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Understanding the Apple Mac’s unlikely video game legacy

Understanding the Apple Mac’s unlikely video game legacy

Today the Apple brand has become part of the fabric of daily life, emerging as a lasting commercial and cultural superpower.

Beyond the omnipresence of iPhones and the existence of Mac laptops as a contemporary signifier of all things cool, Apple’s hardware and software has had a profound influence over product design, the output of so many creative industries, and even everyday language.The word ‘podcast’, for example, was coined after the rise of the iPod, and made it into the dictionary way back in 2006. We’ve all been speaking Apple’s language for quite some time now.

And yet despite the company’s presence front and centre of our lives, Macs themselves have always had an esoteric relationship with another cultural titan; namely video games.

Fire up Steam on a Mac in 2022, and you’ll certainly find a generous heap of titles that support the system, from indie to triple-A. The same is true across the likes of or Good Old Games (GOG). It’s absolutely a great time to be a Mac gamer. Yet it’s plainly apparent that Windows PCs are considerably better supported by game makers. There’s a global community of gaming PC builders and customisers that sits proudly in the mainstream, and a vast industry focused on providing parts or entire machines dedicated to Windows gaming.

That’s not to say Macs are lesser. Rather, they are born from a different design philosophy, and have come to play a different role in the world. They have thrived as creative computers, shaping the forward journey of video editing, graphic design, filmmaking and more. Equally, the Mac line has always been defined by an obsession with ease of use, elegance in design, and flexibility in terms of how users choose to interact with them; even if that comes at the expense of being able to readily swap out or upgrade graphics cards and other guts.

Macintosh advert showing off the various features and specifications (Image:

And as it turns out, Macs have actually had a significant influence over games across almost four decades, shaping so many titles that would never actually see release on an Apple machine. It’s a story that started long before the iPhone redefined so much of the games industry. And it’s a story that’s too often left untold.

When the first Mac – the Macintosh 128K, originally called the Apple Macintosh – arrived in 1984, personal computing remained something of a Wild West. This was a time not just of Commodores and Spectrums, but also Acorns and Apricots and BBC Micros and all kinds of other plucky contenders. Apple had made computers before, but the 128k, as the first Mac,  was about to change everything.

As it jostled for consumer’s attention, Apple’s 128k differentiated itself by offering a graphical user interface (GUI). Most other machines by far offered a command-line interface, meaning hammering out lines of text to load games, interact with software, and more. The Mac’s GUI, meanwhile, let users instinctively use a mouse, cursor, icons and windows. It wasn’t the first machine with a GUI or a mouse, but it was the first to get so much right. And with the ease-of-use the GUI introduced, it was marketed as a productivity machine for home users (debuting via an advert directed by Ridley Scott, below).

Certainly, game makers circled on the 128k. It quickly became well served by text adventures, and even the odd port, or captivating original titles such as platformer Dark Castle or shooter Airbourne – both by studio Silicone Beach. A few years later the Mac line would be blessed with energetic arcade-inspired titles such as the delightful Crystal Quest, or the unforgettable fantasy air hockey game Shufflepuck Café. And with titles like the 1988 FPS The Colony, which pushed what players could do in 3D worlds to new places, the Mac showed it had had plenty of technical muscle to flex. Still, everyone – Apple included – seemed to agree this wasn’t really what Macs were for.

And yet that GUI, and the focus on ease of use that distanced the debut Mac from entertainment, ultimately shaped so many games that would follow. More than anything, the 128k demonstrated the appetite for welcoming interfaces, and how much capacity for interesting, engaging and then-novel design such a front end offered. It might be tenuous to draw a direct line between the Mac GUI and the emergence of common control set-ups such as using the W, A, S, and D keys with a mouse for player movement in so many PC games. And yet the Mac thrust a new design mindset into all kinds of software makers; including game devs. The tool they were using to make games asked them to think about better ways for people to interact with games.

Then, in 1987 came HyperCard, a piece of software and simplified programming environment that let Mac users quickly and relatively easily build their own databases, applications, and even games or demos. Beyond setting a precedent for all the democratising game dev software that would begin two or three decades later with the Unity engine and its ilk, Hypercard suddenly afforded Mac owners a chance to toy with game dev, informed by the unique power, constraints and design philosophy of Apple’s latest computers. Indeed, game makers Rand and Robyn Miller would use HyperCard 2.0 to develop the eccentric, distinct children’s adventure game The Manhole. It would teach them plenty that informed their most famed title, which debuted on Mac in 1993. That game was Myst, which would inspire myriad games, set the tone for the later boom in casual gaming, and absolutely stood as a prelude to the ‘walking simulator’ genre later defined by hits such as Gone Home or Dear Esther. Indeed, its approach would also inspire not just a great many indie games, but the spirit of the wider indie movement that has subsequently become part of gaming’s mainstream.

As the Mac proved to be one of the more interesting platforms on which to make games, developers like Bungie found success on the machines in their early days with titles like FPS trilogy Marathon. That series’ success saw Bungie form a close relationship with Apple, with the latter happily thrusting the studio and its games into the global spotlight. At Macworld 1999, Steve Jobs himself revealed Bungie’s new title. That game started out as a strategy game, before evolving into a third-person-shooter called Halo. Yes, the very same Halo that would go on to be a poster child for Microsoft's gaming efforts, while influencing all manner of genres and gaming forms. Ultimately, Microsoft snapped up Bungie and the game was reimagined as an FPS. Regardless, the Mac had once again started something that can still be felt in gaming today.

It is perhaps the Mac line’s somewhat indirect influence on the wider video game medium, market and industry that means they are still not considered much of a gaming machine. In truth, since the arrival of the 128k a great many wonderful, influential and important games have found a home on a Mac, starting a ripple effect that continues to shape what games are. The collective story of those games and Mac’s past is a complex one, and we’ve only dipped a toe into that history, and the delicate lines that link that 128k to modern game design conventions. If you want a devotedly detailed, rich and enthusiasm-driven look at the full story of games on Macs, then The Secret History of Mac Gaming: Expanded Edition is as close to essential reading as it gets. Penned and compiled by celebrated journalist and game historian Richard Moss, it’s a perennial favourite of the Bitmap Books community, and worth every second you give to it.

In the meantime, we’re off to dip a toe back into Crystal Castles. It’s been way too long.

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