Mac Gamers are fooling themselves...

Someone named Tuncer has a blog on Inside Mac Games, and he has entered an opinion in the recent, very minor dustup between Valve and the Mac gaming community over HL2. Gabe made some comment to the effect of, "Apple is hard to work with," to which Tuncer says that Valve made an "outrageous" demand of $1m upfront for taking the project on, that the only thing here is greed greed greed.

Um, yeah. Tuncer, the clue phone is ringing, and I think it's for you.

NOTE: I haven't spoken with Gabe, or anyone at Valve, about this. I just have a brain.

This ties in somewhat with my previous column on Apple and games, where, independently from Gabe, I made essentially the same points: Apple cannot focus on games, does not do what gamers want, and is hard for developers to work with. Further, its user base isn't one that correlates strongly with "people who buy a lot of computer games" so they're hardly worth pursuing in the first place.

But getting back to the notion that Valve has betrayed something crass in their decision, what nonsense. Tuncer fails to realize what Valve is being asked to buy into with a deal of that sort. This goes for all game developers that are asked to support multiple platforms with their games: it's not a fire-and-forget operation. It's not free money for little work. It's a lot of work, and it's a pain in the ass.

Supporting multiple platforms beginning with software that was not written to be portable is a giant undertaking. You're either going to have to hire new programmers of sufficient skill and knowledge, and train them in your code, or you're going to have to deal with a porting company who will suck the productivity of your own programmers, because they will be called upon to educate and work with that company very regularly. Phone calls, emails, code dumps, code reviews, all of that has to be done by the top talent of the game company, because they're the ones that know what's what. It's not like you can have the porting company just deal with your QA department: they're going to take days out of every week of your most valuable employees.

You're going to have to support both versions of the game with all future updates, and this is especially true for online games, where two versions must be able to interact perfectly. Suppose you dealt with a porting company for the game: how long are they on the hook for maintaining compatibility between the original version and their port? HL2 is a game that will be played and modded and be very vital for years and years. As it gets updated, modified to handle bugs, exploits, cheats, vulnerabilities, whatever, you have to be 100% positive that both versions of the game will be able to be updated nigh-simultaneously.

As a company, you have entered into a contract, not only with Apple, not only with Aspyr or whoever, but with your Macintosh customers. Whatever business issues present themselves, they won't understand, and won't care. As soon as the PC version gets an update that breaks compatibilitiy with the Mac version, they'll demand satisfaction. If $PORTCO was only contracted for 12 months of support, and then they say, "see ya," what is Valve supposed to do? Cut those players loose?

This is where Apple's history of being difficult to work with comes in, and their well-known corporate ADD regarding games. The scenario I would imagine is one of, "Apple wants to plug this hole in their software lineup by asking nicely and writing a check, and then they'll go back to not knowing who you are. Now you're stuck with having agreed to a big, long job, for whatever couple hundred thou that Apple was willing to pay. That money covers maybe two months of your company's burn-rate, at which point you're financially no better off, yet have this new, giant, perpetual obligation."

So you make Apple Take. This. Seriously. You make them show you that they're not going to forget this deal in a month, when they do something to the way video or audio or memory or whatever is handled in the OS, that breaks your game in a fundamental way, and they say, "Too bad. Your game shouldn't have relied on that, I guess."

Apple has 3rd party developers making iPod games, and did not tell them about the hardware changes that came with the 6th gen iPods. Changes that break games, and require them to be redone. Developers are again and again hung out to dry by Apple's corporate secrecy, and their willingness to throw external developers overboard when it comes to Apple's desire to change things. They feel zero obligation to supporting their software ecosystem, which is why it's relatively anemic.

I haven't even gotten to the part where AAA games these days just cost tens of millions of dollars, right off the bat. It takes a lot of money to pay very smart people to do amazing things to make the magic gnomes in your beige box paint the pixels. When you get right down to it, $1m is undershooting the real cost of the overall hassle of taking Mac HL2 on. If anything, that should have been the opening salvo, the first hurdle that indicates if the conversation is even worth having: with Apple's liquidity at close to five billion dollars, asking $1m for a game that could represent a significant boost for Apple is just a pleasant way of saying, "I'm fine, how are you?"

Someone casting themselves as some sort of person worth listening to about games ought to be a little more clued in, Tunce.

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IEEE Spectrum’s gaming blog was retired in 2010, but it is preserved here for archival reference.

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