Apple is one of the most successful businesses in the world. Their products have found their way into over a billion homes, with the combined value of the gaming market for those devices being over 2 billion dollars. Yet, for as much as Apple is seen a software and hardware company that chases profits and revenue, why doesn’t Apple care about gaming?
Your Answer Upfront:
Apple ignored the gaming market for the better part of two decades. Their stance on the matter has changed in recent years, first with the success for the iPhone and the App Store and later with the success of the iPad. In modern times, Apple has begun to embrace gaming on their hardware, going as far as releasing a subscription gaming services. If we are to compare the Apple of old and Apple of new, we would clearly see that they are one business decision away from being called the biggest games publisher in the world.
In this article we’re going to look over Apple’s tumultuous relationship with gaming as a whole, from the Apple II to the first Mac and their failed gaming console. Mobile gamers, bare with me through that chapter as it illustrates how much Apple’s relationship with gaming has changed over the years.
In the second chapter of this article we’re going to talk about Apple Arcade, the power of recent iOS devices when it comes to 3D rendering, processing and their usage of desktop-class processors together with the rumored AR/VR headset.
By the end of this article I hope I will have properly explained why Apple actually cares a ton about gaming, secretly, and why we’re just 1 announcement away from seeing Apple begin to formally dominate the gaming market.
Oh, and we’re also going to toy a bit with the idea of Apple purchasing a couple of known game dev studios and publishers because that seems to be all the rage recently.
Apple’s History with Gaming
From the outside, Apple doesn’t seem to have chummed up with the gaming scene. They dropped support for OpenGL really early on, they released their proprietary Metal rendering API, they offer close to no support for Vulkan and they never seemed to put any emphasis on gaming.
Apple looks like a company that’s focused on business and productivity and, at a surface level, there’s no denying it.
A big part of this approach sterns from Steve Jobs whom, didn’t appear “to think very highly of games and seemed to wish they weren’t as important to his platforms as they turned out to be“. That’s a direct quote from John Carmack’s (lead developer behind Doom and now CTO at Occulus – Meta) facebook post on the matter which you can read here.
Let’s dive into Apple’s love-hate relationship with gaming to get things started and then move towards modern day Apple (iPhones, iPad and the like).
Apple’s Early Computers and Gaming
When the Apple II launched it gained prominence with businesses thanks to VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet applications for a computer. Even though the Apple II had color graphics (and it was marketed as the first color graphics computer) the focus initially put on it wasn’t for multimedia or graphical interactive experiences. Instead, games were a byproduct and Apple mostly relied on them for educational purposes in order to push Apple II adoption in schools.
Yet games were abundant and many people used them as gaming machines first and productivity/programming machine second.
Things did not change with the introduction of the Mac (or earlier with the Lisa), a personal computer with a revolutionary graphical user interface designed for business from the ground up.
From the 1 bit (Black and White) screen to the huge entry price tag, the Mac was designed to be sold to the productive people, as a superior and more competitive answer to IBM’s personal computer.
Once again, even though gaming wasn’t a goal for the Mac, people found ways around it and soon games started flooding the market.
The Macintosh became known and loved by game developers who leveraged the capabilities of a graphical user interface in order to design, develop and make games. Some have even emulated the Mac’s user interface and brought it to DOS machines in order to develop their games or make them easier to operate. Here’s a quote from Gordon Walton on the subject:
I said, ‘can’t you give us a menu system and the rest of the stuff that we use all the time for our games?’ And he said, ‘sure.’ And we whipped it up together and we shipped a couple of games that way where the Macintosh interface was on a DOS machine.Gordon Walton, from the “Early Mac Game Developers on the Original Macintosh” Medium article
Developers and Apple fans loved the Macintosh and its capabilities. Newer Macs (and even some compact Macintoshes, like the original) started adopting color screens and color monitors and their capabilities as gaming machines increased ten fold. Soon, peripherals (joysticks, gamepads) and gaming offerings exploded yet Apple itself was nowhere to be seen on the gaming scene until…
Apple’s Gaming Console
Apple got approached by Bandai and got pitched the idea of a scaled down Macintosh with built-in CD-ROM to be used as a gaming console. The deal they made would have Apple design the motherboard, based on a Macintosh Classic II architecture while Bandai would design the case.
In 1996 the console, dubbed Pippin, got revealed to the US world at Bandai’s @WORLD (pun heavily intended) as a gaming and internet machine (having a multi month internet subscription bundled in). So, what happened with it?
Well, Apple licensed the technology to Bandai, designed the motherboard and gave it to them and went back to focus on their main hardware. All the marketing for the platform was left to be handled by Bandai (and other licensees of the technology).
I always laugh when people ask why Apple doesn’t release a gaming console to compete with Microsoft, Sony or Nintendo. The truth of the matter is they already did but they marketed it so well that very few people actually know they released one.
When Steve Jobs returned to Apple he cancelled all the Macintosh clone projects (other computers or hardware based on the Mac licensed to third parties) and this marked the end of the Pippin, with Bandai and other manufacturers cancelling production.
The Pippin died so that Apple could live. All the projects killed by Steve had this goal in mind and for Apple, it paid off in spades.
Apple’s Modern Approach to Gaming
We’ve talked about Apple’s relationship with gaming in the early days of the industry, but that relationship has grown and evolved, especially since the introduction of the iPhone and, later on, the iPad.
Up until recently (and I mean, very recently) Macs weren’t known as a good gaming device. No gamer in their right mind would spend $4000 on specced up Apple MacBook Pro or iMac in order to play games, either natively or via Bootcamp.
But nowadays? A small investment in an iPad, a gamepad and an Apple Arcade subscription can get you pretty close to a Nintendo Switch in terms of gaming capabilities with the added bonus of also owning a general purpose device for productivity and work. We wrote an article on this subject titled “Is Apple Arcade a Worthy Substitute to the Nintendo Switch?” and I invite you to read it after you’re done with this one.
With the introduction of the iPhone and iPad (and the App Store) Apple’s regular view of gaming was forced to change. Games started making really big bucks on the store and the iDevices suddenly became a gateway into gaming for billions and billions of people world wide.
If in the early days Apple ignored gaming at best, with management being annoyed by gaming at worst (looking at you, Steve,) in modern times they seem to have started warming up to the idea.
The beginning of warming up to gaming became apparent with their introduction of Apple Arcade in 2019, a subscription service which offers premium quality games without advertisements or In-App Purchases, for the Apple TV, the Mac and iOS + iPad OS.
Suddenly, for as low as $4.99/month, a hundred or more (the figure is estimated to be around 200) games became available to Apple device owners worldwide, some of them benefiting from cross platform play across all devices.
Apple even offers investment opportunities to developers in order to bring their games to Apple Arcade helping shape games such as Oceanhorn 2 and bringing them to all screen sizes.
Apple learned from the mistakes of their past with the Pippin and are investing and actually marketing these services and titles for their platforms, featuring them alongside their Mac and iPhone darlings, front and center on their homepage.
Apple Features Games and Game Developers at WWDC
My business revolves around two things nowadays:
- Porting games to Linux and retro hardware (my own stuff)
- Making games on Apple hardware and for Apple devices (for my clients)
I’m constantly in the loop with Apple’s developer conferences, new hardware releases and the general state of affairs when it comes to their products.
The first time I watched a Apple Developer Conference was back when I was working at Gameloft and colleague of ours, Bogdan went on stage to demo N.O.V.A, an amazing first person shooter.
Contrast this with Apple’s earlier attempts at showcasing games during hardware introductions. Starting with the iPhone and more so with the iPad, Apple started taking gaming more serious than ever. They finally understood that gaming is a part of computing, be it mobile or traditional computing.
Their introduction of their own custom silicon made this more apparent than ever. Apple demoed the power of a Mac Mini using an iPad processor to emulate Tomb Raider (an x86 game) at amazing performance. A far cry away from their old approach of pretending games do not exist.
Apple Actually Cares Gaming, Finally
This is not a misleading heading, Apple actually cares about gaming, but it took them more than 25 years to reach this point. Now they have to push forward with it in order to secure their place on the desks and in the bags of users world wide.
What good is a MacBook do if I have to fire up my Linux gaming station when I want to play a game and how useful can an iPad be when I have to put it aside and grab my Nintendo Switch when I want to relax.
If Apple really wants to dominate the computing space, gaming (both desktop and mobile) needs to be put alongside their other marketing points. So, let’s talk about what they can, and probably will, do to reach that point.
Let’s Talk About Apple’s Future in Gaming
I hear a lot of people saying that Macs can’t game and that they will never be able to game. For me, this stance is really funny and always manages to get me laughing.
It’s an argument I kept hearing over and over again previously with Linux, yet Linux is now on the ascend as far as gaming is concerned, especially with the Steam Deck’s imminent launch, a platform that has access to thousands upon thousands of games that, just a few years ago, were never meant to run on it.
All it took for my Linux workstation to become a powerhouse of a gaming station was a single company to decide to support it properly and chug a few million dollars in research and development towards it. I’m talking about Valve and their push for Gaming on Linux.
When you think about it, Apple has a hundred times more “disposable income” than Valve for R&D purposes, they own the Operating System (MacOS, iPadOS, iOS) and hardware, so what’s stopping them from pulling a Valve X SteamOS?
How Can Apple Dominate Gaming?
They own the hardware, they own the software and they own the distribution. The only thing they have to do is buddy up with game developers, entice them with the hardware and revenue possibilities and offer them a bit of a marketing boost through certain programs (and with Apple Arcade).
John Carmack was in love with the NEXT Computer System (Steve Job’s new company after leaving Apple) due to its sheer performance, approach to design and capabilities. Apple’s new hardware is as close as possible to being the NEXT Computers of modern times with hindsight in their pocket (avoiding the mistakes that never let NEXT take off).
I’m willing to bet that Apple’s next push into AR/VR hardware is going to solidify them as a market leader in that field as well ensuring that future Mixed Reality developers will be tied to their platforms for development (you probably won’t be able to develop Apple MR games and software on Linux or Windows) and distribution.
Will Apple Release A New Gaming Console?
Apple doesn’t have to release a “gaming console”, they already failed to do so with with the Pippin. Even though years have passed since their deal with Bandai and even though many things have changed, releasing a new console won’t be their goal. Instead of bringing a console to the gaming market they are going to bring the gaming market to iOS (and iPadOS and MacOS).
Why release a gaming console to a market of users who, by default, think you can’t game on an Apple product? Why try to win over a market and fight the market leaders (Sony, Nintendo, Microsoft) when you can quietly and easily take over the market without as much as a pip (Pippin pun intended).
I think Apple is going to double down on their existing hardware, promote its powerful hardware and very quietly incentivize developers to not only use their hardware but also bring their games to the hardware. Especially now that they’re unifying all their devices under the same hardware (like the Apple Silicon processors).
Think about it for a second: you can make a game nowadays, build it once, and have it available on iPhones, iPads, TVs, Macs and Watches (and soon AR and VR hardware). Sure, there are control schemes and other design elements to consider, but the amount of changes between the various platforms are going to be minimal, especially when everything is thought out properly.
Will Apple Purchase a Game Studio?
I think in the long run Apple will have its own game development dedicated team, but this is not going to happen in a traditional sense. Apple is currently the biggest game publisher out there without actually being a game publisher.
I believe they’re going to start incentivizing game developers to target their hardware and then create a program for them – something like an Apple Certified Game Developer program. Over the years the ACGD will morph into some kind of a branch under the Apple umbrella that’s going to release exclusive games and software for their platform.
Where To Next?
I hope our article helped you understand Apple’s approach to gaming and shed some light on how they’ll embrace it even more in the upcoming years. I for one find myself doing most of my gaming on my iPad Air and I blogged about it a ton in recent articles.
For example here’s an article in which I use the iPad to play games that are not playable on modern macs. Or this article in which I show you how to play old-school and classic games from the 80’s and 90’s on your iPad.
We also have a lot of reviews for iOS games that you can read by heading over to our Review Section. And there’s a kick-ass guide to playing Dungeons and Dragons video games on your iPad if you’re into that, both old and new.
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