Why the Mac App Store is the best and worst thing ever to happen to Mac gaming

The Mac App Store arrived just in time to save Mac gaming, but it's unfairly restricted Mac game publishers and Mac gamers alike.

As I've written before, the Mac has long had a troubled history with game development. But the introduction of the Mac App Store in 2010 came just in time to save the business. It's the best thing that's happened to Mac gaming. It's also the worst. Let me explain.

In 2009, things were getting dire for Mac game publishers. Apple retail stores were one of the very few places that Mac owners could find games, and shelf space was rapidly shrinking in favor of higher-volume products like iPhone cases and accessories.

Some publishers were experimenting with online distribution, but with a few exceptions they weren't there yet. What's more, getting consumers to buy software from a web site they're unfamiliar with can be difficult, especially as online customers gain awareness about issues like identity theft — there's simply a trust issue.

Just in time to save the business, but at what cost?

So Mac game sales were going nowhere fast.

In March of 2010, Steam opened its doors to OS X for the first time and before too long major commercial games and indie games alike were being released through it — including many original games that hadn't been seen on the Mac elsewhere.

Later that year Apple opened the Mac App Store, a Mac version of their enormously popular and successful App Store for iOS products. The Mac App Store provided all OS X app developers with another way to digitally distribute their software, one that had an instant customer base of hundreds of millions of customers, thanks to its use of the Apple ID.

The Mac App Store has been a fixture of the Macintosh ever since — it's one of the default icons on the Dock of every Mac screen, tied into credentials that in the vast majority of cases, they've already created for their iPod touch, iPhone or iPad.

The problem is that the Mac App Store lives in its own little bubble. And when it comes to games — in particular, games that have a multiplayer component — that's not good.

Apple places restrictions on the apps sold through Mac App Store, and one of them is that you have to use Game Center.

Now, Game Center provides a framework for matching multiplayer games, and also gives players the opportunity to compare skills and unlock achievements. Similar systems exist elsewhere. But Apple requires developers to use Game Center to the exclusion of any other game matching system. So a game sold via the Mac App Store can't communicate for multiplayer games with a game that's sold on Steam, for example.

A mac gaming ghetto

This relegates Mac App Store customers to only playing with other Mac App Store customers, even if the game's original code was designed to support other systems. And with fewer Mac gamers than PC gamers out there, that means fewer opponents and less availability for online games.

In some cases, the Mac App Store version of a game will have its multiplayer component torn right out all together. Case in point: Feral Interactive's recently-released Mac port of Tomb Raider.

This also prevents some really big game launches from ever coming to the Mac App Store. EA and Maxis's Mac version of SimCity, for example, heavily depends on its connection with EA-hosted servers in order to work. An offline mode is coming, but the game still relies on that server connection for multiplayer capabilities, which is verboten to Apple.

Better alternatives elsewhere

Games sold outside the Mac App Store, even those not purchased directly Steam, can still use Steam's multiplayer gaming framework, making it possible to play with Mac, PC and sometimes even Linux players who have the same games as you.

Valve's focused on making Mac games part of their Steam Play program, which means that you makes your game synchronize its save files in the cloud. It also means that when you buy a game, you most frequently get the PC version too — so you can not only play your game from anywhere, but you can do so on any machine.

There's another advantage to buying games through Steam, too — there are frequent, well-advertised sales. And thanks to Steam Play, it's usually both the Mac and the PC version that goes on sale at the same time — so you can take advantage of deep discounts, like The Bureau: XCOM Declassified's Mac Steam launch last weekend.

In short, buying games from the Mac App Store means only playing online with other Mac users. It relegates you to a ghetto of other Mac gamers unfortunate enough to have purchased the game through the Mac App Store as well. And it often means you pay more for the same game than you would have paid elsewhere. Last, it keeps some games from ever appearing in front of the millions of prospective customers that have the Mac App Store installed on their computers.

The Mac App Store arrived at a time that Mac game publishers desperately needed a lifeline. It provides a safe and trusted way for Mac users, especially new ones, to get third-party software for their computers. But it also enforces a status quo that unfairly penalizes developers and customers alike, and it creates an ugly dependency. It's an example of where Apple's "walled garden" approach fails.

I understand that Apple wants to protect its customers, but by setting up Mac App Store restrictions the way they have, they've hamstrung customers and developers alike. It's not fair or equitable, and I think it should change.

What do you think? Have you bought games through the Mac App Store? Did you know you'd be restricted for online gaming, or is it unimportant to you? Let me know what you think in the comments.

Peter Cohen
  • People who want to game, in my opinion, shouldn't consider a Mac, and get a PC instead (or a console). Not that Macs are bad, they have many advantages over PCs (and vice versa).
  • People who self-identify as gamers don't buy Macs to play games on. But that doesn't diminish the fact that many of us own Macs and want to play games on them.
  • Yes, of course. I meant gamers shouldn't buy a Mac. But yes, when I owned a Mac, I wish that I had a larger game selection and better choices from those games, like better multiplayer.
  • If you must play games on a Mac, then use Steam. Realistically though, gamers are far, far better served by consoles.
  • Console games also suffer the cross platform war; you can't multiplayer between the same game on XBox and PS3 or 4. Would be great if all those markets opened up to a standard for multiplayer.
  • I've tried gaming on my Mac..not the best. Availability and efficiency were issues. Love my Mac but my Windows rig handles that. Posted via the Android iMore App!
  • If you wanna play games, use bootcamp.... Install Windows... And then play games on amazing hardware with PC software... And here you go, GAMES on your Mac! And for everything else use OS X! :-)
  • All of you who are saying "use Boot Camp/buy a PC/get a console" are missing the point - games are already a huge part of the Mac App Store. The fact that multiplayer games can't work cross platform or even with other Mac-compatible game matching services is the problem here, not the Mac's relative strength (or weakness) as a game platform.
  • I understand that Apple's "thing" is to reinvent an established product in such a way that consumers feel Apple is filling that void in their lives, however the gaming industry is so well established that Apple insults developers by trying to impose their own "protective" restrictions that ultimately hurt gamers & developers. That's like building a baseball stadium but forcing teams to use official Apple-certified gear instead of industry established gear that has been trusted & depended upon for decades.
    When it comes to gaming on the Mac App Store - Apple needs to try harder at working WITH the gaming industry instead of trying to show the gaming industry a "better" way to do gaming. Sent from the iMore App
  • Agree wholeheartedly. I buy either physical media or through Steam - but I would switch to using the MAS if these restrictions were eliminated. Sent from the iMore App
  • The Mac App Store: Years old and it seems as though it's about as popular as it was before it existed... I really hope the statement gets a laugh out of someone.
  • Not sure about this, Cod4 can play with PC users. The main problem is the App Store games usually stay full price for years. Anyways, I buy all my Mac games through steam anyway since they usually are published on both. Sent from the iMore App
  • I'd argue that Steam was the best thing to ever happen to Mac gaming.
  • I am mostly a single player gamer, so the multiplayer issues don't really affect me. But at the same time, I want to experience the game the way the publisher intended. Games always seem like an afterthought for Apple. They make work stations, I get it, I'm an animator. However, one of the reasons I bought my iMac is 'cause I knew steam was coming in a few months. I could shut down Maya for the night, then go shoot some dudes in Team Fortress 2. I hope they have better support in the future. Apple only makes a move when they see money is being left on the table. Sent from the iMore App
  • Great read! Sent from the iMore App
  • Learned something new again about Macs & gaming. Thanks!
  • i think one of the main reasons that the mac app store hasn't taken off is that mac desktops/notebooks haven't gained enough market penetration as opposed to pc/xbox/playstation, for example just look at iOS and its market penetration, developers want to develop for iOS because the market for iOS - iPhones/ipads etc is huge! if they were to open up the mac app store to other devices like they did for example with iTunes on the pc then that would be good. And what difference does it make, really, just look at the success of iTunes on the pc!
  • How about they focus on integrating the Mac AppStore with the rest of the AppStore ecosystem? There shouldn't be a separate application for the Mac. If I can use iTunes to search for iOS apps and pretty much anything else, then why not add the Mac to that? Come on, Apple!!! Work with us here.
  • As a gamer, though mostly if not nearly exclusively a single player gamer, I really enjoy the Mac App Store. Sure games tend to be a tad more expensive than say on Steam if they have one of their blow out sales, but MAS sales do happen (and quite often). For me the buying experience, handling of updates and general stability of the MAS experience make it so much more appealing than Steam (which has to be the crashest, most resource wasting piece of software I have ever had to use). Apple could do a few things to move more units such as enabling bundling of several games and making redeeming games e.g. from Kickstarter's easier (essentially fixing the much maligned inability to gift between international iTunes accounts). I suspect those items will get fixed eventually and that game pricing on Apple's App Stores see similar aggressive moves to Steam. It is though not at the top of the list of problems to tackle, I suspect Apple are pretty happy with games selling at a premium and publishers can still hold their own sales if they so desire by lowering their asking price. As for the requirement to use the Game Center, I have no problem with that. It's essentially the same as tying yourself to Steam's system or any other similar option. With greater numbers of Mac users and a greater selection of games I think this problem will become smaller over time, especially as the same Game Center powers gaming on iOS and games those games are getting fairly powerful (e.g. XCOM on the iPad is stunning even on older hardware like my 3rd generation iPad). It might not be long till the collective number of gamers across Apple's platforms who can play with each other will be significantly larger than what Steam or any other platform allows developers access to. On the Mac we still have to contend with subpar OpenGL drivers for video but if one pays attention to the release notes for OS X seed builds Apple are asking people to heavily test improvements in this area and they are obviously investing heavily in making the situation better (their bet on OpenCL surely also plays a role, but improvements are at their best when serving multiple ends). It is also worth noting that Apple has been hiring serious video talent like possessed such as a dozen former ATI engineers[1] for a GPU project in Orlando which we haven't heard much about, even speculations. Odds are that they are doing to video what they did for their CPU's on iOS, but they could very likely also deploy on the Mac in the future. I also have a feeling this is something we will see the first results from in 2014. Likewise they have unveiled frameworks for building games with the latest round of OS updates. Combined with support for certified controllers designed for gaming in iOS it is hard to miss Apple's attention and investments being on gaming in a serious way. I think we will see some big movements in the foundation for Mac and iOS gaming in 2014. It feels like all the pieces are lining up nicely, so I am pretty happy being a Mac and iOS gamer. I have no doubt Apple will continue to improve and offer an excellent experience. [1] adding the link to this makes the comment system think I am a spammer.
  • I've had Macs for over 20 years (back in the System 6 days...lol) and gaming has never really been that great. Performance was okay with brand new hardware on resource-intensive games and then as the hardware aged (1-2+ years) and games continued to target new machines, the performance got worse. I still like Macs (and have a PC too), but moved on to consoles over 12 years ago and haven't looked back. (Sometimes I still wish I could play Pax Imperia, Civilizations II , or SW: Dark Forces though...lol) It seems like the hardware of consoles is better optimized for their respective games these days (maybe at least during the era of PS3/PS4 or Xbox 360/Xbox One).
  • Having experienced Mac gaming for over a similar period of time I would say the opposite. At time exasperating, maddening, lonely, nevertheless I would not swap any of those years for a PC or console. There is something quite special belonging to a community who helped each other through the hoops of Mac ports and shared experience. Despite the hurdles, there have always been games to play on my Macs, many great and popular titles for us to enjoy with some knowledge and persistence. We may not have had the highest FPS or quite the shiniest graphics but then again nor did the majority of PC gamers which tends to be forgotten in the red mist of cutting etc. gaming. I've fragged, hacked, drove, ridden my way through lots of titles with the best of them. It also depends to a greats degree exactly what type of games you play. For the last eight years of MMOs of a Mac I have been close to or at parity with our PC counterparts in 'World of Warcraft' thanks to a native Mac client (hats off to Blizzard); enjoyed the depths of space in 'EVE Online' (decent Cider port) And just finished off benchmarking from the recent 'Elder Scrolls Online' Beta test weekend with a very promising native Mac client which offered performance and graphics on par with the PC client via Bootcamp. All this on an iMac 27 inch at 2560 x 1440 and the late 2013 with the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780M 4GB is truly a stunning experience. Playing alongside PC gamers on the same servers really brings the 'M' to MMO with none of the added costs of yearly subscriptions for network play. The freedom of a keyboard and choice of thousands of add-ons (also in ESO) And when I want to play some of the RPG games not ported to the Mac, I just reboot in a matter of seconds (thanks Fusion Drive) to Windows 7 via Bootcamp, select my games from Steam (I get both Mac & PC mostly for same price as noted in the article) and off I go for a rerun of 'Skyrim' with the fabulous mods that make it such a diverse and yet more hundreds of hours of gaming fun. Same goes for Fallout etc. Once again with beautiful graphics and no stutters. I get why people chose consoles and it's great for us to have the choice. Each will appeal for different reasons. Macs are never designed as serious gaming machines principally because Apple has not provided the same attention to OpenGL support as Microsoft has to DX, or encouraged games developers with any real conviction and we lack the option to tinker around under the hood (generally) But, as with the majority of PC users, that doesn't mean that you can't grab you MacBookPro or even latest MacBook Air, or fire up that beautifully crafted iMac or Mac Pro and jump into a wide choice of games now. It doesn't have to be cutting edge to enjoy them. And you can also do so much more with them when you log off. More and more games are being brought to the Mac ('Marvel Heroes' closed beta, 'Drakensang Online', both announced yesterday for example) and the continual merging of the mobile > laptop > desktop game experience (iOS to OS X); Steam OS pushing OpenGL development, Xbox Live looking to cross-platforming etc. they are exciting times ahead. And now I'm looking to spend some great times in the exciting and immersive world of Tamriel thanks to Zenimax Online Studios who committed to the Mac platform early on in the design cycle. Bringing in an experienced Mac developer into that development team to craft the native Mac client four years ago, shows real commitment which is really refreshing and commendable. And the experience so far in beta has backed that up with more to come for launch and the future. Seeing that Elder Scrolls Online splash screen on the launch date announcement 'Coming 4.4.14 on PC & Mac' for a $200M AAA class MMO made me actually feel pride as a Mac gamer (where's the previews and enthusiasm from the Mac press BTW?) It's been a helper-skelter existence for sure the last 15 years or so of online Mac gaming. But with such heroes as Glenda Adams, Ryan C. Gordon, Chris Dillman et al; Sites like MacGaming, Inside Mac Games, MacRumors, Xlr8yourmac, MacCentral & Macworld, not forgetting one Peter Cohen; and a truly great Mac gaming community, I wouldn't swap it for the world.
  • There's an even worse problem with the Mac App Store concept: What happens when for whatever reason, the App Store breaks? I just had this happen as the result of an impending drive failure. My App Store simply failed to load, no matter what I did. I tried everything to get it back, right down to reinstalling Mavericks, but nothing worked. Every time I started the program, I just got an empty window. I spent months with no App Store and absolutely NO WAY to buy, download or update my applications. The only reason I have an App Store now is I started getting a -36 error code, letting me of an imminent drive failure. When I did a triple-pass reformat of my drive and a clean install of my OS, the App Store finally worked again. But I spent months without access to the App Store, and I'm not alone. As I searched for help online, I saw that lots of people had the same problem after updating their OS. I never found a solution. If I hadn't reformatted my drive, I'd still be without an App Store. Apple lost a lot of sales due to a non-functioning App Store. Tech support seemed helpless to even diagnose the problem, much less solve it. Meanwhile, I sat for months with money in my pocket, unble to buy anything. I really wish they'd just bundle the ability to buy Mac software into iTunes and call it a day. It actually works and I've never seen it have the catastrophic failure the App Store suffered. I love my Mac but the App Store totally sucks!
  • My problem with the steam environment is compatibility. I purchased egosoft X3 terran conflict through macgamestore. I came across a bug which I know had been fixed in the pc version some time ago. The support informed me that this game was no longer supported and I would have to contact egosoft.
    Steam is the only alternative for mac. Whilst the game functions perfectly well on my 2012 I7 mac mini. Steam is not supported, and they will not support the game on this mac. This is a steam problem not a game problem!!!