updated 01:35 pm EDT, Sun May 9, 2010
Steam for Mac very similar but with quirks
Mac users with gaming roots are no doubt eager to load Steam for Mac when it hopefully goes public on May 12th. It will mark the first time that many of the best games in recent years will be available for the Mac and could catch the platform up to Windows in grand fashion. MacNN and Electronista have had the opportunity to participate in the beta and can give a clue as to whether or not it will be worth the wait -- as well as a test to see if it's worth abandoning that Boot Camp partition.
An introduction and the non-game UI
For those who aren't familiar with Steam, the best analogy is to think of it as an Xbox Live (or really, Games for Windows) for computers that isn't attached to Microsoft. You can not only communicate and play with friends but buy games and earn achievements. While you can play games offline if necessary, it works best as an online system with invitations and updates on what friends are playing. The purchasing system is often considered an extra perk: since your purchases are tied to your account and not your computer, you never have to worry about your Steam-based games if you have to blank your hard drive or forget to migrate your games to a new computer.
Those who've used the Windows version will be forgiven for experiencing a certain degree of deja vu. Apart from a much simpler install process (it literally is a matter of drag and drop), the interface is virtually a one-for-one match to the updated UI in the Windows version. That's not necessarily a bad thing. We would argue that the store could be better organized around new releases and other top sellers, and that the library could make it quicker to get to your favorite games, but it's straightforward.
Mac users do get a level of special treatment, although it's clear Valve still has some work to do in this area. The games library is smart enough to tell the difference between any Windows and Mac games you own and won't let you install a game for the wrong OS. However, if you check the option to show all games and not just your installed titles, you'll still see all your Windows games. It may also be somewhat confusing to see Steam news alerts on startup that advertise Windows titles you can't buy.
What's most surprising in the outside-of-the-game interface is simply how much of it will be right at home, but is ever so slightly made Mac native. "Now playing" updates shuffle in, but near the Mac OS X menu bar at the top where they would appear at the bottom for a Windows system's taskbar. There are no attempts to shoehorn in a Windows-style menu system; other than a military green interface, it very much feels like it was designed to use the Mac UI. The only not-very-Mac-like behavior is Steam's automatic preference for loading itself on startup without telling the user of this in advance. You can turn this off, of course, but most Mac apps are gracious enough to either ask first or to let you know it will happen in advance.
Gameplay: Portal and Team Fortress 2
Just two games from Valve have been available in the beta, but with virtually every game of theirs in the past several years being memorable and representative of the overall experience, they provide a good clue as to how other Source engine games will perform.
Portal was the first game to arrive for the beta, and it's perhaps the best game to start with if you're familiar with the often puzzle-driven, slower-paced nature of many Mac native games. Your goal as a test subject at Aperture Science is -- officially, at least -- to test both a portal generator and yourself. It's a unique combination of first-person shooter reflexes with puzzle solving that rewards clever thinking but often requires that thinking in a matter of seconds. And as anyone who has finished the game can tell you, it has a wicked sense of humor that makes the narrative as interesting as the gameplay.
Once again, the experience will be uncannily like that for Windows, but that's still a positive. Other than obvious concessions to keyboard controls and slightly different fonts, the experience is much like that you might have encountered before. You may want to get a more gaming friendly mouse, however. Most Windows games depend much more heavily on the right mouse button or more obvious detents in the scroll wheel, so having a mouse where those controls are more discrete can prove important.
Simultaneously, Portal may also be one of the best examples of performance differences between Mac OS X and Windows, though thankfully it also shows how much closer Apple has gotten to performance in recent years. On a 27-inch iMac with 4GB of RAM, a 2.66GHz Core i5 and a Radeon HD 4850, we can play Portal very smoothly in Windows 7 at the screen's native 2560x1440 with 2X antialiasing, anisotropic filtering and all details set to high. In Mac OS X Snow Leopard, it's not quite as good but very close. We can turn in similar frame rates and keep all the visual detail, but we have to turn the antialiasing off. At this stage, it's hard to tell whether this is a virtue of less optimized graphics drivers on the Mac side or simply the way the OS uses video memory. The Radeon HD 4850's 512MB of memory is enough in many conditions, but it may be borderline for a greater-than-HD resolution with antialiasing chewing up extra buffer space.
It was here we also got a sign of the games being in a rough state, at least in the beta. When we first played Portal, the game actually broke in the fourth test chamber: an elevator that was to move us along simply climbed upwards while we stayed put. It similarly didn't seem to recognize the achievements we'd already recorded in the Windows version. There have been multiple patches that have fixed this and more -- all delivered automatically, thanks to Steam -- but we wouldn't be surprised if the first games out of the gate may need tweaking before they're completely polished for the Mac.
Our experience was markedly better with Team Fortress 2, which also represents a more traditional, hardcore gamer's title. It's a multiplayer, class-based game based around familiar team objectives, such as capturing the flag, capturing points or holding on to a single territory for as long as possible.
While this game rewards a game-friendly mouse even more so than Portal, it otherwise settles very nicely into the Mac environment and demonstrates some of the cross-platform compatibility that Valve has promised with its adaptation of Steam. You can play against Windows users, and if your skill is up to par, no one will know you're using your iMac or MacBook to play instead of a tuned gaming PC. All our achievements were already recognized.
Performance differences were harder to sort out: we normally play the game below native resolution due to its much stricter demand for a fast frame rate, and at a middling 1344x756 resolution both Mac and Windows versions were running quickly with 2X antialiasing, anisotropic filtering and maximum detail, even in very chaotic scenes. We suspect the Windows version might still win out were we to boost the resolution higher, but the nature of the display is a problem on both sides. Intermediate resolutions we'd like to try as a balance between crispness and speed, such as 1600x900, are usually locked out regardless of the OS you're using. Different Macs and displays will of course have more or different resolutions to choose from.
A note on other Macs and Intel graphics
The iMac we used to test Steam was admittedly one of the most ideal Macs to test with. As you might expect, a modern quad-core processor and a reasonably fast graphics chipset mean that just about any game is going to run smoothly without having to scale back much if any detail. Your experience likely won't be as good if you have to run on a system with more modest performance, especially on MacBooks and Mac minis. Graphics performance is much more important than most Mac users are used to: here, it would actually be a waste to have a dual quad-core Mac Pro with an entry-level graphics card versus a lower-end iMac with a video upgrade.
That underscores one of the major obstacles that some Mac users will encounter: Intel graphics. Anyone with a Mac mini or plastic MacBook made before the transition to the GeForce 9400M will want to avoid the Source engine games that will be available on launch. Windows users will already know that Intel's GMA graphics perform poorly for 3D games, but Mac users should know that even a 2 year old, $1,500 MacBook will have to steer clear because its Intel-based video hardware isn't fast enough. Apple has in a sense done many newer Mac owners a favor with the 9400M (and now 320M) as virtually all its desktops and notebooks can now play what Steam will have, but a certain slice of Macs from 2006 through to late 2008 will likely sit by the sidelines.
Lasting impressions and the future
To say that Mac users have been waiting a long time for a verdict on Source games for the Mac would be an understatement. For many, it's been a 12-year wait: ever since Half-Life was released as a Windows-only game in 1998, Mac owners have been clamoring for ports of everything Valve has made. That none of them made the transition until now has even been suggested as a significant reason why the Mac failed to gain significant market share until just recently. Serious Windows gamers -- the sort who regularly spend large amounts of cash on their computers -- could never have even considered switching to a Mac because key Valve games either had to be installed in a Windows partition anyways or else tossed aside. Apple may see Microsoft Office or Exchange as the tickets to getting switchers, but for many the real barriers have been Counter-Strike: Source and Left 4 Dead.
We have yet to see the complete range of games; every Valve-produced Source engine game up to and including Left 4 Dead 2 should be on offer either at launch or soon afterwards. But aside from some early teething troubles that may have already been sorted out, the initial batch, whatever is available, should make owners of recent Macs quite happy. That's doubly true if they're either jumping ship from a Windows PC or are used to running Boot Camp for games. Any Windows version of a Valve game with a Mac equivalent can be downloaded again for free, leaving no real penalty (other than a slight amount of speed) for choosing to play on the Mac's UI.
Steam here feels like a true native app with only small clues that it was ported over -- to have that from day one is a genuine achievement. The primary catch is that many of the tropes of gaming on Windows are true on any platform, so a reasonably fast system and good input devices can be important to winning.
More important is the future of game delivery on the Mac.
Steam is often credited with keeping PC gaming alive through sheer convenience. Players no longer have to wonder whether or not the retailer down the street will have enough copies for those who didn't pre-order. Independent studios no longer have to gamble on whether a retailer will give them more than a week or two of prominent space on the shelf. And extras like patches or expansion packs can arrive automatically without having to hunt them down on a developer website.
These are already helpful on Windows, but on the Mac they could be vital. Most Mac gamers have to either depend on one or two local Apple resellers or else know where to go on the web to buy games. They have to hope the company creating or porting a game is willing to support the software after it's been released, and without a community they often play in isolation. Steam changes that. If enough developers beyond Valve support Steam on the Mac, it could quickly become a one-stop shop and unite Mac gamers both with each other and with their Windows counterparts. Moreover, it may be a boon to small studios; Apple fans have developed a reputation for supporting independents' apps much more than in the Windows world, so a well-made game written for the Mac may get recognition it previously would have missed.
We don't expect Mac market share to skyrocket because of Steam, but it could well convince some of those gamers on the fence to switch. It could similarly legitimize Macs for gaming among developers that had previously convinced themselves that their games wouldn't get enough exposure to matter. Valve's own games by themselves make Steam worthwhile, but if the platform helps gamers reduce their dependence on any one OS, computer gaming as a whole reaps a huge reward.