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, 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.

Subscribe to the new Axios Gaming newsletter here.

About Jason Zeitler

Check Also

PlayStation will provide free PS5 dev kits to game creators around the world

PlayStation is launch a new initiative which allows publishers and developers in most parts of …