Apple and Games

Here's one of several articles out about gaming on the Mac. With John Carmack at this year's WWDC keynote, showing off id Software's latest engine, id Tech 5, and Electronic Arts declaring a renewed love for Macs, people are singing hosannas about games coming to the Mac again.

Nope. Not going to happen.

Let me preface this by saying that I love Macs. Love them. I'm typing this on a Macbook Pro, we have five Macs in the house, versus one generic PC, and that thing is running Ubuntu. The only Windows install I have is under Boot Camp on this very laptop. I like my Macs. This call is coming from inside the house, folks.

But Macs are not gaming machines. Apple does not cater to gamers, Apple can't keep its attention focused on gamers for more than a femtosecond, and game developers have been beaten, again and again, into a Pavlovian state where they instinctively flinch every time someone suggests looking at the Mac market. And the strong platforms these days are consoles anyway, not PCs.

As to Macs not being game machines: it's fairly inarguable that this is true. Yes, you can run games on a Mac, but that's not the same thing. Gamers, people who buy multiple games and who are current on gaming news and upcoming games, they cannot use Macs the way they can use their PCs. They can upgrade any bit of hardware in a PC that they wish, while Macs are relatively closed to gamer-desired modifications. The #1 reason for hardware upgrades in the PC world are games, and the Macintosh is, for all intents and purposes, a closed platform.

Back in 1999 or so, when Apple thought that it was going to get developers to flood to OS9 because of trivial stuff like InputSprocket, it was immediately obvious that they just didn't get it. Apple thought that providing generic joystick support would make things all better, while developers were concerned with the fact that the Hardware Abstraction Layer made every single thing they wanted to do painfully slow. Anything that depended on any sort of speed of rendering was just awful to get working on the Mac. Even now, running dual-platform games will show that the PC version is always much faster than its OS X counterpart. The feeble explicit game support thrown into MacOS dried up very quickly when Apple realized it did them absolutely no good. Compared to the work that has gone on in DirectX, Apple is behind several 8-balls here if it wants to compete.

And game developers have seen again and again that AAA titles just don't have a return on investment in the Apple world. Ports of successful titles is the most one can expect, as a rule, which means that Apple is generally many months behind the PC world when it comes to new games. Since novelty is much of the appeal of many games, once that's gone, it doesn't matter that it got ported: the only customers left are folks who don't play games enough to have a Windows box. As a developer, you're targeting customers who are self-selected to not really care all that much about games. Hmmmm.

Finally, it's all about consoles these days. FPS and RTS games remain the PC faithful, where the keyboard and mouse are still the best controllers, but consoles, with games like Halo and Gears of War, have stolen even some of that thunder. While the hard core cares about installing games and driver updates, most folks with money to burn on games are happier to sit on a comfortable couch, look at a giant screen while mashing buttons on a wireless controller. Consoles have sold enough, to the same market of folks that can afford to buy computers, that the winds finally are actually shifting away from PCs as gaming platforms.

I would like Macs to succeed in all areas. But there are some fundamental changes that Apple would have to make to make that truly happen, changes that Apple is rightly opposed to making. Apple is billing OS X as rock-solid, more stable than other OSes, and that would likely change in order to provide the sort of game support that Windows provides. I fully understand that that's not a path they should take, and Mac gamers should, too.



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