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