Although Apple recently surpassed Microsoft in market value and consumer mindshare, the Cupertino giant still lags being its rivals in one key arena: gaming. Due to a variety of factors–chief among them Apple’s own reticence to embrace gaming as a priority–PCs have become the de facto system of choice for computer gamers, so much so that “PC gamer” is a part of the cultural lexicon.
So how did Apple get left behind? Why is Mac gaming potential so underutilized? What can Apple do to get back in the game?
A Ferrari with the hood welded shut
This was the type of geek joke you’d often hear in a PC-versus-Mac argument, and it wasn’t just a pithy insult: it was the honest truth. Apple has become known, particularly in the last decade, for sleek design and user-friendly features, but the closed hardware architecture and the limited possibilities it afforded turned off enthusiasts who migrated to the relatively open PC standard. Microsoft was largely concerned with selling the Windows operating system, and left hardware to a variety of third-party manufacturers; this in turn allowed the PC market to boom, and the free-market model drove prices down while spurring innovation.
Apple, by comparison, kept its operating systems tied to its own hardware, and this insular mindset led to decisions that lived long past their expiration date. For example, Apple continued to use PowerPC processors until 2005, eschewing the more popular Intel-based processors. Since programming for different processor sets was not easily transferable, many developers had to choose one or the other. The majority of PC systems used Intel processors, so the choice was clear.
As games grew more complex, the Mac’s limited hardware became problematic as well. It wasn’t until 2001 that Apple introduced native support for multiple-button mice; even then, it would take four years until the first-party Mighty Mouse was released in 2005. The 1990s were also a boom time in the gaming industry thanks in large part of hardware graphics accelerators and the immense popularity of the first-person shooter genre, yet the Mac wouldn’t support the addition of standalone graphics cards until 2001, several years after they had become the de facto standard.
Apple’s closeminded approach cost them an opportunity to become involved in what is now a multi-billion dollar market. The company seemed so intent on retaining control over the “soul” of its machines that they ignored the reasons Windows-based PCs became so popular: easy upgradability, improved performance, and affordable prices.
Estimates vary, but the expert consensus generally agrees that throughout its history, Apple has never reached a market share of more than ten-percent of the total market. This has made it difficult for game developers to justify porting titles to the Mac platform, much less developing exclusively for it.
Losses and games
Despite all the hurdles, there was a small yet dedicated community of Apple enthusiasts and developers who tried to raise the Mac’s appeal as a gaming platform. Titles like SimCity and Railroad Tycoon were big hits, and Blizzard supported Macs with their popular Warcraft, Diablo, and Starcraft games.
Mainstream shooters like Wolfenstein, System Shock, and Duke Nukem 3D were also ported over, but the Mac’s gaming catalog was abysmal when compared to the varied selections available on the PC and the rapidly growing console sector. Tellingly, the most notable Mac game of all time remains Myst, the point-and-click adventure game from Cyan; while it once held the distinction of being the best selling PC game of all time—it has since been surpassed by The Sims—it doesn’t have the same cachet as landmark PC titles like Doom or iconic console titles like Super Mario Bros.
The best example of Apple’s inability to grasp the importance of gaming involves Bungie, the developer of Halo, which has been called this generation’s Star Wars. The company made its mark developing games exclusively for the Mac, and even intended Halo to be released on that platform. But in a forward thinking move, rival Microsoft purchased the company in 2000, and made Halo the flagship franchise for its then fledgling Xbox system. Eleven years later, the Halo brand has become one of the biggest and most profitable franchises in the entire entertainment industry, and Apple was once again left on the outside looking in.
Change of direction
Eventually, Apple began to take steps to dig itself out of its self-enforced grave. Support for multi-button mice, standalone graphics hardware, and Intel-based processors began to slowly yet surely even the playing field, but in a move that speaks to Apple’s creativity—which is equaled only by their arrogance—the company introduced Boot Camp with their OSX 10.4 Tiger release. Boot Camp cleverly allowed users to partition and load a Windows operating system on Mac computers, which gave Apple users the best of both worlds: the intuitive, user friendly operating system they wanted coupled with the ability to play PC games without having to fully commit to Windows.
Developers have taken notice, but the results have been mixed thus far: while companies like Valve have commited to Mac gaming—the company recently announced a OS X version of their popular Source Engine—the process is taking time: to date, the Steam client offers over 1,000 PC games, but just over 100 for the Mac. While that’s a significant improvement, Mac gaming still lags far behind the PC and consoles.
But in a serendipitious turn, this actually worked to Apple’s advantage: because they couldn’t compete in traditional markets, the company was forced to investigate new avenues of approach, and in doing so, they’ve stumbled upon a relatively untapped yet undeniably lucrative vein of revenue: mobile gaming. Again, Apple faced an uphill battle—Nintendo’s DS line held a virtual monopoly for portables, with Sony’s PSP soaking up whatever was leftover—but the company wisely leveraged the immense success of its iPod and iPhone lines, along with its popular iTunes online store to sneak under everyone’s radar.
Today, Apple is the unquestioned leader in the mobile marketing space, and has built a powerful empire upon the works of indie developers who saw the App Store as a way to circumvent the expensive, resource intensive atmosphere of console and PC games design. The formula has been so successful that recognizable publishers like EA and Ubisoft are starting to jump into the fray, further legitimizing the App Store as a viable alternative to traditional retail channels and online services like Valve’s Steam, the Xbox Live Marketplace, and the Playstation Network.
And yet, despite these improvements, Apple is still in a poor position to take their gaming initiative to the next step. While the iOS line continues to be a lucrative source of revenue, Apple is still not seen as a serious player in the gaming industry, at least by actual gamers. In terms of pure profit, the company is equal to most of the major gaming companies, but in terms of the all important mindshare, its profile is minimal at best (think about how many people play games on an iOS device versus how many people actively talk about the company in relation to gaming).
Macs are still seen as second tier gaming platform, as evidenced by the fact that major recent titles like Call of Duty: Black Ops and DC Universe Online were not released for the OS X operating system. Even when a game is planned for both platforms, Mac fans often have to endure a long wait—two months in the case of the recently released Civilization V—before an OS X native version is released.
Even the company’s dominance in the mobile space has drawbacks. The price point for iPhone games was a race to the bottom, as cheaper games were more likely to find success, but some publishers are now discovering that any game priced above 99 cents is deemed too expensive. Unfortunately, pricing a title that low hurts the bottom line. And though Apple makes it a point to celebrate the wide variety of apps available, the sheer number of apps released each week can lead to a worthwhile title quickly becoming buried under a deluge of competition.
Apple spent most of its life as the butt of jokes among game enthusiasts, and it has a long way to go before it is seen as a legitimate part of the gaming industry. Thanks to a mix of conscious strategy, third-party support, and sheer luck, Appl has insinuated itself into the conversation, but for it to truly gain a foothold in the immensely lucrative market, the company must do a better job of currying the attention of developers and making its entire line—not just its portable offerings—a viable platform for games. Else, it will find itself being shut out of the burgeoning market a second time.
[Steven Watts is a frequent contributor to GamePro.]