Apple’s Accidental Game Strategy

When Apple released the Macintosh its primary focus was on competing with the IBM PC as a “serious” computer. The Apple II was widely seen as being a “games machine”. It shipped with game paddles, and pretty much every classic computer game started out as an Apple II game. Ultima I-IV, Wizardry, Sierra’s first titles, EA’s first titles, Broderbund’s first titles… all started life on the Apple II.

Macs are not games machines, dammit

For computer games enthusiasts, the Mac was extremely frustrating. It had excellent graphics, but its CPU really wasn’t up to updating all those pixels really fast. And on top of that there were no decent native development tools for the first couple of years. Worst of all, Apple refused to provide standardized game controller specifications or even to allow games to go full screen without using evil hacks.

Apple’s anti-game bias was probably a result of Steve Jobs’s desire to have Macs taken seriously by business, but after he was forced out, this policy was continued mindlessly for over a decade. It’s highly unlikely that Jobs would have persisted with such a self-destructive policy had he remained in charge of Apple. (There are persistent rumors that Jobs hates games. Maybe so… even though he and Woz created games together. But he’s enough of a businessman not to piss in the hand that feeds him.)

But if we pretend really hard…

Since about 1993, Apple has periodically tried to recapture its lost opportunity in games, notably by employing games “evangelists” who tried to convince developers that Apple was serious about games and convince Apple to be serious about games, the introduction of “Game Sprockets” (libraries of code to make life easier for game developers, something Microsoft arguably imitated with DirectX, and which Apple spectacularly failed to follow through on, eventually abandoning the whole concept in the switchover to MacOS X), the ill-fated and underpowered Pippin games console, and, more recently, the highlighting of games in Mac marketing events and literature (starting with Steve Jobs bringing the Bungie folks on stage to show off early alpha code of HALO, shortly before they were bought by Microsoft and HALO was turned into a flagship launch title for the X-Box).

Accidental Victory

I don’t know if it’s an accident or not, but the iPhone turns out to be a very nice piece of game hardware with a very odd game control interface. Fortunately for Apple, the Nintendo Wii and DS have whetted people’s appetites for games which use weird control interfaces. As for the raw specifications, compared to the Sony PSP, it has more memory, a far better CPU, and a somewhat inferior GPU. Compared to the Nintendo DS it is grotesquely superior in every way except battery life. Unlike the original Mac, it can push pixels as fast as needed for games, and it has excellent developer tools that Apple gives away to anyone interested. Anyone complaining about the iPhone being a closed platform should try to get a PSP or DS dev kit.

So, suddenly, Apple has a game platform that is dominant in its obvious category (smart phones) and a serious contender in its less obvious category (handheld games consoles). Certainly in terms of available titles, the iPhone has more games available for it now than the PSP, DS, and all earlier Gameboys combined. Most iPhone games suck ass, but guess what, so do most PSP, DS, and Gameboy titles, and they’re way cheaper. What’s more, Apple can sell a $5 or $10 title direct to a consumer, collect 30% and pass on 70% — no middlemen involved. The developer of a $10 iPhone game probably gets more money per sale than the developer of a $29 DS title. (Last I heard, the developer of a AAA $40 PC game title nets about $14 per game sold at full price, but consoles take more money off the top, especially titles that ship on cartridges.)

This is all pretty cool, but there’s more: 


  • There’s no reason why iPhone games can’t run with a simple recompile on a Mac. Possibly without a recompile (via CPU emulation). iPhones are, after all, Macs running on an ARM CPU. We should start to see games developed for both platforms simply because it’s easy to do.
  • There’s no reason why iPhone games can’t run with a simple recompile on an AppleTV. AppleTV’s are, after all, Macs. It follows that Apple could reposition the AppleTV as a games platform with a system update.
  • The Unity game development system is going to be able to target iPhones as of this month. (It’s currently in beta.) The development process isn’t quite seamless with Windows/Web/Mac/Wii development, but there’s no reason not to expect to be able to target Windows/Web/Mac/Wii/iPhone from a single codebase in Unity within six months.


So, Apple could be in the process of becoming a serious contender in the game platform wars almost accidentally as a result of its success with the iPhone. And Apple has done this without flushing a ton of money down the toilet the way Microsoft has with both the XBox and XBox 360. And, unlike Sony, it doesn’t need to offset hardware losses with software profits — it made money from the iPhone from day one.