Wednesday, May 26, 2021

I am a person who will buy a SteamPal, sure, why not

The game industry froth of the day is "SteamPal", a mobile console that Valve is maybe-sort-of-probably developing. (ArsTech article; Polygon article.) The rumor is a Switch-shaped device that can run any Steam game with a Linux port. Which is a lot of games, really.
Everybody's got the same take: the Steam Machine was a flop, but whoa, this looks nice. The gaming PC market is saturated, but this is a portable. The portable market is dominated by the twin kaiju of Switch and iPhone, but both of those are proprietary platforms with locked-down app stores. There is no portable "regular computer" device. If there were, and if lots of people had them, then lots of developers would support it because it's pretty much just a checkbox in the Unity build.
(I know, it's never just a checkbox. But I hear good talk about Valve's Proton. That's a Wine-y layer for getting your Windows app up and running on Linux.)
So what the heck. It's a Tuesday and six years ago I wrote "I am a person who will buy a Steam Machine". I might as well weigh in here.
First obvious point: that Steam Machine purchase didn't work out great, did it? Nope! It sat around for six months and then I installed Win10 on it. So why will this new thing be different?
Because in 2015 I had a specific problem: I couldn't play Windows-only games. And I didn't want to buy into Windows! I was hoping that Valve's support of Linux -- with a Windows emulation layer -- would get those Win-only developers to cross-compile. Then we'd have a solid gaming OS, free of the Microsoft tax and the Microsoft love of completely changing the UI every few years.
To be clear: there were plenty of Linux ports on Steam. But those were the cross-platform Win/Mac/Linux developers! I could already play those games. I was trying to get at the games that weren't launching on Mac. (You know, like the initial releases of The Witness and Obduction, both of which I was slavering for by 2016.) I wanted Linux ports for those.
Didn't happen. Drat. So I bought into Windows. I wasn't happy about it, but the problem was solved.
Today I have a different problem: I want to play games while I eat lunch. But I don't want to buy into Nintendo.

Roughly, I play two(*) kinds of game. Either:
  • I want to sit down and fall into a big screen for hours at a time. Or...
  • I want to screw around with it for ten minutes every time I need a break.
These are very different models. But don't make the mistake that one is "immersive" and the other is "casual". They're both ways of focusing my attention! But they are appropriate for different kinds of games.
Obviously, Witness and Obduction are all-enveloping visual environments. Those are "big screen for hours" games.
But plenty of great games aren't that. Sneaky little puzzlers where you just have to fiddle with the pieces a lot. Micro-roguelikes where a run takes ten minutes. Card games where the bot crushes you. I want to play those over lunch!
If a game is on iOS, I'll grab my tablet and do exactly that. I've racked up immense time on Cinco Paus, Ascension, FTL, and puzzlers like Pipe Push Paradise. I would never sit down in front of my big PC and play them for hours at a time -- but I play them a lot of hours in total.
On the flip side, games like Altered and Inner Tao gaze woefully from my Steam library. I'm stuck in both. (They're hard!) But if I sit down for a Steam session of either, it'll just end in tears. No progress. Quit out. I don't even want to launch them any more.
But if they were on my tablet? Sure, I'll pick one up during lunch and flick the pieces around. Why not? And sooner or later, I'll have a breakthrough. (This is exactly how I finished PPP. Which is hard!)
Now, Altered and Inner Tao aren't on my tablet, because porting to iOS is a headache and the overstuffed app store makes that effort a bad investment. That's the general sense I get from indie devs, anyhow. But if there were a mobile device where Proton/Wine handled 90% of the porting load?
Tempting. I hope. And that's not even counting the "gold rush" period, which the Switch enjoyed for a good few years. A SteamPal has the same potential upside. No guarantees -- but I'd certainly put in some work to make sure that Meanwhile ran clean on it.

(*) Footnote and digression: Of course there are more than "two kinds of game". The obvious third class is: "I want to lie on the couch with the lights turned down and fall into a small cozy screen." Which is to say, The Room. (And riffs like House of Da Vinci, the Faraway series, Isoland, Rusty Lake...) These have a sweet spot of not being overwhelmingly visual -- they can be pretty, but you don't have to live them from the inside. But they are intimately touch-oriented. You want them in your hands.
I don't need a SteamPal for these games, because they do get iOS ports. They're mostly iOS originals. They're the natural natives of the platform.
I'm sure Valve's device will be D-pad-centric. That's fine; it just means a different set of native inhabitants. Indie grid puzzlers? Maybe! I can hope, anyhow.
(And if the SteamPal fails... nah, I'm still not getting a Switch. Sorry; the Wii left me feeling unloved.)

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