The story of how Valve’s move to Linux “lit a fire” under Microsoft Xbox execs

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If you’re a PC gamer, you may well think that PC gaming has always been synonymous with Windows: over the years, the huge market share of Microsoft’s operating system led to more game developers supporting the platform, and today most AAA games are released first on Windows. That doesn’t mean that it’s not possible to play games on macOS and Linux though: indeed, Valve, the owner of the most popular digital distribution platform for video games Steam, has been a big Linux supporter over the years, developing its own Linux-based SteamOS operating system to compete with Windows.

But while Steam is really popular on Windows today, Valve’s early Linux support actually pushed Microsoft to take PC gaming more seriously. Rich Geldreich, a game engineer at Unity who used to work at Valve during the company’s big push for Linux recalled some of his memories from that period on his personal blog this week (via Gamasutra).

Geldreich specifically mentioned a blog post titled “Faster Zombies” written by Valve co-founder and President Gabe Newell back in August 2012: in it, Newell shared that Valve had successfully ported its first-party game Left 4 Dead 2 to Linux, and the Linux version of the game which used OpenGL ran better than the Windows version using Direct 3D. According to Geldreich, the blog post had an unexpected influence on the game industry, forcing Microsoft execs to react:

A few weeks after this post went out, some very senior developers from Microsoft came by for a discreet visit. They loved our post, because it lit a fire underneath Microsoft’s executives to get their act together and keep supporting Direct3D development. (Remember, at this point it was years since the last DirectX SDK release. The DirectX team was on life support.) Linux is obviously extremely influential.

It’s perhaps hard to believe, but the Steam Linux effort made a significant impact inside of multiple corporations. It was a surprisingly influential project. Valve being deeply involved with Linux also gives the company a “worse case scenario” hedge vs. Microsoft. It’s like a club held over MS’s heads. They just need to keep spending the resources to keep their in-house Linux expertise in a healthy state.

Since then, Microsoft has clearly embraced PC gamers, emphasizing DirectX12 as a one of the key sources of performance improvements on Windows 10 PCs. More importantly, it seems that Valve’s Linux support didn’t resonated with game developers and consumers: in December 2016, only 0.80% of the Steam user base was using Linux while more than half of Steam gamers are now using Windows 10.

Lastly, it’s worth reminding that Microsoft has ultimately become a big Linux supporter, joining the Linux Foundation as a Platinum member a couple of months ago. Ironically, Valve is also a member of the foundation though at the lower Silver membership tier.