From a Bit Player to a Mobile Force, Apple's Gaming Legacy Under Steve Jobs

Popularly regarded as a distant runner-up to the Windows PC, Apple nonetheless played key and even dominant roles in shaping the history of video games over the past 35 years, emerging from an utterly marginalized brand in home computer gaming to a force almost unilaterally shaping the course of mobile gaming today.

The company's founder, Steve Jobs, died today. Prior to the first Macintosh in 1984, and until about 1986, Apple was a mainstream platform for purposes of games publishing. If you are older than 30, one of the most celebrated memories of gaming's early years, dying of dysentery on the Oregon Trail, likely occurred on an Apple II in a middle school media center. Then, after the early 1980s console gaming crash, publishers such as Parker Bros., Activision and Electronic Arts sought refuge in home computers, and regularly included versions for Apple's DOS-based computers alongside Commodore and IBM ports.

Apple's shift to the Macintosh, and what would become known as the Mac OS, took the platform well away from gaming's mainstream by the end of the 1980s. No longer operating within a disk operating system, Apple's familiar windows user interface made emulation and porting popular titles for the PC more difficult, and factors like low market share and even nonexistent peripheral support (joysticks for example), offered little encouragement.

Gaming on an Apple computer in the late 1980s was largely served by Compuserve shareware titles, though some disk-based games sold at retail, such as the puzzle-platformer Dark Tower and the interactive novel Portal (no relation to the Valve title by the same name) left strong impressions. Shareware such as Glider, Tablin, Gobbler and Catch the Buzz had cult status among what already was a cult of users and were, in retrospect, fitting forerunners for the bazaar of independent self-published games now offered on the iTunes App Store.

As the platform moved into System 7 in the early 1990s, full-color offerings, especially of shareware games and a few risk-taking PC ports, pointed to a platform ready to re-enter gaming's mainstream. The switch to IBM-made PowerPC processors in the mid-1990s supplied the rest of the encouragement. This brief renaissance saw the rise of Bungie Software, whose well regarded Marathon FPS series, and other titles such as the platformer Abuse, were Mac exclusives. Enthusiast press with a heavy gaming lean, such as MacAddict helped drive developer interest to the Macintosh constituency. LucasArts' outstanding graphical adventures, and its fondly remembered line of Star Wars games from Dark Forces to X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter all had Mac ports in this era. Microsoft for a short time even had a line of Mac offerings. There was a time when you could pop into a Babbage's or Electronics Boutique and actually see shelves of Mac products worth a $40 purchase.

But Apple was floundering. A strategy to license the manufacture of cloned machines had done wonders for expanding the platform's use, and its gaming constituency, but had been a disaster to Apple's bottom line. By 1997, Apple had fired CEO Gilbert Amelio and invited back its founder, Steve Jobs, to right the ship. The clone strategy was effectively terminated, and Jobs also summarily terminated many other unfocused endeavors that had wasted the company's resources and creativity.

Not gaming, though. At an appearance at Macworld in 1999, Jobs declared that the benign neglect of Mac gaming would come to an end with a title called Halo. A cheering throng saw the game demonstrated by Bungie founder Jason Jones in real time. Few doubted Bungie's commitment to deliver the game Jobs considered revolutionary, and promised to arrive the next year.

Yet that never came to pass. Bungie was purchased by Microsoft in 2000, and developed Halo into the multiplayer shooter that defined the Xbox, giving that platform every bit the creative sustenance that Jobs vowed would come to the Mac. Today, despite Steam's push in 2009 to support the MacOS, Apple's home computer remains a bit player.

In the early 2000s, Mac gamers gravitated toward consoles and turned their noses up to ports that often arrived a year or more after their PC release. Apple gaming, however, was laying the foundation for a strong rebound, just not in traditional PC offerings. The advent of the iPod, a device the size of a deck of cards that could carry all the music you owned, debuted to massive consumer demand, and foreshadowed much of what digital consumers take for granted today.

Jobs' Apple became almost an oracle of product design and development through several iterations of the iPod, culminating in the iPhone. iTunes, already the dominant seller of online music, opened an "App Store" to serve the smartphone and, of course, cement user loyalty to it. Independent games developers poured into this new territory like digital 49ers, lured by strike-it-rich stories of games developed over a month that returned six-figure revenues.

Apple today towers over mobile gaming, with the enormous reach of its iPhone and iPad lines of products. It is a platform upon which many operations are betting enormous sums, if not their entire futures, from two-man garage studios to enormous publishers—a spectrum of size and success that Apple itself traveled in the life of Steve Jobs.

(Image by Adam Lee Rose | Used with Permission)

You can contact Owen Good, the author of this post, at owen@kotaku.com. You can also find him on Twitter, Facebook, and lurking around our #tips page.