Over 4 million Mac gamers - but who's playing "real" games?

Macs still make up a tiny percentage of Steam's customers —less than 3.5 percent, in fact — but it's heartening to talk about Mac gamers in the millions. Still, numbers don't tell the whole story.

A quick look around Steam's OS X section or the Mac App Store reveals a sad truth: A lot of the games that get published on these services are tired retreads — ports, essentially — of games that were originally developed for mobile platforms. I wonder how many of those 4 million Mac gamers are playing crap that was never designed for their platform to begin with?

This isn't unique to Steam, either. I frequently have this problem when I'm cruising the Mac App Store looking for new stuff to play. I'll find something that looks a bit interesting, will click through or do more research on it only to find out it's been on Android or iOS for months.

It's an existential crisis for self-identified computer gamers

Mac gamers have long played second fiddle to PC gamers, but now they're playing second (or maybe third) fiddle to mobile gamers, as well.

It's an existential crisis for self-identified computer gamers, but a few different phenomena have converged to make it happen. First, mobile games are incredibly popular. There are hundreds of millions of people who play games on mobile devices, so it's a huge potential market. The mobile market has been quick to embrace alternative payment methods like free to play/pay to win models, which

What's more, the tools used to develop games make it easier for developers to create one product that can be published on multiple platforms. It's not just Xcode's portability between iOS and OS X, either. Unity is a popular game development tool that has been used in thousands of apps and games, including lots and lots of mobile games. But Unity is not just for mobile games: Look at Cities: Skylines, the popular city building game that some say is better than EA/Maxis' SimCity reboot (and works great on the Mac).

Tools like that are making it easier for developers to cast a wide net without having to invest lots of money and assume the risk of supporting unfamiliar platforms. Mac users are benefitting from that most directly.

What difference does it make if the game I'm playing started life on the iPad, as long as it's fun?

For a fair number of those four million gamers, the difference between a "mobile" game and a "computer" game may be increasingly irrelevant. We're looking to spend a few minutes with a diversion on our computer in between meetings and other work, or perhaps in front of the TV relaxing after supper. What difference does it make if the game I'm playing started life on the iPad, as long as it's fun?

In fairness, it really shouldn't. But my concern is that right now, differentiating first-run Mac games and game ports from mobile conversions requires a bit of detective work. Sometimes it's pretty obvious: If a game is free to play and has some sort of in-app purchase mechanism, I assume it's a mobile port (and I'm usually right). If the screenshots or video show a touchscreen, that's a dead giveaway that the Mac really wasn't targeted as a primary platform.

But it shouldn't be that difficult. And I'm saying this as someone who trolls the stores as part of his job; I can't imagine the casual gamer is going to invest a lot more time or effort in doing so, and as far as I'm concerned, people spending money on software deserve to know what they're getting.

I just wish that the Mac App Store, Steam, Macgamestore.com and other places where Mac games are sold made it easier to differentiate unique Mac games and first-run Mac game ports from the increasingly undifferentiated horde of mobile games that have come to the computer as well.

Caveat emptor, as the expression goes: Let the buyer beware. And ultimately it's on the consumers to educate themselves. But let's not make buying the games any more of a user-hostile experience than it has to be.

Peter Cohen