I was attending a LAN gaming session (aka. real “social gaming”) with a group of friends a while ago. Last time, we spent a lot of time installing (and updating) games and trying to get computers to find each other and I had to borrow someone else’s computer. This time, we were quickly up and running and I could proudly play on my MacBook Pro.

Sure, I had installed Windows 7 using Bootcamp on my Mac, because while VMware Fusion was okay for Tales of Monkey Island and even Torchlight, it just doesn’t cut it for hardcore gaming. The only game that I had any problems running over Bootcamp was, oddly enough, Postal 2. Otherwise, I was equal among my PC using peers. I had dreamed about this day.

But what really made things easy for all of us was Valve’s Steam, a gaming portal/service.

The iTunes model strikes again

Steam for Mac
Steam... for the rest of us

We have passed a long time the point where new games are automatically better than older just due to technological improvements. We were still playing games we played over 3 years ago, and some of them were “old” even by then, like Unreal Tournament 2004. The reasons for this are Windows XP and DirectX. These two technologies have enabled a decade of games that are still playable almost without any emulation. The biggest change is happening right now with multicore and 64bit CPUs.

What Steam has done is basically something that other forms of entertainment could learn a lot about, if they could get over their stone age business logic and hunting down their customers. PC game piracy has always been a problem and one reason why PC gaming today seems to be an afterthought to console gaming. Steam (and other similar services, like Impulse) mostly eliminates the piracy problem with a central authorization structure, but yet provides added value to the customer. You only need to install Steam on any computer and log in and you have access to all your games (provided that you have the bandwidth to download the over 2 GB that most games today use). This is something that isn’t possible with iTunes and only recently was possible with Spotify.

What really sets Steam apart here from other entertainment industry offerings is actual value for users. What Steam has done, is really catch the long tail of ecommerce, even though the concept of long tail has long since gone out of fashion. By being able to sell couple of years old games that are virtually impossible to find anywhere (legally) and for a fraction of the price is just amazing. I was able to buy Psychonauts, the most amazing game ever, for just 2 euros and even at the normal price of 9,99 euros it’s 1/4th of what it did cost on the shelves (and it still costs around 15 euros on Amazon). After the Steam’s holiday sales during Christmas, I found out that I had bought many games, mostly because the price was right.

Other benefits from using Steam is that all your games are automatically updated and even for some games, your progress and settings are saved in the “Steam Cloud” - allowing you to play seamlessly on multiple computers.

But there aren’t any games for Mac

The year 2010 turned to be a pleasant surprise for gamers, especially for those, like me, who have switched to Mac. First, Telltale Games announced that their games would be available for Mac as well. This was excellent news for all Sam & Max and Monkey Island fans who would no longer need to boot up VMware Fusion.

And, sure, there have always been Civilization IV and The Sims 3 for Mac, but having new, native games for Mac was excellent news. Clearly a certain threshold has been breached and the amount of gamers living in self-denial on Mac is now large enough that the market is suddenly viable.

Nothing could have prepared us, the people who still reflexively keep our left fingers on WASD and use multi-button mice, for the announcement from Valve that both Steam and Valve’s game engine Source would be available for Mac.

Now, I don’t see that this will mean that soon Mac OS X would be equal gaming platform with Windows, but it does warm my heart. I know that I still need to boot to Windows to really enjoy gaming. The reason Telltale and Valve have been able to pull this out is based on their choices to use cross-platform frameworks (like OpenGL) instead of Windows-only technologies like DirectX. You also need to keep in mind that both Telltale and Valve seem to have target audiences that use Macs and have both targeted certain niches, the former makes high quality “casual” adventure games and the latter high quality first person shooters for more “hardcore” crowd. It is unlikely that other game developers or publishers will follow suit. For a true revolution, Microsoft would need to not only port DirectX to Mac OS X but also develop it at same pace with Windows. Looking at Microsoft’s track record with Mac software, this is even less likely than playing Left 4 Dead natively on Mac looked a couple of months ago. The more likely scenario is that as hardware gets faster and emulating a graphics card gets more efficient, running even the most recent 3D games in VMware Fusion starts to be feasible. A possible scenario is also that through technologies like OpenCL, PC games aren’t as dependent on GPUs and DirectX as they are today.

On the other hand, this shows how Apple’s decision to invest in cross-platform frameworks like OpenGL, OpenCL and WebKit can really pay off in the long term. It also shows that being nice and having something like Bootcamp can be an advantage. I was really surprised how easily I could install Windows 7 on my Mac and how Apple had provided drivers for everything.

What Steam proves is that to succeed on the internet, you really need to be familiar with your customers and understand their needs and truly deliver superior experience and added value to them. This is nothing new, but somehow the rest of the entertainment industry seems to think that they can still get away with last century tactics.

(This article was originally posted on Tech IT Easy on March 18, 2010.)