Making the case for Apple to have its own game studio

Apple should have its own game studio, and here's why

The App Store's single biggest category is games, and games are enormously popular on the Mac App Store (and many other places) too. There isn't a shortage of third party developers who write games for the Mac, but can it be done better? I think so, and I think Apple should lead the way with its own in-house Mac game studio. It's time to let the Mac platform shine as a premiere game development platform, instead of as an also-ran.

In the annals of game console development, some of the most important games for each successful system come from the developer of the console technology themselves, or at the very least from studios they own (and thus work closely with). This is called first party development. Bungie was acquired by Microsoft, for example, and turn Halo into a franchise that is almost indistinguishable from the console it's mated to. Microsoft also has its own in-house Windows game development teams, though Windows gaming is already so huge, it's not nearly as important.

Sony has its own constellation of first party studios - development studios it owns outright. Take Guerilla Games, for example, makers of the Killzone series - acquired in 2005. Or Evolution, the company behind the MotorStorm series. Naughty Dog, which this year released the amazing PS3 zombie shooter, The Last of Us.

Nintendo without its own first party development would be practically unrecognizable - the company largely succeeds in the console market because of the strength of its first party titles. Nintendo doesn't farm out development of Zelda games, Mario or Donkey Kong. Those and many others happen in house.

Trickle-down economics

Of the two platforms Apple current owns - iOS and OS X - iOS is, as a gaming platform, considerably more advanced in some ways, despite OS X's comparative age. Mobile device users love their games, and third party developers have responded enthusiastically, developing tens of thousands of games. Apple's created APIs and other technology to support games. And mobile software middleware makers - creators of libraries that app developers can use to shave time off their development process - have to support iOS. What's more, study after study shows that despite Android's considerably larger worldwide marketshare compared to iOS, iOS device users continue to spend more money on software (and iOS piracy is considerably less).

All this adds up to a thriving iOS game market that's filled with a diverse swath of titles.

The Mac App Store is something of a different story. There are quite a few indie titles represented, and there's certainly been an influx of games to the Mac App Store that are, in fact, conversions of iOS games. And why not? You use the same tools to make an iOS game as you do a Mac game. Producing and publishing a Mac build isn't a huge logistical or engineering issue anymore.

But most weeks in the top selling Mac App Store games category, it's a tug of war between the two major players in Mac game publishing: Aspyr and Feral Interactive, with a few other companies occasionally sneaking in just to mix things up. Typically one or more of the others will be a hot Mac version of a game that's already available for iOS.

So we Mac users get a trickle of games that our Windows-using brethren have already played, and games that we've already played on iOS. That doesn't establish OS X as a premiere game platform at all.

A waiting game

Aspyr and Feral do excellent work. Without them, there'd be almost no AAA games available for OS X. But their focus is very specific: they make Mac conversions of games from other platforms. And that puts Mac gamers at a disadvantage, because it takes time for these games to get to the Mac.

First the companies need to identify the games they want to bring to the Mac platform. Then they need to negotiate the rights to develop and publish it for the Mac with the original licensor. Next they do the actual coding of the game, and finally, after getting the approval of the licensor, they publish the game.

This is the way it's been for many years, and it's why it can takes months - sometimes years - for a Mac conversion of a once-hot PC game to make its way out the door. In fairness to Aspyr and Feral, they've done a lot in recent years to narrow the gap. But there's still a gap.

Because there's this added layer of complexity to the development process, the prices on these games often remain much higher their PC counterparts. While the original publisher is willing to make discounts to keep up sales, the Mac publisher still has to recoup their investment. So OS X gamers end up paying a premium (though thanks to Steam, they can sometimes get the same breaks their PC counterparts do if they keep their eyes out).

Moving the needle

Same day releases on OS X and Windows happen, but they are still the exception to the rule. Activision Blizzard, for example, treats OS X users very equitably (at least when it comes to Blizzard's games like World of Warcraft, Diablo III and the like). But for the most part, large game publishers and the developers cater to Windows and to consoles, because that's where the money is and that's also where their expertise lies.

And seeing an exclusive release of a major game on OS X, or even a release first, is almost unimaginable. Parity is about the best we can expect. And even that is the exception rather than the rule.

The Mac, despite its growing marketshare, remains a niche platform - one that's small enough that it just doesn't make financial sense for these big game companies to bother with. And that's another reason that Feral, Aspyr and others exist.

With its own internal development studio, Apple could prove that the Mac can be a premiere game platform for original game development. It'd also be a good idea for Apple to eat its own dog food, as it were - having its own game developers using the tools that Apple makes for other developers might encourage Apple to make improvements to core technologies that might otherwise fly under the radar.

I've had this dream for years, and I know that it's tilting at windmills. But I also know in my heart that the Mac is an excellent platform for gaming, because it's an excellent platform, period. I'd love to see Apple acknowledge that too, and embrace it. But I'm not counting on it happening any time soon.

What do you think? Should Apple have its own game studio? What else could Apple do to stimulate native, original (and exclusive) OS X game development? Sound off in the comments.

Peter Cohen

Managing Editor of iMore, Mac and gaming specialist and all-around technologist. Follow him on Twitter @flargh

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There are 33 comments. Add yours.

Aaron Fothergill says:

Totally in agreement with you Peter.

As a game developer, I wouldn't mind 'competing' with an Apple internal game studio because apart from the scale of things being entirely different, Apple getting involved directly in games development would massively improve the tools (as you suggested) and how games and gamers are handled by Apple. Essentially they'd understand the market a lot more.

Etios says:

Gamers don't use mac systems, they either build their own gaming PC or buy insane gaming laptops like Alienware, Asus ROG etc..

Unless, Mac becomes go-to platform for gamers by providing insane hardware at reasonable cost you can't expect gaming studios to take Mac OS seriously. Even if Apple buys one or two studios, the overall gaming scenario will still be the same with publishers targeting only consoles and Windows PC.

kevinbhayes says:

Traditionally Apple has had buggy or underperforming OpenGL drivers for their systems, which caused "hardcore gamers" to go to Windows. Those problems can be easily fixed. Creating a studio will fix the perception problem. Publishers target what they think can give them a return on investment. If the Mac becomes a good gaming platform, more gamers will use Macs, and more publishers will target them.

Scot Seese says:

Poorly optimized OpenGL drivers have absolutely nothing to do with the appalling state of "Apple Gaming."

- OSX's paltry market share vs. commoditized PC boxes that command 85-90% of the desktop space

- Apple refuses to put respectable graphics hardware in all but their most expensive $2500-3500 iMacs or MacBook Pros, in a world where $100-200 buys a ridiculously powerful discreet video card off the web, vs the weaker laptop video parts used in iMacs or MBP

- Users can upgrade or build their own windows gaming machine at home for $800-1500 that will ROFLSTOMP a $3000 iMac in gaming benchmarks. Said computer does pretty much everything else they need it to do, as well.

- Apple Store: $2600, 15" Retina MacBook Pro comes with 18 month old Nvidia 650M with 1 gig of memory. Lenovo: Lenovo Y510P with quad core i7 Haswell, Dual SLI Nvidia 750M with 4 gigs of combine video memory - $1299.

Apple=BMW M5. Polished. Refined. Complete. Pride of ownership. Brand recognition. And you will absolutely get smoked at the light by some redneck driving a 1991 Corvette he bought off AutoTrader for five grand and dropped a turbocharger kit into. His plastic dash squeaks going down the road. There is a slow drip of oil on his garage floor, and he can never figure out where it's coming from. People look at the car, and know he paid $5k for it. They also know it's faster, but somehow they don't care.

He cares. Apple people don't care. You shouldn't care, or you will always be disappointed. Cupertino doesn't care about your silly games, and show no inclination of ever caring.

You don't WANT Apple computers to become serious gaming machines, because your precious resale value will evaporate. Absolutely nothing obsoletes computer hardware faster than the blistering pace of game engine improvement. If you want to constantly run the latest game engines 1920x1080 @60+ FPS with all video details on "High" or "Ultra", be prepared to sign on for an 18 month upgrade cycle. One of many reasons Macs retain resale value so well is that.. here come the flames - most users aren't doing anything demanding with them. iTunes, Facebook & Safari do not require dual SLI'd video cards, an unlocked, overclocked CPU and user-tweakable motherboard settings. iTunes, Facebook and Safari will run just fine on a 6 year old MacBook.

Gaming upgrades are already expensive enough as it is in the PC world - do you really want your beautifully crafted aluminum bodied masterpiece to become disposable on a 12-18 month treadmill because it can't run "Grand Theft Auto V" on anything but the lowest video settings? Do Apple users really want to become those people who walk around spouting things like "anisotropic filtering"?

- type on on fully loaded mid 2012 rMPB. That games more poorly than a $1400 Dell. Sigh.

--EDIT--

There is a new gaming upgrade available for Apple users - it's called "PlayStation 4 Pre-Order." Glass-smooth 1080p graphics with 5.1 surround sound. Could be popular.

Etios says:

+1000, though the BMW M5 comparo is not valid as Apple uses same/weaker parts from the same CPU,GPU companies who supply the much more powerful hardware to the windows PC.

James Melzer says:

I agree wholeheartedly with your main conclusion: Macs have awful game graphics performance, five years behind the cutting edge on PCs. I'd beg to differ on your premise that people don't push their Macs in the traditional processor+RAM applications, where Macs perform well and more or less keep up with PCs.

Scot Seese says:

I would argue that, were you to compare CPU utilization history on computers owned by 1,000 Windows users vs. 1,000 Mac users, the Windows user CPU utilization chart would absolutely crush the Mac chart. Largely because the windows users are gaming more heavily, more often on theirs, and absolutely nothing short of broadcast grade video editing, mathematical earthquake modeling or some other absurd 1% use-case scenario will ever come as close to pegging your quad core CPU at 100% hour after hour than running "Battlefield 3."

For every Alex Lindsay caliber Mac user there are 999 Windows users with a smorgasbord of AAA-quality current gen games installed.

Hell, for what it's worth, Alex Lindsay himself has been agitating on "MacBreak Weekly" for building Hackintosh boxes, largely due to his frustration over the incredible neglect shown by Apple over the huge delay refreshing the Mac Pro, and the giant array of inexpensive commoditized parts available to the DIY hackers.

vladz says:

Excellent post, great points all around :)

Aaron Fothergill says:

Gamers use iPhones, iPods and iPads to play casual games. They use Gameboys, Xboxes and Playstations to play console games. A small percentage use insane gaming PCs compared to the mass of casual or console gamers.
Even Microsoft's internal games studios primarily focus on console gaming and Apple having an internal studio to boost games development for Mac OS X and iOS could only be a good thing.

Justin Hebert says:

I think Apple could do great things in gaming, but I doubt that they will. Every time an Apple rep talks about gaming, they treat it like a "timewaster" rather than something more legitimate. Also, serious gamers as a demographic are not very attractive. We're often entitled and unpredictable compared to other tech groups. I'm not sure Apple would be ready to put up with the crisis that arises from every new pricing model, drm, or delivery system.

cardfan says:

I wouldn't mind seeing Apple buy Nintendo combined with what Peter is talking about.

techconc says:

Yeah, I've had this dream for years as well. I think we all agree this would be great. Both from a tool development perspective and from an original content perspective. Sadly, I don't think leadership at Apple either gets or cares much about the gaming market. I think they look at the cost of a gaming studio from a "bottom line" perspective and realize that it would be cost prohibitive or at least not very profitable to undertake such a direction. There was a time I could excuse this short sighted view due to a lack of overall funding and resources at Apple. Clearly, that's no longer an issue.

Shox427 says:

The iTunes Store, App Store, and Mac App Store needs to be a bigger piece of the Apple profit pie before they would consider getting into the content creation business. Apple makes the template/backbone apps instead of specific content (iBooks and not a ebook, Game Center and not a game, iTunes and not an album). They build the container app for a broad range of content and don't associate themselves with a specific piece of content. When you think Apple you don't think Angry Birds, you think App Store and the broad range of content in the App Store container to fit different peoples needs.

Sent from the iMore App

Peter Cohen says:

"The iTunes Store, App Store, and Mac App Store needs to be a bigger piece of the Apple profit pie"

And they're well on their way. Apple's "services" growth has been outstanding in recent quarters.

Scatabrain says:

First, the assumption that Apple would do a better job is just complete conjecture. But no matter. That's not the core of the problem with Apple making games themselves.

The only benefit would be that Apple would enhance their cloud services for game and app devs since they would have to explore it for themselves and actually make their cloud services work properly. But I still wouldn't use these services to develop games as they would be iOS only. Same goes for Apple deciding which graphic libraries are appropriate and which are not. If they made their own games, they would surely become further opinionated on which technologies to support and which to not allow.

The smart trend is to build games cross platform (Unity, AIR Mobile and many other great options). Game users want to play their friends on any platform and not leveraging cross platform just doesn't make any financial sense.

I completely disagree with the also ran comment. Mobile vs. Console (or PC) is entirely irrelevant. The fact is Mobile is kicking the others' arses by delivering in it's own category - great mobile games!

The biggest problem is app discovery. This is Apple's responsibility. They need to focus on that and not get side tracked in a side show.

The fact that Apple needs outside quality apps and games to participate and thrive is a good thing. Anything that weakens that partnership is a bad thing.

Scatabrain says:

So some of my critique applies to mobile only and not specifically for the Mac. Looking back that's not totally fair to the intent of the article which focuses on Mac. On Mac games: Apple needs to (don't get offended everyone) put better graphics hardware in their computers. The 30% cut in the Apple app store, discovery problems and sandboxing are also factors. Apple making their own games ignore all of these problems - as it does for mobile.

Peter Cohen says:

The days of spec jockeying are rapidly receding. Witness the popularity of MacBook Airs, and their relative performance paucity - 1.3 GHz processors. But much more efficient processors with better on board graphics performance.

I don't really care what Apple is using inside the Mac, as long as the performance is there - and that's a matter of thorough optimization as much as it is hardware spec.

Etios says:

How can you be such a blind fanboy? Gaming on Macbook's weak processors and Graphics(both integrated and discrete) is laughable, you should really avoid giving opinions on topics which you have zero idea and interest.

techconc says:

Scatabrain wrote:
"The only benefit would be that Apple would enhance their cloud services for game and app devs since they would have to explore it for themselves and actually make their cloud services work properly."

No, that's not the only benefit at all. Getting original gaming content that is exclusive to the Mac is absolutely key to expanding marketshare in the consumer space.

As for cross platform gaming engines, imagine if they weren't just ported to the Mac, but actually optimized for the Mac.

I think we all realize that doing a Mac exclusive gaming studio wouldn't add much to Apple's bottom line directly. However, indirectly, it would likely help drive additional sales and it would help with Apple's image of being a premium brand. For gaming and pretty much only gaming, the Mac is pretty much an also-ran platform. To think of it another way. I happen to play games on my Mac, but I don't buy a Mac to play games. People buy PCs to play games. A successful gaming studio like Bungie was enough to give XBOX credibility and a devoted fan base. Apple / Steve Jobs absolutely blew this opportunity. What's frustrating is just how much Apple could do with just a small fraction of the boatloads of cash they make each quarter.

Nick Alex says:

I may be mistaken but Bungie used to have Mac first releases and sometimems additional features on the Mac platform. When MS bought them, I think they really hurt Mac gaming.

Shox427 says:

Market share and profitability hurt Mac gaming. What Mac gaming needs can only be summed up with a quote from the great Steve Ballmer: "DEVELOPERS! DEVELOPERS! DEVELOPERS! DEVELOPERS! DEVELOPERS!"

Sent from the iMore App

Peter Cohen says:

It was a psychological trauma for Mac gamers of the day, but the fact is that Bungie had long been extending its reach beyond just Mac games; the Myth games were released for Mac and Windows, for example.

Apple had a chance to buy Bungie and it didn't. If Microsoft hadn't bought Bungie when it did, Halo would likely never have been released.

JohnDavid_1 says:

This is something that Apple should have done a long time ago, so I am naturally pro this idea. Getting games out to Mac users faster will benefit both developers and gamers. I hope to see something like this done in the near future.

Carioca32 says:

As a gamer I completely disagree with the idea. It is certainly good for Apple, but not so good for users, who will be tied to Apple's second rate gaming hardware in order to play its games.

As it is today, with the exception of first party development, economics dictate where games will appear, be it Android, iOS, Windows, Mac etc. and that benefits users and studios. Users can choose which platforms best suit their pockets and needs, and studios can develop for whichever turns a profit.

First party development benefits only the hardware maker. Furthermore I don't think any of the games developed by first parties are the best in its class, they are effectively customer traps and should not be encouraged.

Peter Cohen says:

"who will be tied to Apple's second rate gaming hardware in order to play its games."

Your "second rate" swipe aside, this is exactly the model Nintendo uses. I see no reason why Apple shouldn't do the same.

Etios says:

Leave the Air, Even Macbook pro uses second rate hardware (specially graphics card), so it is a valid complaint.

Want to game? Assemble an awesome gaming desktop at just half the price of MBP. For laptops get an Alienware or Asus ROG or Clevo or MSI laptop.

Read this Anandtech article and get some knowledge and perspective:

http://www.anandtech.com/show/7242/choosing-a-gaming-laptop-backtoschool...

Ale Soto says:

I don't think Apple should commit todevelop games. That is a completely different business architecture altogether and requires people Apple don't have.
I believe, nevertheless, that Apple can and maybe they should too, build a 3D game engine with the performance and features that truly and deeply engage with their processors' designs.
They have some approach already on the way with iOS7, but breakthrough games need more than that. But the engine, Apple can provide a true awesome experience to developers

richard451 says:

I'm not sure why Apple would invest any money in the Mac. It's a post PC world and Apple is leading the way towards making that happen.

As you mention, the Mac gaming situation still sucks as the majority of new games are staggered behind the Windows counterparts. When they do finally come out, they are usually double the price of the Windows version (a nice way to thank those who waited). Mac game development is still stuck in the OS9 days and thankfully iOS left those clowns behind.

Peter Cohen says:

"I'm not sure why Apple would invest any money in the Mac"

The billions of dollars in net revenue generated by Mac hardware sales might have something to do with it.

"It's a post PC world"

That doesn't mean that PCs are going to disappear entirely, just that the locus of development and consumer interest has shifted.

richard451 says:

Put it this way; you have 100m to invest. Do you put it on a dying product that generates 1/6 the revenue of a growing product? Where is Apple better off spending that money ?

I can sympathise, but the Mac is not where Apple is heading.

Perhaps there is a middle ground; instead of buying content, perhaps Apple should some industry evangelists to get the publishers to release content for the Mac at the same time as Windows (highlight the $$ success of companies like Valve and Blizzard). Show that while the Mac market is only < 4% of hardcore gamers, it can still generate a fair bit revenue to turn a profit without going the lazy route of exporting development to some janky firm. Maybe highlight a Mac game/developer at a WWDC or some other co-marketing of such games.

Peter Cohen says:

The Mac is safe as long as a) Apple makes decent profit on it and b) it's necessary for the development of iOS applications. Both are thus for the forseeable future, so I'm not worried Apple's going to pull the plug on Macs any time soon.

SPHart says:

I don't think Apple could do great things in gaming, they just endeavor to improve the of iPhone, iPad, iPod etc...