Special Report: The Multiplayer Battle Between Steam and the Mac App Store
Below is a special report on multiplayer in Mac gaming and the complexities and challenges involved in making multiplayer gaming a reality. This report was written by Aspyr Media’s Vice President of Publishing, Elizabeth Howard.
“Can I play this game with my friends?” It’s a seemingly simple question that is asked by the majority of Mac gamers; unfortunately, getting to a simple “yes” or “no” (or “maybe”) answer is more often than not a much more complex process. In fact, multiplayer gaming can be a confusing landscape on the Mac, with each product often offering a slightly different take. We wanted to take the opportunity to explain the development challenges when supporting multiplayer gaming on the Mac in hopes this helps our audience better understand the decisions and processes that go into providing a Mac multiplayer experience; this will hopefully in turn help you make an educated decision when purchasing games on the Mac. There are lots of nuances for each platform, game and the parties involved, but the below gives a basic overview of the realities in multiplayer Mac gaming.
Steam is a digital distribution storefront, digital rights management (anti-piracy, aka DRM), multiplayer and community platform developed by Valve Corporation. This means you can purchase and download games in addition to make friends with those whom you play games. Users can download the Steam application for Windows, Mac and now Linux. Steam provides the user with installation and software management across multiple computers, meaning if you purchase a game once, you’re able to download it on multiple machines, but you will be required to launch the app and log in to Steam in order to play. In addition to managing your software, Steam offers community features such as friends lists, chat messaging, cloud saving and auto-patching, meaning all games are forced to update. Perhaps most meaningfully for our discussion, Steam is a free tool for developers to use that allows them to manage their DRM, networking and matchmaking. The wide array of Steam features has lead to increased adoption in Steam use in PC development and publishing, and Steam is the #1 distributor of PC digital content.
To play a game that utilizes Steam all users must have the Steam application and must launch the Steam application to log-in/authenticate that game play session.
Steam Play is a feature of Steam that allows for users who purchase the game on Mac OR PC to also download, install and play on the other platform. Steam Play also means that when versions are in sync (meaning on the same update/patch/release schedule), users are able to play cross-platform multiplayer.
What does this mean for Steam multiplayer?
Steam multiplayer will work Mac-to-Mac at all times, and will support PC-to-Mac multiplayer when versions are in sync. ”In sync” means that the version that is available on the PC is the same version that is available on the Mac. The reason this is tough early in the lifecycle of a game is that there is a frequent and mostly un-planned patch schedule in addition to a robust DLC schedule. Each of these releases requires the Mac version be developed, QA’d and approved by both the Mac publisher (i.e. Aspyr Media) and its partners (2K, Gearbox Software). Typically the challenge isn’t the Mac publisher’s technical capability in creating that piece of content or patch, but the ability for all parties to say, “Okay, release it,” since the release has implications on both platforms.
This means PC-to-Mac multiplayer may not be realized until well into the product lifecycle. Publishers like Aspyr understand this isn’t fun as a Mac gamer and are always discussing and exploring ways to improve this experience.
Mac App Store
Apple’s Mac App Store is an application that comes with the Lion and Mountain Lion operating systems from Apple which offers many of the same features of Steam including store front, digital rights management (anti-piracy), and multiplayer/community features as part of Game Center in Mountain Lion (OS 10.8+ only). The Mac App Store also manages updates and update notifications, although these are opted-in by the user vs. forced.
One of the key pieces in having a game for sale in the Mac App Store means developers must adhere to Apple’s Sandboxing rules. These rules require that each app is contained in its own “Box,” which means that, in addition to many security features, the apps may not contain other DRM or be reliant on another application to run. This often means that Steam-integration must be removed from a game before it can be sold on the Mac App Store.
So what do I get with a Mac App Store version?
When a publisher like Aspyr identifies a game that utilizes Steam for multiplayer, the question of how to manage the Mac App Store version is large discussion. To entirely replace Steam multiplayer with Game Center can be 2-3X the amount of time and effort in porting the game in the first place, meaning users get the gaming experience MUCH later than the PC. To remove multiplayer entirely means users miss out on a meaningful piece of the gaming experience. Then there is the issue of HOW multiplayer is implemented. Game Center currently supports only 4-person multiplayer and does not include any master browser support. What’s to be done with content that requires a master browser or games that have more than 4-person multiplayer? It’s a lot to contemplate for any publisher and takes into account several factors: the specific multiplayer experience in each game, customer response on previous implementations, internal feedback and external factors such as timing, licensing obligations and partner obligations to solve the puzzle.
As a recent example, with Borderlands 2, which is a game that fortunately supports 4-person co-op, the decision was to deliver a timely and complete Mac Steam release that would ship within two months of the PC release. The dev staff was then split into two teams, with one working on the DLC/patch path while another focused on the Mac App Store version (and the process of removing Steam multiplayer, then implementing Game Center multiplayer).
Not all games are Borderlands 2, though. For games that have more robust multiplayer needs, the answer may be to cut out multiplayer for the version on the Mac App Store. These versions are sometimes referred to as the ‘Campaign Edition’ to denote the focus on the single player experience. Other times, the version released on the Mac App Store is trimmed down or delayed.
Mac App and Steam: Can these multiplayer communities play together?
For games which utilize Steam for multiplayer and matchmaking, the simple answer is no, and they may never be able to. Apple would have to allow games to be reliant on a version of the Steam application or the folks behind Steam would have to create a multiplayer system that is independent of the Steam application. While it would be awesome to see a world where one of these realities exists, this is ultimately a decision and rather large engineering effort by all parties involved.
But Wait! Haven’t I played games from the Mac App Store that talk to Steam players?
Yes! Call of Duty: Black Ops is a great example of a game that utilizes Steam for community features, but uses an alternative solution for multiplayer (in this case, DemonWare). This means that since DemonWare does not rely on an application to be installed, as Steam does, that Black Ops Mac is able to “talk” to DemonWare from both versions of the game. There are still product disparities in how they use community, since the Black Ops Mac on Steam uses Steam community, and Mac App uses the Game Center community, but the multiplayer works across both stores.
Man, so that’s a lot of multiplayer craziness….
All of the decisions are made in what a Mac publisher hopes is best for the audience. Our goal at Aspyr is to deliver the best experience in a meaningful amount of time. One of the biggest complaints in my 10 years at Aspyr has been “Mac games take forever.” So now we’re faster. We’re a lot faster, and our products are better in that we support more machines and have wider distribution, resulting in Mac gaming community growth. But, in addition to being faster and better, it’s now even more difficult to support the Mac audience. It isn’t simply porting a game to the “Mac.” We port a game to “Steam-Mac” and “Mac App Store-Mac,” then we support each version of that game with updates, DLC, fixes, etc. Don’t get me wrong–I’m not saying it’s “hard,” as in whining about our job, just that it’s more difficult to provide a single experience with a single product definition. We love what we do and will continue to look for ways we can improve, work better with our partners to bring great experiences to the Mac, and engage with our Mac audience to learn more.
Our door is always open and we love hearing from Mac fans. I can be reached at any time at the following email address: Elizabeth@aspyr.com.
You can learn even more about the porting process and about our relationship with all of our partners in this great, in-depth interview with 9to5mac.com: Aspyr Media talks porting games to OS X, Mac App Store & the future of Mac gaming (+ Borderlands 2 giveaway!)
Since posting this report, we’ve gotten some great responses and some great follow up questions. I’d like to post a few of those questions below as well as my responses.
Q: Why do you continue to support separate versions of a game on the Mac App Store when it appears the Steam version often has all the same features and then some?
The Mac App Store still represents a large portion of our sales, and many customers enjoy the ease of installation from the Mac App Store and the iTunes account linking; additionally, there are opportunities down the line for cross-platform iOS ->Mac play. These customers are satisfied with the experience on the Mac App Store and prefer purchasing games outside of Steam. It will be interesting to see how the content offerings evolve per platform to cater to the differing audience.
Q: What type of priority do your partners (such as Gearbox Software and 2K) place on offering their full support during the porting process? What about post-launch when you are trying to get the Mac version of a game in sync with the PC version?
Our partners, and particularly Gearbox, are incredibly supportive of our efforts. I think Aspyr can be better at articulating issues with our partners, and then perhaps we can see sync timing improve. The lead SKU (i.e. the PC version), however, is an audience that is 10x what the Mac audience is. Bugs on the PC may, at times, be more important than focusing on fixing syncing issues since that satisfies the larger audience. But this may not always be true, so we’ll continue to work to see if we can improve that experience. I can say that at some point in the product lifecycle, the game becomes more stable, and in the long term, players should experience in-sync gaming. It’s just more difficult during the first year following launch because of the flow of patches and DLC, but there will be a time where it is a more stable experience.