We catch up with Valve's Erik Peterson and Lawrence Yang to ask our burning Steam Deck questions.
The Steam Deck is just over seven months old now, and Valve’s device has evolved considerably since our review criticized its compatibility issues and other problems. A host of updates have addressed everything from the fan curve to the system’s refresh rate, and Valve has been successful in getting more and more units into the hands of fans. In that respect, the Steam Deck has been very much a success.
Still, fans have plenty of questions about the device, including the status of the missing dock – briefly spotted at the recent Tokyo Game Show – and Valve’s plans for the next iteration of the Steam Deck. To get some insight on these topics and more, we caught up with Steam Deck UX designer Lawrence Yang and business development executive Erik Peterson at Tokyo Game Show, where we peppered them with questions about battery life, official support for dual-booting Windows, the possibility of a slimmer Steam Deck, and more.
Check out our full interview below!
IGN: It's been about seven months since the Steam Deck was originally released. I'm curious, what do you know now that you didn't know back in February?
Erik Peterson: I would say that one of the things that we've learned is just the way that people use it. We had some ideas about how we thought people might enjoy playing with it. At least in my mind, I was thinking, “It's portable. People are going to be playing it, of course, on an airplane or on a train or a bus or whatever.” But, at least when we were playing it at home when we first started getting our test units, just having the ability to play something on your couch, or around the house, or whatever… getting away from your PC that you've been spending all day on during the pandemic and being able to just enjoy it in your own way.
In my case, I play it when my wife's maybe watching TV and I'm hanging out on the couch with her and playing a game. Or maybe I put it down for a second, make some dinner, come back, grab it. I think we're hearing similar stories from users all over the world.
Lawrence Yang: I'm a dad, I have two young kids, and it used to be that I'd have to guiltily hide in my office and play games in the dark. But now I can actually play a game and I hear my son crying, I can run over and change his diaper and then finish, and then play my game again while they're watching Sesame Street or whatever. It's been great. I can still have gaming in my life as a parent.
Erik Peterson: Another thing that I've noticed personally, and I've heard other people online talk about it, is just exploring your Steam library in a different way: types of games you play; when you play them. For me, personally, it's kind of enabled me to go back and explore games that I'd intended to play or wanted to play for a long time, or in a different style that I might not want to play on my desktop PC, and to really dive into these and feel like I'm giving them a fresh try.
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IGN: There's been a lot of discussion about the delays for the Steam Deck Docking Station, and people have been eagerly anticipating it. Valve has said that it's been a problem with parts and that kind of thing. I'm just wondering, what kind of challenges have you run into in developing the dock?
Lawrence Yang: A lot of the same supply chain issues that we ran into with the [Steam Deck]. The Deck is actually in a much better spot now; we're able to produce them at a much faster clip. The dock is being manufactured at a different place, it has different components, and it has its own supply issues and constraints that we've had to deal with. We're overcoming them, and so we are going to hopefully announce something soon. So watch out for that.
There's a lot of stuff that we wanted to do to make sure that it works with as many peripherals as possible. What's great is any work that we do for the [Steam Deck dock] works on every dock – so every USB dock is benefiting from all of the work that we do on SteamOS.
IGN: We're here in Japan right now, and I'm curious, what has been the response from Japanese gamers to the Steam Deck?
Erik Peterson: It's been incredibly positive. One of the first things that we've been hearing in talking to people getting in their hands for the first time is just how surprised by how light it is. I think a lot of people maybe had a preconceived notion of it being this big, heavy, hard-to-handle thing, and they’ve really responded positively in terms of how light it is, how comfortable it is, and the types of games that you play on it. We've been watching people boot up various games on the device, and you can see them being surprised that they can play Elden Ring and other high-spec, AAA games on it. That's been a really pleasant surprise and it’s resulted in good feedback.
Lawrence Yang: Ever since we opened the booth, three things always pop up. One is, “It's a lot lighter and more comfortable than I expected it would be.” Another is, “I can play a whole lot of games on here, and they actually run really well. Way better than I would expect.” And the third one is, “I want one.” That's been really great to see.
The dock is being manufactured at a different place, it has different components, and it has its own supply issues and constraints that we've had to deal with. We're overcoming them, and so we are going to hopefully announce something soon.“
IGN: What kind of discussions have you had with Japanese developers? I assume that you're also talking with them while you’re here.
Erik Peterson: Oh, absolutely. We're constantly talking to developers all over the world, but we've been spending time this week talking to Japanese developers and telling them about the device. Honestly, the reaction from Japanese publishers and developers has been immensely, immensely positive. They are so excited about it, and we've been hearing that from them from the beginning because we were sending them units. These are the same publishers and developers that are making sure that their games run great on Deck, and you can see many of those teams here today at TGS.
Lawrence Yang: Yeah, and you can see it in the numbers too. Every month, we just say, “Hey, here are the top games on Steam Deck,” and there's always a really healthy number of them that are coming from those Japanese developers. Elden Ring or Final Fantasy or Monster Hunter are always on the list.
IGN: You've managed to maintain a pretty steady cadence of fairly ambitious updates. What's that been like on your end?
Lawrence Yang: It's been good. It's something that we knew we would want to do. We knew when we shipped there were things on our wishlist of things that we wanted to finish that weren't done yet. We knew that when we shipped, we'd keep shipping updates. Not only are we going through the feature list of things we want to add to Steam Deck, we're looking at the customers and doing things to help them have a better experience as well.
The team is very motivated to keep shipping updates, and it's one of the benefits of Steam Deck and PC gaming. Valve is a company that is always working on things, iterating on things, and improving things. The Steam Deck that folks got back in March is very different from the Steam Deck people are receiving today, and the Steam Deck that you own six months from now will be even better.
IGN: So many people are working really hard to get Windows installed on this thing. Can we expect official support for Windows dual-booting in the near term?
Lawrence Yang: Yeah. There's a bunch of work we have to do on the SteamOS side to make a general installer for it. Right now, the version of SteamOS on there is made specifically for Steam Deck and tuned for it, so we have to do additional architecture work to make it available and able to be installed on any arbitrary machine. With that installer will come the ability to dual-boot Windows off of that.
IGN: For folks who are just now getting a Steam Deck or maybe haven't picked up their Steam Deck in a while, what would you say is the most significant improvement and/or update that you've made since its release?
Lawrence Yang: It's hard to know. We've done so much. The refresh rate change was a really big one, but even stuff like improving battery life, updating the fan curve…
Erik Peterson: Things like the ability to shop on the store for games that are Great on Deck or Verified, and the process of us verifying titles and really making sure that we have a whole large catalog of titles players can choose from. That list is growing every day, so if a customer had looked six months ago, it would be a different list of games than it is now.
Lawrence Yang: Yeah. I think we launched with 300 Steam Deck Verified games. Now we're at over 5,000 verified playable games, and that number's growing.
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IGN: I know that, from my own perspective, when I tried to plug it into a television, I was surprised that a lot of games really struggled to be able to run smoothly on it. It was upscaling automatically to 4K and that kind of thing. I'm just wondering, what steps are you taking to enhance the connectivity to a television screen?
Lawrence Yang: Yeah. That's some of the software work that I alluded to, that's related to the dock work. A lot of the work that we're doing is to make sure that we can cover as many peripherals, displays, monitors and whatever to make sure that the thing you want to happen will actually happen when you plug it in and that it'll be a good experience. I don't know when the last time you tried that was, but I think we've actually improved that already, so you might want to try it again to see how that goes.
IGN: I have you heard a lot of people saying that they are not really treating this as a portable device, as a thing that they can go out with. Is that something you would want to change?
Lawrence Yang: Well, I think we want people to use it the way that they want to…my current situation is I barely take it anywhere. I brought it on this trip because I'm traveling, but otherwise it is my couch-gaming machine. I've actually reached the point where I don't game much on my PC anymore, on my desktop computer, just because I'm there all day. I don't want to keep sitting there.
Erik Peterson: Ultimately, people are using the device in a bunch of different ways. Some people are taking it portably all over the place, and some people are hanging out on their couch. I tend to use it for flights a lot because the hours just absolutely melt away when I'm playing Slay the Spire, and I just jam on there for hours at a time. People are going to use it in different ways, and we're listening to feedback. I think it's great that people are finding different ways to use it.
IGN: Obviously, this is a very community-focused machine. Is there one specific mod or improvement that the community has made that really made you as designers go, “Wow. That's awesome. That was some really incredible work by the community?”
Lawrence Yang: Well, one, the community is amazing. They're doing all sorts of crazy stuff – things we wouldn't imagine. There are YouTubers who are putting actual PC heat sinks into the thing. It's crazy, and it's cool because it's a PC and you should be able to do what you want with it, and we're really cool with that.
As far as other mods, we've seen a lot of people building plugins for it, and we're looking to see how people are using those, and what people are asking for and what they want. It's kind of a fine balance…adding more knobs and dials is cool for the people that want them, but if you have too many knobs and dials, then you can intimidate people who really don't want to mess with the Steam Deck.
We just have to try to find a way to appeal to both crowds and make sure everyone can have a good experience.
Erik Peterson: The sky's the limit on the kind of things you can do with it, but it's also really important to us that if you're not into that and you want to just have a device that you can just play games on and have great time, and not have to worry about updating your drivers or whatever, it does that. It should be able to do both.
Lawrence Yang: Yeah. Actually, one of the reasons we're here at TGS and showing it to the folks in Japan is this is a country that is not necessarily known for PC gaming. It's actually one of the fastest-growing PC gaming countries in the world, but there's still a lot of people who don't know much about it. I know, for me, when I want to buy a PC or buy a new gaming laptop, it can be a hassle because you have to do a lot of research and try to figure out what you want to do. With the Steam Deck, it's just like a one-stop shop: you can just buy it, and it can play all the games that you want to play. That's a really good entry point into PC gaming. We hope that will be the case for folks here in Japan.
A slimmer Steam Deck would probably mean less battery life, so we would just have to weigh all of those and make sure that we can do what we can to mitigate it.“
IGN: One of the concerns about the Steam Deck going in was, because of the nature of it being a portable device, that it might end up being somewhat underpowered when it came to the processor. Indeed, certain games have had frame-rate issues and things like that and you have to work really hard to optimize them. I'm wondering, has fears about it being a little bit underpowered played out from your perspective, and what steps can you take to maximize its performance, ultimately?
Lawrence Yang: There are some games that are not well-optimized for Steam Deck out of the gate, and a lot of times it's just a quick tweak to fix it like changing default settings or making sure the game can see, “Oh, okay. I need a 1280 x 800 screen.” We've actually seen a lot of developers looking for Steam Deck or looking for Steam Deck-like hardware and changing the default config for this. We're working with developers to encourage that kind of thing.
Really, we just want customers to not have to worry about any of that and for things to work really well. That's why we have the Deck Verified program, and we try to test to make sure things are good, give them the green tick mark if it's a great experience on Deck, so customers can feel reassured before they make a purchase or a download on the Steam Deck.
Erik Peterson: I would just say that, certainly, I agree with what Lawrence said, but there's a lot of customers that we've heard from who were just blown away by the fact that it can run those AAA games the way that they can and have it still be a portable device that you can take with you and play. It may be just a different perspective, but it's kind of mind-bending to me, actually, sometimes, that I can just play Elden Ring in my hands on the couch.
IGN: The Verified program is interesting because there are some games that say they do not work on Steam Deck but actually do – for example, Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky. Whereas other games say, “Verified for Steam Deck,” but, actually, I would not say that it's necessarily an amazing experience. I'm wondering, what steps are you taking to refine the Verified program?
Lawrence Yang: Yeah. We're always looking at feedback and we're always iterating on the project. For the former, for the unsupported case, we have a very stringent bar for what we designate as an unsupported title. If a title plays and a cutscene is a black screen, we call it unsupported even if gameplay and everything else is fine just because we don't have a way of knowing if that cutscene is crucial to gameplay and it's not our call to make.
As a customer, I wouldn't want to buy a game and have it open and there's a black screen with audio. I'm like, “Why did I waste my money on this?” That's why we're extra stringent with calling games unsupported, but we've definitely heard the feedback of unsupported games working, and that's why we are continuing to try to iterate and make things clearer for customers so they know what to expect.
The latter case, where it's Verified but it doesn't behave as expected, a few months ago we introduced a built-in UI thing that goes, “Hey. This game is not Deck Verified. Do you agree with it?” If a lot of people don't agree that it's actually Verified, we see that. We can look at it and either retest it, or fix a bug, or reach out to the developer and say, “Hey. Here's something that we could work on.” We're going to have to retest it so that it has an appropriate rating.
Erik Peterson: We've also had developers reach out to us because they have a game that’s listed as “Playable” or “Unsupported,” and they say, “Hey. It's really important to me that my game is Verified, so what can I do to make that happen?” We'll work with them and try to help them to do what they need to do and to reach that criteria so that they get Verified.
IGN: I think that one thing that also stands out to me is there are certain games that I was trying to play, like, for example, V Rising, and the games that are more traditionally PC-oriented, mouse-and-keyboard-oriented, have been a little bit of a struggle on the Steam Deck. From your perspective as a developer, how can you improve that experience for gamers?
Lawrence Yang: A lot of it comes down to input design. If a game is built with a controller in mind, or with keyboard and mouse but also controller in mind, a lot of times it'll be great on Deck. It'll just work, and things will work well. If it was built specifically with keyboard and mouse in mind, a lot of times you combine things and it'll be playable, but it may not be what you would call the best experience. That's just part of how it is, and not every game is going to be a great experience.
Erik Peterson: Yeah. Some games just weren't designed with a controller in mind, and that's okay. We think that's fine; it's kind of a design choice from the developer, so not every game is going to work as a Verified title.
Lawrence Yang: What's really cool, though, is if a developer does look at that and say, “Oh, I can get a green tick if i add controller support for my title,” that's great not only for Steam Deck but also all Steam gamers because now anyone can plug a controller into their laptop or whatever and play that game with a controller. It's just making the game better for everyone.
IGN: Of course, battery life. Another hot topic with the Steam Deck. You've taken some steps to improve it. There have been a lot of hacks and discussions about what you can do on that front, but are there additional steps that you as developers can take to continue to enhance the battery life of the Steam Deck?
Laurence Yang: We're always looking for ways that we can make the battery life better from a software perspective. Part of that is providing controls for customers to be able to lower the settings. I think it's just the way things are. A AAA title like Elden Ring…I don't think that the designers were thinking that it would ever be played handheld, and it's kind of amazing that it can even be played handheld. It's something that we're still looking at. We're providing tools for customers, and we're going to keep looking at both future software and hardware revisions as well.
IGN: Yeah. When I'm playing the Steam Deck, also, I notice that it runs a little hot a lot of the time. Are you satisfied with the cooling solutions and the fans for the Steam Deck?
Lawrence Yang: I think we're pretty happy with it. We've designed it so that all of the heat is only on the back and coming out at the top, so you should never feel any heat where your hands are, and it should only be happening there. If it is happening here, please let us know because that is not part of the design. All of the thermal should be coming out here.
We did adjust the fan curve to address some noise issues that were reported, and we're still looking at that all the time just to make sure that we're doing what we can to make sure it's a good experience from both a thermal standpoint but also from an audio standpoint.
IGN: What kind of feedback have you heard on the actual ergonomics? Some people have said, “Really great,” and other people have said, “Ooh, it's very bulky,” especially compared to a device like the Nintendo Switch.
Lawrence Yang: Yeah. We designed it with ergonomics in mind. There is a reason we didn't go with a flat design. We really wanted there to be something that your hands could grip and hold onto for a really long play session. We've by and large heard very positive things about the ergonomics, but we’ve also heard, “It looks big and heavy and uncomfortable” and “The controls look like they're in a weird place.” We've heard all of that.
But then we've also heard the, “When I picked it up, though it actually works. The thumbsticks are really easy to get to. It feels really nice in my hands. It's not as heavy as I thought. The weight distribution is done really well.” We hope that that continues to be the case, and, as always, we're still listening to feedback if people have other opinions.
Erik Peterson: Yeah. The only thing I'd add is that every aspect of hardware design is trade-offs. You're always making a trade-off about how you want to design something. One of the things about the Steam Deck is it is a little bit bigger, and that enables us to have a bigger screen. Having a bigger screen is something… We can make it much smaller, we can make it the size of a watch, but you wouldn't be able to actually play any games on it and have a positive experience. Because it's a bit bigger and it has a bigger screen, for me, personally, I've noticed that it's enabled another class of games to be played on it that just wouldn't be a good experience if the screen were even a little bit smaller because it would just be too hard to see everything.
For me, it's a much more comfortable experience playing games on it. I personally really appreciate the current size of the Deck, and it's something that I really enjoy. Like everyone else, when I first saw it, I was like, “Ooh. I don't know if that's going to be comfortable.” You get it in your hands, and it's like those fears just absolutely melt away because it is comfortable.
IGN: Do you foresee a future where we can release a slimmer Steam Deck?
Lawrence Yang: Maybe, but as Erik said, there's trade-offs. A slimmer Steam Deck would probably mean less battery life, so we would just have to weigh all of those and make sure that we can do what we can to mitigate it.
IGN: I'm wondering, what are some of the trends that you're monitoring in terms of mobile GPUs, dedicated handheld, that kind of thing that can enhance the Steam Deck going forward?
Lawrence Yang: We're really excited that there's a lot of growth in the space. We saw a lot of existing handheld PCs before Steam Deck, and there continue to be more now. But with Steam Deck it seems like the space has been really reinvigorated and people are looking at it as a viable category, which is really exciting for us. We think that the more choices the customers have, the better. Not only are we excited to see this is becoming a category of its own, we're also excited to bring SteamOS to other manufacturers that might want to put it on their handheld gaming PC. That's sort of my take on it.
From a technology standpoint, we're keeping track of what the newest APUs are coming out, the latest advances in memory, storage, display, battery… all the parts. When we make another iteration, we want to make sure that it's using the best tech that we can get into it.
IGN: Looking back on the past seven months of the Steam Deck, has it been everything that you hoped for?
Lawrence Yang: Totally. I wish we could make more of them, faster. I think that's the hardest thing, is that people have been waiting for so long. We're glad that they're still excited to get it, but we wish they didn't have to wait this long. We're glad that we're finally surmounting a lot of our production issues, which is actually what's letting us ship into these new regions. We have enough stock now where we're getting really close to being able to meet everyone's reservations, and then we're going to be shipping to all these other regions as well.
IGN: Has it reinvigorated Valve's actual game development?
Erik Peterson: We're always working on games. We have nothing new to announce today, but we're a game developer in addition to working on Steam, and we're always working on things.
Interview transcript was edited for clarity and flow.
Kat Bailey is a Senior News Editor at IGN as well as co-host of Nintendo Voice Chat. Have a tip? Send her a DM at @the_katbot.