What is Valve Proton? The Steam Deck’s live-or-die Linux software, explained

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Looking at the spec sheet alone, the just-revealed $399 Steam Deck gaming handheld should be a winner. Valve’s PC-centric Nintendo Switch rival features a big 7-inch touchscreen, plenty of control inputs, an all-AMD chip based on the same hardware inside the Xbox Series S|X and PlayStation 5, and the ability to double as a full-fledged Linux PC. But forget the hardware. While it’s impressive indeed, the Steam Deck will sink or swim based on its software, and that means Valve awesome Proton technology is about to be thrust into the spotlight.

The Steam Deck will sprint to a larger software library than most gaming handhelds because you’ll be able to tap into decades of existing PC games through your Steam account, rather than having to wait for new releases made specifically for the fresh hardware. But most of those games were created for Windows, and the Steam Deck runs on Valve’s Linux-based SteamOS operating system instead. Proton (via Steam Play) lets Windows games run on Linux. It works very well much of the time, but it’s not perfect—and the Steam Deck’s success probably depends on just how much Valve can polish up Proton before the handheld’s December launch.

Here’s a high-level look at what you need to know about Proton, the Steam Deck’s secret software sauce.

What is Steam Proton?

At a high level, Proton is a compatibility layer that allows Windows games to run on Linux-based operating systems (such as the Steam Deck’s SteamOS). In the past, playing PC games on Linux required you to run Steam games through software called Wine (an acronym for “Wine is not an emulator.”). Valve worked with CodeWeavers developers to build Proton as a fork of Wine, then baked the technology right into Steam itself as part of Steam Play, the company’s “buy once, play on any PC platform” endeavor.

Valve created Proton after its living room-focused Steam Machine initiative failed, partly because of their reliance on the much-smaller Linux gaming library. “There was always kind of this classic chicken and egg problem with the Steam Machine,” designer Scott Dalton told IGN. “That led us down this path of Proton, where now there’s all these games that actually run.”

How do you set up Steam Proton?

steam deck multiplayer Valve

Hey Valve: This should just work, with Proton support activated by default on the Steam Deck.

Currently, Steam for Linux does not flip on Proton by default. You need to manually enable it or stick to games that offer a native Linux port. Considering how few games offer native Linux versions, we’re strongly hoping Valve makes Proton/Steam Play enabled by default on the Steam Deck, or there will be a lot of unhappy customers.

If you’re already using Linux, you can turn on Proton by opening your Steam settings and clicking on the “Steam Play” option at the bottom of the navigation pane. (The option won’t be visible on Windows PCs.) There, you’ll see a box you can check to “Enable Steam Play for supported titles.” That turns on Proton for games confirmed to work well with the technology, added to a whitelist by Valve. You’ll also see an advanced option to “Enable Steam Play for all other titles,” which will flip on Proton for everything after you restart the client.

Will all my games work on Steam Deck with Proton?

Will all games work? That’s the million dollar question.

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