Will Valve revitalize Mac gaming with Steam for OS X?

Valve is in the midst of a media blitz at the moment — not that you’d notice, since their idea of a media blitz is secretly launching a complex alternate reality game, or emailing single novelty screenshots to six different media outlets. You could be forgiven for expecting a full-site skin for 1UP, or a week-long series of “developer diaries” on IGN — that’s what every other game company out there thinks makes games sell. At any rate, GDC is coming up and the expected announcements are Steam on OS X (definite) and possibly a peek at Portal 2, Half-Life: Episode 3, or both (speculative).

Of course, the idea of Steam on the Mac causes a delicate froth to appear on the lips of several kinds of fanboys — but while an excellent game-distribution client like Steam would be welcome on the Mac, it may not be the gaming renaissance people are hoping for. It’s worth taking a bit of time to look at, since gaming is increasingly a major source of revenue and a wedge to increase market share. Let’s take a look at what Steam is up against.

Digital distribution on Mac is standard

Unlike the majority of games and programs for Windows, Mac apps are frequently distributed whole, with a nag screen and 30-day limit or the like — shareware, essentially. This has been the standard for as long as I can remember; one example I’m sure many readers recall fondly is Escape Velocity, the demo for which was practically the whole game, except that once you passed the 30-day trial period, a rogue fighter ship piloted by one “Cap’n Hector” would harass you and steal your credits (the scoundrel). A more modern equivalent would be the ability to download, say, the Aperture 3 trial and instantly convert it to the full version by entering a license key. Add in the faultless update system in OS X (compare with XP’s monstrous Windows Update), and it’s clear that Mac users have less to gain, and more to expect, from a digital distribution platform on their OS. They take Steam’s biggest selling point for granted to begin with.

That can, of course, go both ways. One could argue that Steam is a natural fit for OS X, since digital distribution and automatic updates are so very Mac-ish, but users will also tend to reject non-Apple programs that perform Apple-like duties. “Apple does it better,” they’ll say, and they’re probably right, since Apple made the OS. On that note:

Steam doesn’t really fit in well with OS X

This may sound like a superficial complaint, but no one has yet successfully overestimated the superficiality of Mac users. On Windows, I’m resigned to the constant interface changes: applications with hard-coded Vista-style buttons, flash-like interfaces, or ugly (but functional) open-source programs that look like they just stepped out of Windows 95. Steam is far from ugly, but it is a custom UI, with different spacing for buttons, and an embedded browser that until recently was IE-based, and a number of other issues. Sure, it works, and it doesn’t look bad, but can you think of how out-of-place it might look on a Mac? GUI consistency is not just pretty, it’s functional. And that consistency has always been one of OS X’s strengths (notwithstanding the occasional overlap, like Marble in Aperture and whatever-it’s-called in iTunes).

It’s an objection which could be overcome by Valve, but they’ve invested in the Steam look (it’s deliberately and irreversibly associated with Valve’s branding) and haven’t made too many concessions to Windows. So while they’re capable of making it look right, I don’t know that they have any inclination to do so. And that’s something which will rankle the design-conscious masses of Mac users.

If a gamer on the Mac (ahem) really wanted to do it right, anyway, there are tools in place. I wrote about the launch of GamersGate’s Mac store, which I’ve used and found perfectly convenient. Its web-based interface means no commitment, but also no sweet features. Still, it’s something to add into the discussion stew we’re brewing here. I asked their opinion on Steam for OS X; their CEO said they were “glad that more people are entering the space and our hope is that more publishers will follow suit by releasing more titles that are Mac compatible.” You and me both, guy.

Really now: there aren’t many games for the Mac

I suspect there will be some resistance to this point, but it’s kind of a throwaway since the next one is more important anyway. But let’s be honest here. There aren’t a hell of a lot of good games on OS X. At best you get big titles a year or two late, if you get them at all. 9 out of 10 games on the Mac are colorful casual games, point-and-click adventures, and the occasional inexplicably cross-platform indie game. I’m not saying there aren’t any good games coming out, but lord, they ain’t coming down like autumn leaves, that’s for damn sure. Here’s a list of Steam games with a native Mac port. Not pretty, and as commenter Scott notes, there’s no guarantee any of these games will launch with Steam OS X, though we can hope.

And we’re okay with that. Apple hasn’t recovered as a gaming platform since the Great Halo Betrayal of 2000, and as some great rhetorician said, “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me – you can’t get fooled again.” How true. But maybe Steam would bring a new enthusiasm to the Mac gaming community, right? Don’t be so sure. Valve has reported that it has approached Apple many times but seen no real accommodation on their side. It takes two, you know. And when your partner is busy eying that sexy tablet form factor across the room… you might find:

OS X is no longer the platform Apple cares about for gaming

If Apple has dropped the ball on PC-like gaming (FPSes and all that), it’s led the game in the casual/mobile sector. Although I wrote some time ago that Nintendo has little to fear from Apple in that area, I by no means meant to suggest that Apple was anything but a success in the mobile games world. My argument was, in fact, that games were far more successful than Apple could have guessed, and that was why they were only now starting to push them. But Apple is smart enough to pick its battles, and it needs to get into the desktop gaming business right now like it needs to get into the llama farming business.

It doesn’t take a lot of faith to see that the iPad and next iPhone are going to have gaming as one of their primary foci (focuses?). What better use for the perfectly capable 3D graphics chip they’ve got in there? Recent investigation shows more similarity between the iPad and iPhone 3GS than previously supposed, so it’s likely that there will be a significant overlap in releases. Hardware and code base homogeneity is a huge advantage for games developers, and I’m guessing you’ll see a nice blossoming of seriously cool games once the iPad hits and a value proposition is settled on.

Where does that leave OS X? Out in the cold, obviously. Sure, Apple wants people to buy games for it, that’s money in their pocket. But there’s a lot more money to be made in iPhone and iPad gaming because they can leverage the App Store, against which Steam is powerless. Now, if Steam were to run on the iPhone too, that’d be insane, but I guarantee Apple would rather eat glass than have a powerful alternative to the App Store catering to a market they’re just starting to exploit.

Even with all that I’ve said here, I’m still excited. The announcement, expected to be next Thursday (Valve’s Gabe Newell is scheduled to speak), could be a lot more or a lot less than what we expect. The Orange Box for Mac? Don’t get your hopes up. But when Valve does something like this (especially with such a crazy run-up as they’re doing), you can bet they don’t do things by halves. There’s more care taken in this teaser image (via RPS; the rest are at MacRumors) We’ll report the goings-on as soon as they occur, so point your browsers this way next week for that and all the rest of our GDC coverage.

Update: Added Caruso comic (not my joke)