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Valve responds to Steam Deck shortages, battery life issues, joystick drift

(Washington Post illustration; Sarah Blesener for The Washington Post; iStock)

After months of anticipation, Valve’s Steam Deck — a miraculously portable portal to the world of PC gaming — is out in the wild. Well, kind of.

For those looking to obtain widely coveted gaming hardware like Sony’s PlayStation 5 and Microsoft’s Xbox Series X, it’s a familiar story: Launch day comes and goes, but devices remain out of stock indefinitely. So too with the Steam Deck. Valve’s initial shipment could not even remotely satisfy demand, as evidenced by the months-long wait many prospective owners continue to endure. Someday, Valve hopes to put Decks in the hands of all who pony up the requisite $400 or more, but for now, it’s uncertain when that day will come.

“We’re just going to keep ramping up production,” Steam Deck designer Jay Shaw told The Post. “Unfortunately, we don’t have any numbers to share. Supply chain issues are a very real thing. You hate to hear it because everybody says it over and over and over again, but it is 100 percent true that we cannot make enough of these, and we wish we could.”

Shaw said the plan is to ultimately arrive at “a level at which — fingers crossed, all the variables line up — people will be able to eventually just go order a Deck and have it shipped and receive it a day or two later.” In an ideal world (very much not the one we’re living in, from the look of things) that will happen sometime this year. In the meantime, Steam Deck engineer Pierre-Loup Griffais recommended that people sign up for Valve’s reservation system sooner rather than later.

“The line’s not getting any shorter,” Griffais said.

Valve announced the Steam Deck last year, at which point tech and video game enthusiasts were already well aware of tech supply chain issues born of covid-19 and crypto. These circumstances were not enough to convince Valve to delay the Steam Deck to a potentially less volatile time.

“We would never have been able to predict what supply chain or any other kind of logistical issues would look like in the future,” said Shaw. “So even if we had decided to postpone, I don’t think we would have had confidence to say, ‘Well, in 2023 this is what silicone’s going to look like,' or, 'This is what shipping is going to look like.’ ”

Griffais added that he approximates that “tens of thousands” of users are receiving Decks right now, and “it’s going to be in the hundred-thousands soon after that.”

“We’re still pretty happy to be able to deliver that experience to that set of users, even if the number is not as high as we’d hoped initially,” Griffais said.

That experience, however, remains in flux. In many ways, the Deck is a peerless piece of hardware, but it falls short where battery life and game compatibility are concerned. The former, especially, was a focus for Valve, with the company working alongside partners like semiconductor manufacturer AMD to create efficient components that would offset the need for a big, heavy battery. Still, it ended up with something of a trade-off; on default settings, demanding Triple-A games like 2018′s “God of War” or the newly released “Elden Ring” sap the Deck of its electronic lifeblood after around 90 minutes. Valve hopes to improve that battery life through operating system and graphics driver optimizations, as well as additional performance options that will let users tweak their in-game experiences to cut down on battery drain. Immense improvement is unlikely, however.

“I would say that in terms of the core battery life — the hours you’re getting running a highly intensive game like ‘God of War’ — I don’t expect things to change drastically there,” said Griffais.

Review: Valve’s Steam Deck is an incomplete vision of a game-changing handheld

In the event that a battery totally dies, Valve has partnered with consumer electronics site iFixit to offer replacement parts. This is particularly relevant to those concerned about so-called joystick “drift,” a problem familiar to Nintendo Switch owners: When “drift” occurs, joysticks register phantom commands even when nobody is physically interacting with them. To avoid it, Griffais said Valve ordered “state of the art” thumbstick parts that are more common in standard controllers than handhelds. However, some early adopters have already reported drift on their machines.

Before these reports came out, Griffais noted that Steam Deck thumbsticks are stand-alone modules as opposed to being attached to a larger board, making them relatively easy to replace.

“We hope that customers don’t need to replace anything. We hope this lasts as long as they ever want it to,” said Shaw. “But if they do [need to replace something], then it’s not terribly difficult.”

Valve does, however, anticipate changes to other elements of the Deck’s feature set based on how users interact with the device. For example, Steam Deck verification — a system whereby Valve evaluates games in Steam’s gargantuan 50,000-game library for compatibility — currently does not take online requirements into account, meaning that games like “Hitman 3” which are listed as fully playable by that system, can be rendered unplayable by a bad or missing Internet connection. That, said Griffais, could change if “we get a bunch of feedback saying, ‘We want more guidance so that we can play on a road trip or whatever.’ ”

In general, Deck verification has expanded into a sizable operation for Valve, with Griffais saying that more than 20 employees are currently spelunking Steam’s labyrinthine library. The magnitude of that effort, he added, now outstrips “even the normal content review activities” that games must go through to get onto Steam.

“I feel like we have a little time there before we’re able to get to the majority of the catalogue,” said Shaw, “but you know, we’ll go as fast as we can.”

Valve is also actively working to improve compatibility with competitive multiplayer games that employ anti-cheat software; at launch, live-service hits like “Apex Legends” booted players out when trying to load matches on the Deck, but Valve does not see that remaining a problem indefinitely.

“There’s still tons of work to be done there,” said Griffais. “We’re in touch with all the developers and partners. We want to make sure that it’s a great platform for their game without them being uncomfortable with security or anything else.”

Griffais and Shaw admitted that even arriving at this point took an incredible amount of effort. But they also believe this sets up future Valve hardware — whether it’s a new iteration of the Deck or something else entirely — for significantly more polished success.

“One of the areas we were not willing to cut at all was on the quality of the components,” said Shaw. “So once the price is set and the quality bar is set, if there’s a gap between those, that’s the painful part.”

“I can’t think of anything in there that wasn’t a significant challenge,” said Griffais. “Turns out, hardware is pretty complicated. But we’ve been learning a ton, and we’ll be that much better positioned to do the next thing as well.”

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