Jul 13, 2022 - Technology

The Steam Deck’s compelling case against gaming's walled gardens

Illustrated of a pixelated hedge with an open digital door

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

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

Why it matters: Gaming devices, like PlayStations and iPhones, have classically restricted what they can play and where users can buy games. A new wave of consoles with open designs is giving players free rein to load any software they want and tinker with devices.

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

  • The Steam Deck is based on Linux, has a Desktop Mode that functions basically the same as a PC desktop, and allows access to the back end of the device.
  • A robust community of homebrew hackers has already used the Steam Deck to play vinyl records, VHS tapes and use it as a throwback Game Boy Camera.

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

  • Microsoft has gleefully 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.
  • Open source launcher Heroic is a software add-on that lets players attach Steam’s biggest rival, the Epic Games Store, to the device.
  • Easy to install emulation software attaches a number of emulators to the Steam Deck, giving the device the capacity to play games from long-gone systems. (Note: While emulators are legal, downloading files of games that you do not 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 creative mod development in games.

  • Smaller-scale products like the MiSTer and the GCW Zero have offered some level of open-sourced console, but the idea of a dedicated console device delivering such an open, PC-like experience is rare.
  • There have always been homebrew hacktivists opening up consoles going back to the beginning. But the workarounds often involved in-depth solutions like soldering or programming.
  • Valve had previously attempted to enter this market with its lackluster launching of Steam Machines, prebuilt gaming PCs, in 2015.

Valve isn’t alone in riding this open wave. A new, niche handheld game console called the Play Date, released this spring, also has a similar philosophy.

  • Every Play Date also functions as a development kit for aspiring game creators.
  • And through indie marketplaces like Itch.io, Play Date users can add whatever games are available for the device without having to go through a central store.

The big picture: This range of open-walled gaming comes on the heels of increasing global scrutiny over how Big Tech companies like Apple and Google handle ecosystems that are charged with being anticompetitive.

  • The EU just passed sweeping tech legislation that compels Apple to allow users to download apps outside of the App Store.
  • South Korea has mandated that Apple and Google stop forcing developers to only use their ecosystems’ internal payment systems.
  • Similar scrutiny in the U.S. has been levied at the tech industry. And Epic Games suing Apple over its closed ecosystem and sales commission fees has aimed an even brighter spotlight on the issue.

The bottom line: For all the goodwill thrown at Valve and Play Date maker Panic for creating such flexible consoles, the move is more than altruistic.

  • Even if players are using the Steam Deck to access Microsoft’s game library or the Epic Games Store, they’re still doing it on a device bought from Valve.

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