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Steam Deck developers 'surprised' how good it feels to play

steam deck
(Image credit: Valve)

The upcoming Steam Deck by Valve was supposed to ship in December of 2021, but just as with PS5 restocks, getting hardware into people's hands has been a challenge throughout the pandemic. While first shipments should be going out in the next few weeks, developers have been able to get early dev kits to begin testing and optimizing their games, and many have been left stunned, including certain tech reviewers on YouTube.

Per interviews with developers by our sister-site PC Gamer, the Steam Deck just works. And there was some hesitation, considering the Steam Deck runs on Linux with Proton, which is a Windows compatibility layer that sits atop the open-source operating system. 

"I was surprised how well games work on it without any changes, and how good it feels to play on it," said Jonathan Smårs, a programmer and designer at Iron Gate in an interview with PC Gamer. "Valheim worked from day one on Steam Deck without any changes."

Other than lowering some graphical options, Smårs said the team was able to get the game running with nary an issue.

"The graphic settings need to be set down a bit compared to my high end PC of course, but I'm still impressed with what such a small handheld can handle without any platform specific optimizations," said Smårs.

Smårs also posted a video on Twitter of the game running on a Steam Deck dev unit on Twitter last month.

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Now, not all games are tailor made for the Steam Deck controllers, especially PC games. Strategy titles especially work best with a mouse and keyboard. For one developer, the touch pad on the Steam Deck worked better than expected.

"The touchpad for the mouse, I dare say, might be one of the best I've ever used. I'll need to design a controller layout for it, as well as write controller support for the game, but I suspect my game will be playable on it when that's done," said Raymond Doerr, of SixtyGig Games and developer of Rise to Ruins, a city-building strategy game.

Of course, developers are under an NDA and can't spill everything regarding the Steam Deck. One developer did tell PC Gamer that the Steam Deck OS could use some optimization. The developer found that some games would not detect the Steam Deck's controller and that scrolling for games without a search function was a pain.

Valve, being a game development house itself, has been working on making Steam Deck development as seamless as possible it seems. At the moment, Valve is aiming for any PC game to be playable on the Steam Deck's 1280 x 800 resolution display. Right now, more than 100 titles are verified to be working on Steam Deck. That's a tall order, especially considering that Crysis 3 is now in development. Considering that AMD Fidelity FX Super Resolution (FSR) upscaling now works with Steam Deck, graphically intensive games should be able to render at lower resolutions and still look great on the handheld. 

Still, not all developers have full confidence in Valve. This is far from the company's first foray into gaming hardware. 

"I am a bit worried about support, I've had a Steam controller, Steam Link, HTC Vive, and an (sic) Valve Index, and two of the four are pretty much discontinued," said Raymond Qian, project manager and CTO for Sekai Project, an American video game publisher known best for translating and releasing Japanese visual novels.

Still, Qian feels that as long as Valve is on top of Proton, things should work fine. 

Ultimately, we'll have to see how the community reacts after the Steam Deck starts shipping on Feb. 28. The list of fully verified games is short, and Fortnite will not be coming to the Steam Deck. But considering the Nintendo Switch just surpassed 100-million-unit sales, Valve may have a hit on its hands, especially if the Switch 2 is still a few more years away.

Imad is currently Senior Google and Internet Culture reporter for CNET, but until recently was News Editor at Tom's Guide. Hailing from Texas, Imad started his journalism career in 2013 and has amassed bylines with the New York Times, the Washington Post, ESPN, Wired and Men's Health Magazine, among others. Outside of work, you can find him sitting blankly in front of a Word document trying desperately to write the first pages of a new book.