You may have seen a lot of mentions of the Proton with the upcoming launch of the Steam Deck handheld game console, but what is it, and how does it work?
Proton is a piece of software created by Valve and CodeWeavers that acts as a compatibility layer that allows games designed for the Windows 10 and Windows 11 operating systems to run in Linux with minimal impact on performance . Proton is based on the existing Wine tool, which allowed Windows applications to run in Linux, with Valve and CodeWeaver taking the technology and using it exclusively to run games.
This is incredibly useful, as most games are coded for Windows due to the widespread popularity of Microsoft’s operating system.
Linux, a free and open-source operating system, is relatively specialized, meaning that many game developers cannot or will not spend the resources to make ports of their games run natively on Linux.
With Proton, the idea is that they don’t need to do this, as it would allow those games to run in Linux without developers needing to do any extra work. This has resulted in a huge increase in the number of games that can be run in Linux, and makes the operating system a more viable alternative to Windows.
Why does Valve care about Linux?
Valve has been one of the biggest proponents of gaming on Linux for some time, with several titles on Steam, including its own, running natively in the open-source operating system. Back in 2013, Valve co-founder Gabe Newell attended LinuxCon, where he said that “Linux and open source are the future of gaming.”
Valve not only committed to releasing its games on Linux and encouraging other developers to do the same, but it also released SteamOS, a Linux distribution based on Debian. Valve had hoped to develop its own operating system, a move away from Microsoft’s increasingly controlling behavior on Windows, including the launch of the Windows Store (now known as the Microsoft Store), which allowed games Sold – Putting it in competition with Steam, Valve’s own store for selling games.
For PC gamers, the appeal of SteamOS was that they could build a PC and use it as an operating system for free, instead of paying for a Windows license. The money you save can be spent on games instead. Linux, including SteamOS, is less demanding on hardware than Windows, so there will be less overhead, giving games a performance boost.
Around this time, Valve also began selling Steam Machines, which were gaming PCs running SteamOS. However, both Steam Machine and SteamOS failed to fly. A big reason for this was that, despite Valve’s push, game devs hadn’t ported their games in great numbers, so PC gamers were stuck with the operating system that would allow them to play most games: Windows.
So, Steam Machine and SteamOS somewhat faded into obscurity, but Valve didn’t give up. If devs weren’t going to port their games, Valve would bring those games to Linux the other way around — through Proton.
With the announcement of Steam Deck, Valve’s continued work with Proton makes sense. The handheld console will run on SteamOS 3.0, which is now based on Arch Linux, and to avoid problems with Steam Machines, Valve will rely on Proton to make sure it can run almost any game.
Does this mean that any game can run on Linux?
Unfortunately not. While Proton has done a great job of bringing games that will likely never appear on the Linux operating system, there are still a substantial number of games that can’t (or don’t run very well) on it.
We recently reported that only 72% of the top 50 games on Steam can run through Proton, including big names like PUGB: Battlegrounds, Destiny 2, Rust, and Apex Legends. The ProtonDB site is a good resource that tracks which games are compatible, and how well they play. According to the site, 16,190 games work well with Proton, which is a pretty decent amount, but it doesn’t matter how many games are supported if your favorite game isn’t included.
One of the biggest issues is with the anti-cheat software that is used by some competitive online games, as it often prevents titles from running through Proton.
The good news is that Proton is constantly being worked on, and new titles are being made compatible regularly. Valve has also said that it is working with some of the teams behind the anti-cheat software to help keep the game running through Proton (while continuing to prevent cheaters).
Proton is a great piece of software, and while it works well, you shouldn’t even know it’s running. This has made gaming on Linux a more viable option for many people, and with Steam Deck, we should see even more people benefit.
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