The Mac gaming landscape is surprisingly diverse when it comes to where and how you can purchase games online. Some of these places are obvious, some more obscure. But more than anything we find many gamers are not aware of all the options, in addition to the pros and cons each one may carry with it. Read on for a comprehensive overview of the “big boys” in our Part One look at buying Mac games.
The 800-pound gorilla of digital distribution (and one that we covered in an earlier Mac Gaming 101 installment), Steam has come to dominate the computer gaming landscape on both platforms. Mac users had the benefit of bypassing most of Steam’s growing pains on the PC as it was only made available in 2010 on the Mac, and by then the service was fully-featured. Probably best known for its frequent and often outrageous game sales, Steam has a way of emptying your wallet on irresistible deals. The other major feature is Steam Play, which lets you buy a game once and own it on both Mac and PC. This also usually means cross-platform multiplayer, which is a big deal if you are the kind of gamer who thrives on multiplayer games.
Technically Steam is a form of DRM (and used in many recent Aspyr Media games), but it does so much as a service that it is hard to complain. Automatic updates, game library management, friends lists, chat, voice chat, achievements, community features (such as groups and photo- and video-sharing) and more make for a very robust gaming experience that no other company or application comes even close to offering. The only particular downsides to Steam are that some Mac users complain of poor performance or just simply dislike having to use a separate application to launch their games. And for all its goodness, there are certainly still some bugs for Valve (the purveyors of this fine online establishment) to work out in the Mac client.
Otherwise it’s hard to criticize Steam, as Valve is doing very interesting things now and in the future such as the upcoming Shared Library feature which will let you share your entire game library with a friend or family member. Gabe Newell (the head of Valve) has even talked about letting users having their own stores. If you are a fan of indie games, then look no further than Steam Greenlight which recently celebrated its one-year anniversary. This lets users vote on games, and games with the most votes get released into the Steam Store. There’s a lot to look through, and you can find many interesting games to follow or even demo.
On top of all the great features and games available, it has also become somewhat of a rumor mill and release predictor. Most recently OSX versions of Max Payne 3, Metro Last Light (both now released) and Spec Ops: The Line were all entries spotted on the Steam Database website.
There will always be a section of the gaming population that dislikes Steam for their own reasons, but the majority of gamers are happy with the features Steam provides. Whatever happens with the future of Steam, it’s bound to be interesting and potentially innovative.
Mac App Store
Launched in early 2011, the now ubiquitous Mac App Store (MAS) comes with every Mac as of OSX 10.7 and up and is a handy way to start perusing Mac games as it requires no separate app or download. All the major Mac gaming players have their titles on the store, and the store also features a healthy dose of indie selections as well. Apple regularly features new game releases on the front page along with non-game software. Aside from the flood of iOS-to-Mac ports, there’s even a game or two that are exclusive to the App Store such as Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing by Feral Interactive. Another notable release is Company of Heroes Complete by Aspyr which received a Skirmish mode update on the Mac App Store; the non-MAS version did not. So there are certainly some positive aspects to the Mac App Store, but it also has quite a few downsides that aren’t always apparent.
The biggest flaw is that Apple’s policies don’t allow for 3rd-party services or integration. What this boils down to is many games have reduced or altogether removed multiplayer functionality (tip: you can read more about the conflicts between the Mac App Store and third party services in the blog’s special report, The Multiplayer Battle Between Steam and the Mac App Store). A big name game like Borderlands 2 only received multiplayer modes long after its MAS release, while non-MAS versions of the game had them upon launch. Additionally, multiplayer in MAS games is almost always (but not absolutely) strictly Mac-to-Mac due to the restrictive policies; this means you won’t be able to play cross-platform Mac-to-PC even if the game supports it otherwise, such as through Steam. Notable exceptions that we know of include Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and Rockstar’s Max Payne 3 (which Rockstar managed to get cross-platform multiplayer working).
Lastly we have Game Center. Initially a gaming-focused platform to connect with your friends in iOS that crossed over to OSX, it’s useful enough but not very good. An updated Game Center in 10.8 led to some improvements to multiplayer experiences, but it is still greatly lacking in features and functionality compared to other platforms.
Despite these drawbacks, however, developers can’t afford to ignore the App Store. The sheer amount of traffic and potential revenue is impossible to ignore, which means you’ll almost always find a great selection of Mac games old and new through the store. Hopefully Apple will improve all of this even more moving forward.
The only other “AAA” player in the digital distribution market, Origin is Electronic Arts’ entry into the ring. Seeing a recent Mac release of its application and, of course, Mac titles on the website, it is worth a mention in this list. There aren’t many choices available other than the ocean of Sims games, though you can also get games from Feral Interactive here if you really want to. There isn’t any special upside to purchasing non-EA games here as opposed to Steam or other outlets. But if you are getting an EA game, it could be worth it as they recently instituted a refund policy (the Great Game Guarantee) on EA games which is something Steam does not offer.
The Origin application has a decently clean interface and comes with some features you would expect, such as a store, game library management, achievements, and friends list. But it is not particularly impressive overall and somehow feels lightyears behind Steam, the obvious competitor. Despite not being a very big deal right now, hopefully this will mean more Mac games for us down the road. *cough*Mass Effect*cough**cough*Battlefield… How about it EA?
This completes our look at the biggest digital outlets in Mac gaming today. Next up in Part Two we will take a look at the best Indie platforms. Stay tuned and let us know your thoughts in the comments!