Apple makes billions of dollars from games every year, and starting tomorrow, it might introduce a device that could help it make a few billion more. But that will come despite the company’s historical ambivalence toward the hobby.
Tomorrow, Apple holds one of its semiregular events to announce new products, and we’re expecting to get the details about a gaming-centric Apple TV microconsole. The machine will likely come with the latest iPhone processor, a motion-sensing remote, and support for Bluetooth controllers. We’ve already talked about what we know about the upcoming device and the games we’d like to play on it, but now let’s take a quick look back at why it’s strange to see Apple embracing games so deeply for one of its premier products.
Mac vs. PC
When I was a kid, my mom bought us a computer from one of her friends. It was an Apple IIe, and it came with a stack of games on those giant 5.5-inch floppy disks.
This was a golden time for Apple and gaming. It kickstarted classic franchises like Ultima, Prince of Persia, and Castle Wolfenstein. Hell, Nintendo’s Donkey Kong even made it onto the Apple II. Eventually, hundreds of games came out for the Apple II, and just about anyone who owned one was bound to have a stack of their favorites.
But by 1984, Apple moved on to the Macintosh computer and away from games. And this forced the community of developers that had previously supported Apple to move onto to PC
The big reason Mac wasn’t great for games in those days was because it didn’t come with a built-in programming language. That made it difficult for the kinds of people who were making games at the time. Developers were primarily hobbyists who made games by themselves, and the PC’s toolset was far more welcoming. The Mac’s hardware was also limited in terms of RAM and speed, and it would’ve had performance issues many games.
At the same time, Apple wasn’t exactly worried about providing support to game makers. The company didn’t want people thinking of the Macintosh as a toy, and it instead positioned it as a productivity device for professionals. That’s a position the company maintained for the most part over the next 30 years.
But the Mac still had games. The 1990s gave rise to Myst, which was one of the best-selling releases ever. And Destiny developer Bungie started out making Mac-first shooters like Marathon in 1994.
And it was always understood by anyone who paid attention to Apple or its founder, Steve Jobs, that gaming wasn’t important. Here is Jobs in 1990 talking in the past tense about the “video game phenomenon.” He explains that the hobby is trivial until you try to use the medium as a learning environment for something important, like a “sophisticated macro-economic model of how France might have functioned in the time of Louis the XIV.”
Apple did almost nothing to encourage the growth of gaming even in a direction where it could simulate complex economies — which is something we did eventually get in the form of games like Crusader Kings II.
The only exception to all of this was the Apple Pippin.
The Pippin is a Mac-based multimedia console that debuted in 1995. A Job-less Apple designed the Pippin with games in mind and then licensed the technology to partners like the Japanese toy company Bandai.
But Apple did nothing to market Pippin. It let Bandai spend $93 million to do so itself, but Apple wouldn’t let the advertising materials refer to Pippin as a “computer.”
Obviously, the Pippin never caught on. Bandai only ever sold around 12,000 Pippin units.
When Jobs returned in 1997, the Pippin was one of the very first projects he killed. And that helped cement the company’s apathetic attitude toward gaming.
To Apple, games are a lesser medium
Of course, Apple is one of the biggest gaming companies in the world today. Mobile games could generate $30 billion in spending worldwide this year, and the iPhone and iPad are responsible for most of that.
But that influx of cash still hasn’t undone Apple’s contempt for games. Instead, we’ve seen the company repeatedly treat the medium as if it were nothing but toys for children.
Here is a direct quote from Apple’s developer guidelines that illustrates how it feels about games:
“We view apps different than books or songs, which we do not curate. If you want to criticize a religion, write a book. If you want to describe sex, write a book or a song, or create a medical app. It can get complicated, but we have decided to not allow certain kinds of content in the App Store.”
This isn’t just a passive opinion. The company has used this rule to ban games from its App Store. Affected releases include games that explore the Syrian civil war, the American Civil War, and sweatshops in developing nations.
And now the new Apple TV
Apple’s view on games hasn’t changed. At least it hasn’t publicly come out and reversed its stance that it will curate games for content in a way it won’t for books or music. But it doesn’t look like it will stop the company from moving ahead with an Apple TV that prominently features games as one of its big features.
That makes sense for both Apple and developers. The company has the potential to disrupt how gaming works on televisions in a major way for the first time since the earliest consoles. It could swoop in and succeed where the Ouya Android-based microconsole failed and where others, like Razer and Nvidia, are struggling.
And if Apple does succeed in this space, it will likely do so as it has done with iPhone and iPad. By providing a platform for developers to reach a large audience that already has its credit-card information saved with iTunes.