Ever since Steam made its way to OS X (along with several Valve games), we've been hearing the odd rumor about a Linux version of the digital distribution-cum-social gaming client. Valve unequivocally shot down the rumors two years ago. However, in a surprising turnaround, the company announced yesterday evening that work on a Linux port is underway after all.
Valve says it formed a Linux team in 2011—so, the year after denying the rumors. The team was made up of only a "few people," and it was tasked with looking into the feasibility of porting Steam and Left 4 Dead 2 to Ubuntu Linux. Valve targeted Ubuntu not just because of its popularity among Linux users on the desktop, but also because "working with a single distribution is critical when you are experimenting." Considering the sheer number of Linux distros out there, I can see where Valve is coming from.
Anyway, here's how Valve's efforts have progressed since last year:
We’ve made good progress this year and now have the Steam client running on Ubuntu with all major features available. We’re still giving attention and effort to minor features but it’s a good experience at the moment. In the near future, we will be setting up an internal beta focusing on the auto-update experience and compatibility testing.
Since the Steam client isn’t much without a game, we’re also porting [Left 4 Dead 2] to Ubuntu. This tests the game-related features of the Steam client, in addition to L4D2 gameplay on Ubuntu. Over the last few months, excellent progress has been made on several fronts and it now runs natively on Ubuntu 12.04. We’re working hard to improve the performance and have made good progress (more on that in a future post). Our goal is to have L4D2 performing under Linux as well as it performs under Windows.
Ubuntu 12.04 and Left 4 Dead 2 are only the start. "Based on the success of our efforts around Ubuntu," Valve continues, "we will look at supporting other distributions in the future." The firm also intends to port "additional Valve titles." It doesn't say which games are on its short list, but I'd be willing to bet Team Fortress 2 is somewhere near the top—Linux users surely have to be introduced to that game's lucrative hat-based economy.
Just over two years have passed since Steam's Mac debut. Today, the Mac wing of the Steam store is rife with casual games, indie titles, and a number of major releases like Assassin's Creed Brotherhood, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and The Walking Dead. Linux might be a harder sell for third-party game publishers, since it does, after all, have a smaller installed base on the desktop. (Net Applications' latest data shows a 1.05% usage share for Linux on the desktop, compared to 6.72% for OS X.) Still, the presence of a major distribution vehicle like Steam on Linux may well spur interest in the platform.