
Currently, Steam for Linux does not enable Proton by default. You have to enable it manually or stick to games that offer a native Linux port. Considering how few games feature native Linux versions, we strongly hope that Valve will enable Proton/Steam Play by default on the Steam Deck, otherwise there will be a lot of unhappy customers.
If you’re already using Linux, you can enable Proton by opening your Steam settings and clicking the Steam Play option at the bottom of the navigation pane. (The option won’t be visible on Windows PCs.) There, you’ll see a box you can check to enable Steam Play for supported titles. This enables Proton for games confirmed to work well with the technology, whitelisted by Valve. You’ll also see an advanced option to enable Steam Play for all other titles, which will enable Proton for everything after you restart the client.
Will all my games work on Steam Deck with Proton?
Will all games work? That’s the million dollar question.
Note that none of the games in this Steam Deck promotional image are hugely popular multiplayer titles.
Valve has been constantly improving Proton since its launch in 2018, and many…more, even, Windows games work well enough through Steam Play with little to no tinkering. Your best resource for determining how a game works is the utterly fantastic ProtonDB, a community-created treasure trove of information that currently tracks nearly 19,000 games, over 15,000 of which run on Linux. The site also maintains a very Helpful troubleshooting FAQ for Proton games. (Be sure to leave your own reports if you use Proton and Steam Play!)
As those numbers suggest, some games are just plain boring on Linux, to borrow ProtonDB’s term. The most frequent victims? Unfortunately, the most popular games are battle royale games and esports titles. Proton’s compatibility layer tweaks do not work well with anti-cheat software deployed in widely played online games. Valve made sure to have their own Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Team Fortress 2 running Linux, but heavyweights like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, New World, Apex Legends, and Destiny 2 still won’t work.
Screenshot from ProtonDB.com
This is a huge bummer, and as you can see from the ProtonDB game compatibility stats above, it means that many of the world’s most popular games can’t be played on a Steam Deck right now. Epic recently said it won’t work to support fortnite on the Steam Deck either. (Notice how the percentage of red games in the top 10 is much, much, much higher than in the top 100 and top 1000, it’s because those multiplayer games dominate the most played charts.)
Valve understands what a huge roadblock this could be. While Epic-owned BattlEye and Easy Anti-Cheat lacked Proton support when the Steam Deck was announced, Valve worked with those developers to get the technology working on SteamOS. In late January 2022, in a Steam Deck anti-cheat update, Valve said our team had been working with Epic on Easy Anti-Cheat + Proton support for the past few months, and we’re happy to report that the Added Steam Deck support for your existing EAC games is now a simple process and does not require updating game binaries, SDK builds, or EOS integration. Along with our BattlEye updates from last year, this means that the two biggest anti-cheat services are now easily supported on Proton and Steam Deck.
Developers still need to update their games to support technologies on SteamOS, but with BattlEye and Easy Anti-Cheat now working well with Proton, the Steam Deck will launch with its biggest hurdle already cleared. That doesn’t mean everything is rosy and sunny, though. As you see in the ProtonDB screenshot above, about 20% of the top 100 and top 1000 games on Steam don’t have a Gold+ compatibility rating with Proton, and Linus Tech Tips noticed that Forza Horizon 5 suffered from bizarre physics and lighting effects even when running at 60 frames per second. The vast majority of games run just fine on Proton already, and it’s a monumental success for Valve and Linux games, but every hiccup and sore spot could potentially be a deal breaker for casual users lured by the hefty sale price of $400 from the Steam Deck.
All the attractive hardware and equally attractive pricing won’t matter if PC gamers can’t play their favorite games on Valve’s handheld. As a consumer device, the Steam Deck will live or die on the back of Proton – and if Steam Play can indeed persuade multiplayer developers to support it. Crossed fingers.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published on July 16, but has been updated to reference subsequent Proton improvements and initial Steam Deck hardware reviews.