Here we are, nearly 40 years after the Mac’s debut, and if there’s one issue that remains a hot topic to this day, it’s gaming on the platform.
Last week, my colleague Jason Cross wrote a piece explaining the technological steps Apple would need to take to make gaming on the Mac real. Jason’s points are good: There are several technologies Apple could embrace to make it easier for game developers to bring their work to the Mac.
But those hurdles are only part of the overall problem – and a fairly small part, in my opinion. If Apple is able to write an impressive piece of software like Rosetta 2, which runs Intel-based apps on Apple silicon Macs with high performance and full transparency, then the company certainly has the skills to leverage existing game APIs. that utilize all the power of their current machines.
No, the real obstacle to Mac gaming is culture and drive. And that change will be a lot more difficult.
Fool me once
I lost track when I wrote my first piece for Macworld about Apple not “getting” gaming, but suffice it to say it wasn’t written in this decade. Or the decade before. Apple’s history with gaming is a tortuous one, but for all its twists and turns, it’s not hard to pinpoint the moment when things really went south.
In 1999, then-Apple CEO Steve Jobs took the stage at Macworld Expo to introduce a new blockbuster title that would come to the Mac the following year. That game was the original Halo and… it didn’t come to the Mac the following year, because the studio that made it – Bungie, a longtime Mac game developer – was bought by Microsoft a little less than a year later, and Halo became a debut title for Microsoft’s new console, the Xbox.
It’s certainly not hard to imagine Apple feeling burned by this. After all, Jobs himself had made time for Apple’s own keynote to market what eventually became a Microsoft-exclusive title. (Halo eventually came to the Mac, but not until late 2003.)
Over the years since then, Apple’s interest in gaming on the Mac has moved with the times: at times, the company seems optimistic, like when it announced its Metal framework to replace the Open GL system it previously relied on. Other times, keynotes have passed with little gaming fanfare.
With Apple’s latest Macs, the pendulum has swung back in the direction of the company praising how good the hardware it offers can be — if only developers embrace the tools Apple provides.
Open the source
And herein lies the problem. Gaming on the Mac is a classic chicken-and-egg situation. Customers don’t buy Macs for gaming simply because they can’t run enough games. That’s why most game developers don’t spend the time, money, and energy it would take to transfer their games to the Mac…because there aren’t enough customers. Even most die-hard gaming-enthusiastic Mac users have given up and built gaming PCs or bought consoles in recent decades. (As an Xbox One, PlayStation 5, and Nintendo Switch owner, I can personally attest to this – and I only consider myself an occasional gamer.)
Making it technologically easier for games to come to the Mac is certainly part of the equation to change that. But for a second That for it to happen, Apple will have to make a very un-Apple-like move: swallow its pride. That means giving up idealism for practice; yes, its own custom tools can be better in terms of the sheer performance they can wring out of the hardware, but if game developers aren’t willing to invest in using them, any technological benefits they can provide are moot.
One reason Apple hasn’t felt it should take this step yet is that it has one key counterexample: iOS. The company’s success with gaming on its mobile platforms has been huge, but I’ve always argued it’s a bit of a fluke. Yes, the iPhone (and to a lesser extent the iPad) is a great device for gaming, but not because Apple wanted to build a great device for gaming. The device became so popular before anything else, game developers flocked there because it had a large audience. And Apple has done a lot over the years to support game development on iOS, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to the game market as a whole.
At a high level, the root of the problem is that there doesn’t seem to be anyone at Apple who is passionate about games And able to implement policy changes. One of the reasons the iPod and iTunes Store were so successful is because it was clear that Steve Jobs really was a music fan. He let him take advantage of what other music fans really wanted, and he had the drive to make the products great. That same enthusiasm has never really been there for other media, such as TV or movies, that ended up more like items for Apple to check off a list.
Looking at the highest level of Apple’s leadership, it’s hard to imagine any of them as avid gamers. Sure, I’m sure most of them have played games, but I honestly don’t believe any of them see it as something they’re as passionate about as Jobs did about music. I get the clear impression, after following this company for nearly two decades, that Apple’s attitude to gaming is still, at best, a well-intentioned bewilderment or, at worst, a more snobbish condescension.
And yet, despite what Apple thinks, gaming remains a wildly popular pastime. It’s hard to imagine there aren’t avid gamers in Apple’s ranks, if only because it’s hard to find anyone under 30 who not growing up with video games in one form or another. If Apple really wants to change the perception of gaming on the Mac, it needs a gaming czar: someone who understands and is excited about gaming, not just pretending, and who can back that enthusiasm up with action. To break through these obstacles, Apple must actively engage with the game developer community, not only to showcase what the platform has to offer, but more importantly, listen to what developers need to make Mac gaming a true companion – and competitor – to console and PC gaming.