The Mac as a Gaming Platform, the New Era

Boy, was there an outrage over Valve’s decision to port its popular games and offer its Steam distribution for the Mac. Since Steam is estimated to account for 70% of online game purchases, this is one major announcement. But if you think about it, such news was just a matter of when, not if. As much as you may be a PC game enthusiast, you will have to live with the fact that Macs are running more and more games. But it does not take much to predict that Macs will never become enthusiast gaming machines. Valve and Apple are working on the bigger piece of the pie.

Slow down. Before leaving an angry comment without reading further, hear me out. Valve’s announcement makes sense and is good news for the gaming community and I am sure that other distributors will follow soon.

The new Gordon FreemanThe new Gordon FreemanHistory

Gaming on the Mac is not really new. In fact, the first Mac games date back to the late 1970s and include titles such as Global War, Asteroids in Space, Flight Simulator, and Dog Fight. The number of Mac titles never equaled the number of PC games, but there were blockbusters and advanced titles as well. Remember Defender of the Crown (1988), Myst (1993), Sim City 2000 (1993), Wolfenstein 3D (1994), Descent (1995), Command and Conquer (1996), and Diablo (1997)? Even good ole Duke Nukem (1997) was available for the Mac.      

A look at the Mac games archive has titles such as BioShock, DragonAge, and Guitar Hero in its library. The list is not as extensive as what you can buy for the PC and certainly not as cutting edge. But it isn’t as bad as you might think if you are a dedicated PC user.

The Mac Apple Has Issues

If you're a gamer and have spent time with Macs, you may begin to see why Valve's move makes incredible sense. In the end, the Mac is exactly what game developers look for: a locked-down hardware platform that provides structure and predictability, not unlike consoles. A Mac offers more flexibility than a console does, but without the mess of the Wintel world.
   
Of course, Macs never had the volume of PC sales, and if we believe Web-analytics firm Net Applications, the market share of Mac computers stands at about 5% globally. But Apple has sold about 10.4 million Macs over the past four quarters. It seems that Mac market share is still increasing and Gartner analysts actually estimated Apple’s market share of total PC sales at almost 9% in late 2009, while IDC published a number closer to 9.5%.

Then, there’s the Mac buyer, who is typically very interested in digital content and sees a Mac much more as an entertainment platform than a PC buyer does. I am not going to guess whether the Mac or PC buyer is more likely to spend money for digital content, but let’s face it, Apple has done a fabulous job in convincing Mac owners to purchase plenty of extra content and services for their computers and gadgets. iTunes has grown up because of Mac owners, not because of PC buyers and their jealousy that the iPod has not been available for the PC initially.   

So, if the Mac isn’t the problem, what is? Simple: it’s Apple.

The Mac is not an especially easy platform for which to develop games. It has become a bit easier to create Mac games since the transition to Intel chips, but Apple could care less about game developers who want to create Mac-compatible titles. The main reasons why there are not more Mac games out there are due to Mac OS X, the lack of developer tools, such as the DirectX SDK on Windows; and graphics hardware that simply does not run the latest and greatest. Hate Microsoft as much as you want, the fact is that games on Windows have been a focus at Microsoft since Windows 95. When was the last time you heard Steve Jobs talking about support for game developers on Mac OS X? Graphics cards and Macs are a sad story, but as long as Steve Jobs calls the next iMac the most gorgeous iMac ever, we all are willing to accept mediocre graphics performance, right?

Valve: Solving The Apple Problem The Apple Way

About two and a half years ago, there was an interesting interview with Gabe Newell, Valve's founder and managing director, that briefly touched on the topic of gaming on Macs. Keep in mind that Intel was already on the platform at the time and companies such as Valve actively explored Macs as a new target market.

Newell told a writer from Kikizio.com (now Videogamesdaily.com) that he had tried to work with Apple, but there was virtually no interest in Cupertino to get Valve games running on a Mac. Valve has never been taken serious by Apple. “They seem to think that they want to do gaming, but there's never any follow-through on any of the things they say they're going to do,” Newell said. “That makes it hard to be excited about doing games for their platforms.”

We have not received any information about whether Apple’s attitude has changed in the meantime, but it seems that Valve has followed through. I was told that Valve is taking this experiment all the way and plans to launch all of its future game titles simultaneously on the PC and Mac. Portal 2 will be the first game to benefit from this strategy. And we also know that Valve will offer its blockbusters Left 4 Dead 2, Team Fortress 2, Counter-Strike, Portal, and the Half-Life series for the Mac.

It isn’t difficult to see why Valve is finally pushing forward with Mac games. In a way, Steam is a natural fit for the Mac and Apple customers might feel right at home with Steam. The concept of purchase, download, and play sounds familiar and a lot like iTunes. Valve has an easy-to use Apple-like product and is now extending it to the Mac. It’s a perfectly reasonable business decision.  

You could have expected Apple to make a similar move in the future with iTunes, but especially those users who own a Mac and a PC may be grateful that Valve is leading the way. If Steam supports a game, users will be able to switch between Macs and PCs as game platforms and pick up games exactly where they have left off without losing any progress. It is a bit of a stretch to imagine that Steve Jobs would have approved such a feature.  

Conclusion: In Apple’s Slipstream, Valve Leads The Way

Anyone who claims that gaming isn’t important to Apple has been living under a rock for two years. The iPod Touch and the iPhone have captured substantial gaming market share and the iPad will extend Apple’s reach in this segment. But it isn’t exactly Valve territory and it surely isn’t high-end gaming.

Apple is after mass-market gaming, not after the enthusiast. The Mac isn’t exactly an enthusiast gaming machine as its closed architecture and limited availability prevent it from becoming a platform that runs the most-demanding video games and there is little I can see that will change this scenario. As much as Apple disregards Intel’s official product-launch dates virtually every time it launches a new iMac or Mac Pro, it doesn’t really help the graphics performance that the latest games really need. And once you have purchased a Mac, you are unlikely to upgrade it anyway.

However, Apple’s march into gaming and its continued marketing pitch about how well the handheld devices work with certain games can only help Valve to expand this vision to the traditional desktop. Indeed, Valve may even help Apple make the Mac a much more attractive gaming platform and create more hardware choices for Mac buyers. Valve’s model is exemplary in that it brings gaming to the Mac community and accommodates both Mac and PC platforms. The future is wide open for Valve and I am glad Valve has made this effort and will provide the game community with more choices. The future will tell if the strategy will work out, but Valve has a good shot at success.


Wolfgang Gruener is a technology journalist and analyst. He was managing editor for Tom’s Hardware news from 2003 to 2005, before launching and acquiring TG Daily. Today, Wolfgang works with startups and publishes his thoughts and analysis on critical and emerging technologies and products at conceivablytech.com.  

Create a new thread in the US News comments forum about this subject
This thread is closed for comments
205 comments
    Your comment
    Top Comments
  • kewl munky
    If they start making Mac exclusives all hell will break loose.

    Also, wasn't there something about Steam coming to Linux?
    34
  • micr0be
    the title made me giggle.... no further comment
    32
  • frozenlead
    Sure, from the business end it seems like a good decision, and for one developer, all of whose games run on a fairly unified engine, it may be viable. For the rest of the developers, especially with more demanding titles, this isn't true. Apple can't continue in it's current practice and adopt gaming as a feature to put on the box...they've got to give up something about the aspect of their hardware and business models in order to not give up gaming. Better hardware in more timely intervals, combined with more open software and developer controls - these demands, combined with the classically-radical and immobile nature of Apple will make it a long time before you'll see games (on the PC level) on the Mac, if ever. The rest of the developers are on stand-by, waiting for Valve to get the hard work (which is several years, if you ask me) done with Apple, then they'll all come flooding through the door saying "me too!".
    And then, finally, the Apple users will complain about their machines. "What do you mean a 130M can't play Crysis? It's a Mac!"
    30
  • Other Comments
  • ubernoobie
    go steam :D
    11
  • micr0be
    the title made me giggle.... no further comment
    32
  • Hellbound
    I dont have a mac, and never used one. But I believe this is a good move for Valve. I've never viewed mac as a gaming platform. But this can change things, and maybe somehow create some competition.. And competition is good for us.
    23