Half-Life's maker isn't serious about the Mac

A gaming Web site called Kikizo recently posted an interview with Valve Software’s co-founder, Gabe Newell. In it, Newell made some pointed comments about why his company’s products haven’t ever come to the Mac platform. Newell’s comments have a grain of truth, but make no mistake: If Valve Software was serious about the Mac, it’d already be here.

If you’re not a gamer, Valve Software is one of the “big three” when it comes to first-person shooters. Id Software is the company behind Doom and Quake. Epic Games makes the Unreal-branded games. And Valve is the developer of the enormously popular Half-Life franchise.

Half-Life’s absence on the Mac has always been a glaring hole in the pantheon of Mac games—especially since the original game was, at one point, destined for a Mac release, though Valve ultimately pulled the plug prior to releasing it. So when Gabe Newell talks about the Mac, Mac gamers’ ears perk up and take notice.

Armchair quarterbacking

According to Newell, Valve has “tried to have a conversation with Apple for several years” about gaming on Mac OS X, and hasn’t met with success. As Newell explains it, Apple runs hot and cold—telling his company that it’s interested in making the platform better for games, then not acting on it. What’s more, turnover in Apple developer relations seems to be a problem, as well.

“I just don’t think they’ve ever taken gaming seriously,” Newell said. “And none of the things developers ask them to do are done.”

There’s a lot of truth in what Newell is saying, and it’s things that I’ve said and alluded to frequently over the years. Apple definitely doesn’t “get” gaming, at least not in the same way that Microsoft does. Whether you think that’s a benefit or a detriment for Apple all depends on how much you like to play games in your spare time, I suppose.

But to say that’s why Valve isn’t on this platform is a load of horse-hockey, as far as I’m concerned. Valve’s absence on the Macintosh ultimately has very little to do with Apple’s gaming strategy, and everything to do with money.

It’s all about the Benjamins

Valve has certainly been approached by Mac game publishers in the past who want to see Half-Life 2 and Valve’s core engine technology come to the Macintosh. And Valve has either rebuffed those advances outright or asked for such an absurd amount of money that no Mac game publisher with an ounce of sense—or any hope of making a profit—would ever say yes.

In fact, Valve, at one point, even put the original Half-Life into development on the Macintosh. It farmed the project out to a now defunct Mac game conversion developer and publisher called Logicware. Valve pulled the plug on it after deciding it wouldn’t be worth the potential money it’d make to keep the Mac and PC versions in lockstep so they could both play together online.

At least, that was the excuse Valve used at the time. If there is more to it than that, chances are we’ll never know. Logicware has gone gently into that good night and the company’s developers have long since moved to other projects and other companies.

The worst part about Valve’s absence on the Mac platform isn’t necessary the loss of Half-Life 2 or any other Valve-specific game, though. Valve, like Id and Epic, licenses its game-engine technology to other developers. So it’s not just a case of Valve Software’s games not being on the Mac — it’s a case of every other developer who uses that technology not being able to bring their game to the Mac, either.

Doing it right

Compare this, if you will, to the work that Id Software and Epic Games do. Id and Epic both work with Mac game publishers (Aspyr Media and MacSoft, respectively) to bring their titles to the Macintosh. Id Software co-founder John Carmack has been known to talk with Steve Jobs in the past, and has certainly used his influence to make sure that Apple’s efforts developing OpenGL as Mac OS X’s core graphics technology don’t go to waste. What’s more, Id relies on the brain trust of Aspyr’s own internal game development studio to make sure that its games are well optimized for Mac OS X. Epic employs a very resourceful and enormously talented developer named Ryan Gordon who handles much of its Mac and Linux conversions.

What’s more, have a gander at Blizzard Entertainment, makers of the enormously popular game World of Warcraft. For years, Blizzard has kept Mac and PC development happening simultaneously, employing a small but talented group of Mac programmers who work on their games and keep them up to date, making sure to expose new Apple technology whenever it’s available.

Blizzard demonstrated World of Warcraft working as a Universal binary the same week that Apple introduced Intel-based Macs in January, 2006, for example, and was one of the first companies to employ support for multithreaded OpenGL, which boosts 3-D graphics performance on multicore Intel Macs.

Some techno-literati point toward Valve’s extensive leverage of Microsoft DirectX technology as a reason why its games can’t work on the Mac. That’s a red herring—DirectX-intensive games come to the Mac all the time. Mac game conversion developers have libraries that enable them to convert DirectX code to its Mac equivalent. It’s a technical problem, sure, but it’s not insurmountable.

In each and every case, the developers and publishers I’ve pointed to have found ways to bring their games to the Mac platform, without making excuses or blaming Apple for a lack of interest. And they’ve done it without any backdoor deals from Apple.

So what makes Valve special?

The answer: Nothing.

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