The Steam Deck’s Compelling Case Against Gaming’s Walled Gardens

Valve’s new portable console, the Steam Deck, has received a flurry of positive reviews, but it’s also helped set a new standard in what an open device can offer..

Why is this important: Gaming devices, like PlayStations and iPhones, have traditionally restricted what they can play and where users can purchase games. A new wave of consoles with open designs gives gamers the freedom to load whatever software they want and tinker with devices.

What is happening: The Steam Deck, which began rolling out to first-time buyers in February, not only gives players access to Valve’s massive Steam library, it’s also an open framework that provides access to a wide variety of other platforms and capabilities.

  • The Steam Deck is Linux-based, has a desktop mode that basically functions the same as a PC desktop, and provides access to the back-end of the device.
  • A strong community of homebrew hackers have already used the Steam Deck to play vinyl records, VHS tapes and use it as a Back to the Game Boy Camera.

Software to bridge the gap between the device’s Steam roots and other platforms already appears for more casual users.

  • Microsoft has cheerfully provided a step-by-step guide to help Steam Deck users take advantage of its Xbox Cloud Gaming and access many games on its Game Pass service.
  • Heroic open source launcher is add-on software that allows players to attach Steam’s biggest rival, the Epic Games Store, on the device.
  • Easy to install emulation software attaches a number of emulators to the Steam Deck, giving the device the ability to play games from long-gone systems. (Note: Although emulators are legal, downloading game files you don’t own is not.)

Yes, but: This open access to various platforms has always been the case with PC gaming, which has long had large communities dedicated to preserving interoperability and developing creative mods in games.

  • Smaller scale products like Sir and the CGNP zero offered some level of open-source console, but the idea of ​​a dedicated console device offering such an open and PC-like experience is rare.
  • There have always been homebrew hacktivists opening consoles from the start. But the workarounds often involved deep solutions like soldering or programming.
  • Valve had already attempted to enter this market with its lackluster launch of Steam Machines, prebuilt gaming PCs, in 2015.

Valve is not alone surfing this open wave. A new niche handheld game console called Play Date, released this spring, also has a similar ethos.

  • Each play date also functions as a development kit for budding game creators.
  • And thanks to independent marketplaces like Itch.io, Play Date users can add all the games available for the device without having to go through a central store.

The big picture: This range of open-wall games follows growing global scrutiny of how Big Tech companies like Apple and Google manage ecosystems accused of being anti-competitive.

  • The EU has just passed radical tech legislation which forces Apple to allow users to download apps outside of the App Store.
  • South Korea mandated that Apple and Google stop forcing developers to only use their ecosystems’ internal payment systems.
  • A similar scrutiny in the United States has been exerted on the technology industry. And Epic Games suing Apple over its closed ecosystem and sales commission fees has shone a spotlight on the issue.

The bottom line: For all the goodwill given to Valve and Play maker Date Panic for creating such flexible consoles, the decision is more than selfless.

  • Even if players use the Steam Deck to access Microsoft’s games library or the Epic Games Store, they still do so on a device purchased from Valve.

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About Jason Zeitler

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