∞ Steam's entry to the Mac changes everything for Mac games

Valve’s recent announcement that it’s bringing Steam to the Mac promises to fundamentally change the landscape of Mac gaming, which has been bleak for longer than many of us care to admit. Here’s a look at what this means for the platform.

If you call yourself a gamer, odds are you probably owe Valve Software at least a nod of thanks for some truly good times. Though you may not recognize the name, their titles are the stuff of legend: From the much-adored Half-Life (and its sequel, Half-Life 2) to the wildly popular Team Fortress 2 to the innovative Portal, Valve is one of those few companies that seems to do no (or at least little) wrong.

Unless you game exclusively on Mac OS X, that is. Because up to now, Valve has been a non-entity in the Mac market. Now Valve is finally offering a golden nugget so precious it promises a much-needed injection of life to Mac gaming. It’s called Steam, and this may be the vanguard of the Mac gaming successes we’ve been hoping for.

What it is

Steam is a service from Valve Software which provides digital distribution of popular video game titles. Eschewing your grandfather’s business model of buying a box with a CD in it from a brick-and-mortar store, Steam delivers the media directly to you digitally. Not only do they provide games from their own revered library, but partnerships with Electronic Arts, Activision, Ubisoft, THQ and Capcom (to name a few) have established it as the go-to channel for the latest and greatest.

It’s more than just a pure data dump of games-for-cash; Steam adds powerful community-based features, automatic update downloads and certain in-game functions which have attracted a user base of over 25 million gamers to choose from over a thousand game titles. It’s a formula that works, too: An estimated 70 percent of the digital game distribution market belongs to Steam.

The announcement

Get a load of what Valve had to say on March 8, 2010 (from the press release):

March 8, 2010 – Valve announced today it will bring Steam, Valve’s gaming service, and Source, Valve’s gaming engine, to the Mac. Steam and Valve’s library of games including Left 4 Dead 2, Team Fortress 2, Counter-Strike, Portal, and the Half-Life series will be available in April. “As we transition from entertainment as a product to entertainment as a service, customers and developers need open, high-quality Internet clients,” said Gabe Newell, President of Valve. “The Mac is a great platform for entertainment services.”

With the arrival of Steam on the Mac, Valve will include native Mac OS X, OpenGL versions of Left 4 Dead, Left 4 Dead 2, Team Fortress 2, Counter-Strike: Source, Portal, and the entire Half-Life series. Without a doubt, these titles are regarded as some of the greatest in the world of modern video gaming, and, until now, completely missing from the Macintosh.

This is what it looks like when you do it right

Valve has actually taken a step beyond where most software publishers go when they bring a product to the Mac by actually saying hello to “the rest of us”. Where most publishers who bring their software to the Mac will promote their product with the same materials they use for the Windows market (if at all), Valve has created whimsical and very Mac-targeted ads to herald Steam’s arrival. From a parody of the “silhouette” iPod ads which features the Team Fortress 2 Heavy Weapons Guy to a camera from Portal looking at a turret, saying “And I’m a PC”… it’s clear Valve is trying to make it clear that they’ve got some respect for the Mac identity. Some people call it crazy, some people call it part of the culture, but if you want to make friends with the Mac market, you have to make it clear you aren’t aiming to turn them into Windows users. Perhaps there was some lesson learned back in the early 00’s when Half-Life for Macintosh was canceled part way through production, but it’s this kind of fearless entrance into the Mac market that makes us take their commitment seriously. At least at first.

Here’s an interesting tidbit: If you’ve already bought a game through Steam on one platform, you can play it on another for free. For instance, if you got the Windows version of Team Fortress 2, you’ll be able to dive into the Mac version without paying another cent.

As if that weren’t enough, all Mac and Windows versions of Steam games from Valve will be able to enjoy cross-platform network play. That particular trick has traditionally been an issue over the last ten years (though, admittedly, less so now than it used to be) due to incompatible network protocols which prevented Mac and Windows gamers from fragging each other. Valve includes it as a somewhat “of course you can” footnote in their announcement,

This shows that Valve isn’t just trying to seduce us with cute Mac-inspired advertisements; their aim is clearly to make Steam into a Mac commodity.

The Mac Needs This

Mac gaming has had, shall we say, a beleaguered history. A lot of negative hype about the Mac as an inferior game machine has persisted, especially through the last decade. Criticisms about lack of quality triple-A titles, interminably long waiting for good ports and dodgy 3D performance are rife throughout the computer-loving world. Unfortunately, much of this bad press happens to be at least somewhat accurate; aside from the iPhone, Apple is all but mute on the subject of Mac gaming and affordable next-gen consoles make you wonder why they should bother.

The arrival of Valve’s Steam on the Mac brings with it something that could possibly revolutionize that cursed segment of the Mac space. It’s not just the accessibility to games or even the interactivity of these games with their Windows counterparts (as multiplayer gaming is a must-have checkbox in this day and age), but the quality of the games themselves.

The perfect example of this is the announcement of Portal 2 from Macintosh. There hasn’t been a Valve game announced for the Mac in roughly ten years, and yet Portal 2 (scheduled to arrive this fall) is confirmed as Mac-bound. Valve’s Big Kahuna, Gabe Newell, says Portal 2 is the best game they’ve ever done (this coming from the man who gave the world Half-Life), this is no small matter for us.

What does it mean?

Obviously the immediate impact of Steam on Mac gaming will be huge, as even the infusion of Valve’s own A-list titles represents a quantum leap forward for the platform. But Steam’s huge reach in the digital distribution marketplace could herald a sea change for the Mac, because Valve emphasizes the importance of cross-platform gameplay in its announcement. If Valve’s development and publishing partners follow its lead, this will mean a natural increase in the number of Mac games available through Steam over time, not just from Valve.

What’s even more interesting are the indirect possibilities: If a big publisher with a tried and true background like Valve is willing to put a stack of blue chips on the Mac market, it could embolden other big-timers to take the plunge.

To be blunt: there have been few examples of big-leaguers willing to work the Mac market without a net. This year we see Valve arriving at the party with Steam under their arm, and it begs the question “Who’s next?”