We talk with the team behind the popular Steam Deck tool EmuDeck to find out what they've got planned for their ever evolving emulation solution.
When it comes to managing all things emulation on the Steam Deck, EmuDeck has rapidly established itself as one of the leading tools that folks turn to for efficiently organising, controlling, and navigating their digital retro libraries on Valve's handheld.
For those unfamiliar, EmuDeck attempts to take the guesswork out of a lot of the nuances involved in getting emulators working on Valve's portable PC.
Essentially it's a script that does a lot of the heavy lifting for users, offering the ability to download and install more than 150 various emulators and utilities — simplifying the emulation process, and making things much more accessible and easier for Steam Deck owners looking to emulate.
The popular project has just hit a big milestone too: celebrating the first anniversary of when version one went live back in March of 2022.
To mark this occasion we spoke with those behind the project to find out just what problem EmuDeck is trying to solve, how things have evolved over the past year, the growing importance of game preservation, what they make of the Steam Deck, and what plans the team have for their evolving EmuDeck tool.
What initially started as a solo project quickly became a joint effort, and work on EmuDeck today is carried out by two web and software developer professionals who also happen to be avid long-time gamers. They go by the names DragoonDorise and Livedeht online.
DragoonDorise began tinkering on EmuDeck just a few weeks after the Steam Deck first went on sale — and once he had his Steam Deck in hand (in mid-March of 2022) work on the project started in earnest.
Within just a few short days enough development work was done to put out an initial early version.
Quite a rapid dev cycle, right? Well, DragoonDorise explains: "This was fast because EmuDeck in reality is a port of Pegasus Installer" — a tool he had previously built for another handheld, the AYN Odin. The intent was to take this prior work and create a similar installer for the Linux-based SteamOS.
This Pegasus lineage provided EmuDeck with a "pretty rough" starting point. But this foundation (of using the same underlying script) was enough to offer up a quick way to install emulators, and easily set configurations.
DragoonDorise added that the goal with EmuDeck was to create a "console-like experience" for emulation on Steam Deck, being so that "regular people didn’t have to tinker all that much just to play some games", all whilst having "a pretty frontend to launch them" from.
This first release, described as an 'emulator auto configurator', was soon shared on Reddit and proved to be a hit right out of the gate — attracting thousands of positive upvotes, hundreds of comments, and plenty of attention and a keen interest in what the EmuDeck tool was bringing to the enthusiastic, and then relatively new, Steam Deck community.
Version one of EmuDeck quickly amassed lots of real users — a real boon for encouraging further development, and for attracting testers to help spot any issues along the way.
It was at this point that Livedeht, another Steam Deck early adopter, soon joined the project.
Livedeht had found an early bug, applied a fix, and put in a pull request to share the solution. This input then evolved — the result being that Livedeht now helps DragoonDorise both with the coding on EmuDeck and also with ongoing user support.
"I started EmuDeck by myself as a solo endeavour, but now I consider him [Livedeht] an owner of this project as much as I am." — DragoonDorise
In addition to being a useful tool that quickly found legitimacy with the Steam Deck community, DragoonDorise also noted how this new work on EmuDeck opened up an opportunity to "get back to learning new things, and working with people all around the world" — such as their new partner Livedeht.
Game Preservation and the Emulation Scene
For both DragoonDorise and Livedeht, their interest in the emulation space is one that stretches back years.
"I do remember seeing Super Mario World and Final Fantasy 8 on my computer and I was amazed." — DragoonDorise shares an early emulator memory which sparked an interest.
For Livedeht it was seeing NESticle (a 1997 freeware NES emulator) installed on a library computer back in High School which started their passion, jokingly remarking that the sight was "the beginning of the end" for them.
In more recent years, this love for emulation was reignited by the rise of various retro-focused dedicated devices — with DragoonDorise adding: "There was a time where I just stopped playing games until the Retroid Pocket 2 came and that got me right back at it".
When it comes to game preservation, something that's at front of mind for many at the moment with the imminent closure of the Wii U and 3DS stores, the developers of EmuDeck share an understanding of the important role tools like theirs play in keeping games accessible.
Livedeht starts with a reminder: "Game preservation is very important - but I want to remind everyone that piracy isn’t cool. Buy what you play, people — and please stop asking for help with downloading games!"
This legal point is something DragoonDorise reiterates, pointing to the Switch emulation scene in particular: "Playing Switch on the Deck is really cool and great, but it’s a handheld currently in production, their devs need to sell videogames to earn their money. Even Nintendo needs that to make the next Switch or whatever they end up doing, so yes, buy what you play!"
DragoonDorise pauses to note how their thinking has evolved over the past few years, stating that what was initially seen as "just a way to play your favourites again" is now something of much more significance:
"these games don’t come from nowhere, when you load a rom think that behind that was a team of people giving their all — their dreams, their wishes, probably a lot of overtime, facing problems with their family when they had to do a crunch, a lot of laughs and a lot of pain just to ship that game. [..] that’s something I think is worth preserving for future generations. I think all knowledge is worth preserving".
Emulation on Steam Deck
As you might expect, both of the developers of EmuDeck are impressed with Valve's first attempt at a portable PC.
"It’s an amazing, amazing device. I have a gaming PC, a Retroid Pocket 2, Retroid Pocket 3+, an Anbernic RG552, and an AYN Odin — and they haven’t been turned on once since I got my Deck." — DragoonDorise
Livedeht is similarly enthusiastic, noting how when the device is not being used for EmuDeck testing, it's primarily used as a couch computer, adding it's "pretty nice to be able to play almost anything on it".
Livedeht shares that they will often pick up and play older Zelda games on the Steam Deck, along with other emulated titles such as the Namco fighter Soul Calibur 2, and the fast-paced Burnout 3, to name just a few.
Unsurprisingly, the majority of DragoonDorise's time with the Steam Deck is spent testing EmuDeck stuff — but when they do find a spare moment to game it's playing a lot of 16-bit era games that they're nostalgic for — such as SNES and Mega Drive (Genesis) classics.
DragoonDorise takes this opportunity to share some recommendations of their own that are beyond "the typical Sonic and Mario games", suggesting EmuDeck users seek out "Rocket Knight Adventures on Genesis and Axelay on SNES".
As for the Steam Deck's capabilities as an emulation device itself, DragoonDorise is clear, calling Valve's handheld "the king of emulation", adding that a quick look at Reddit reveals that "almost every Steam Deck is being used to play retro games".
This prevalence of folks using the Steam Deck for emulation is a strong endorsement of the device's capabilities in this space — and as Livedeht notes, this excitement is only going to grow as Valve continues to improve the experience, pointing to positive "upcoming kernel changes" as one such example, making it "so users don’t need to use PowerTools anymore to fix some performance issues".
With a year of development now under their belts, the EmuDeck team have worked with countless emulators, and come to appreciate their individual quirks.
For the most part DragoonDorise remarks that development work on EmuDeck has broadly been painless, but highlights a few of the issues they've faced along the way, such as "some emulators changing the way their config files are done", resulting in EmuDeck having to quickly adapt and change to ensure things continue working.
The age of certain emulators was also raised as an issue they have faced:
"some of the emulators on the Discover Store are outdated, or are not even maintained by the original emulator team so we’ve been moving away from some flatpaks."
LiveDeht pointed to Cemu as a tough script to get right but praised the efforts of community contributors who helped set things on the right path.
DragoonDorise explained the design principles behind EmuDeck:
"EmuDeck is built using two principles: a web-based frontend and a shell script backend. The UI is basically there for the user to choose what they want us to do on their machine, and then the shell script does all the grunt work.
Since the beginning, I created the UI using React thinking that the UI would need to be used both on Linux, Android and Windows so that part was not that hard to port over since the initial blueprint was laid out like that, we just needed to do some small changes/refactorization to adapt it to each platform.
But the shell script had to be completely rewritten since on Windows you have to use PowerShell, completely different from Bash on the Linux side, I had never done anything on Powershell in my life so it was fun figuring out how to do some stuff over there."
The past year has also highlighted the importance of community on such projects, and the pair were keen to give their thanks to all those who had helped them on their development journey, including DollerBill, Russ from Retro Game Corps, and countless contributors, including Angel, Wither, Ngnius, Emotion, Leon, Zenn, Lontana, and others.
DragoonDorise shared how the passionate community on Reddit who took to this project with such lively enthusiasm "really what gave me strength to follow this path".
What's Next for EmuDeck?
One year in and the development of EmuDeck is not slowing down. The team are now working on a new SteamOS release that is looking to "tighten things up" and add various quality-of-life improvements, including various UI tweaks.
Additionally, the two-man development team find themselves working on an upcoming beta that is hoping to add a few more emulators to the growing EmuDeck offering (and when working with countless emulators, this is something Livedeht notes can often be tough to keep up with).
They're also exploring a way of maybe enabling the use of EmuDeck in the Steam Deck's gaming mode - which would make carrying out configuration changes much easier.
Beyond that DragoonDorise also shares that Windows and Android ports are on the way: "that’s just for starters, then we will add more Emulators whenever they are available, like Xenia." DragoonDorise teases that they "already have an Android APK with the UI working as a prototype by the way".
Having a team of two working on EmuDeck allows multiplatform development such as this to be a reality — where DragoonDorise can explore bringing the EmuDeck experience to more places, LiveDeht can continue their efforts on the Linux side of things — "where EmuDeck really shines".
Both are keen to express their love of Linux, noting that the SteamOS version is remains the primary focus and "is probably going to get everything first" before features make their way to other platforms, such as Windows.
These countless enhancements and considerations are all being carried out in an effort "to make EmuDeck a hub you actively want to use", rather than something you just install and forget about.
The developers are conscious about adding more value to the platform:
"What I really really want to focus on is user experience — getting games to the Deck is still a bit cumbersome so a way to automate that would be great."
The two developers have a busy roadmap of product features planned, including working with homebrew developers, adding multilingual support, and more.
They encourage Steam Deck owners to "just do it, and try it", highlighting how they've strived to remove any pain points from the emulation experience with EmuDeck and make it as "hassle-free" as possible so that users can:
"play your favourite games of your childhood with just a couple clicks, or if you are a young gamer, you have a lot of really great games from the golden age of the 16-bit era to experience. In less than 20 minutes you could be playing your favourite game again".
One thing is clear from our talk — development on EmuDeck is entering year two in a strong position, with clear goals for what the emulation experience on Steam Deck can look like.