Hidden Dimensions - It's No Game at Apple

by John Martellaro
June 5th, 2006

Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power.

- Abraham Lincoln

Every once in awhile I read a story on the Internet that just doesn't seem to sync with my experiences at Apple. Most of the time, the story is derived from what the author wishes Apple would do for their own benefit. Or perhaps, more generously, they see it as a benefit to Apple, but the perception is based on an incomplete understanding of Apple.

Recently, I read a story about Apple that questioned why Apple hasn't been more active in the gaming world. Let's just start with the general premise that many people who are enthusiastic about Apple and its products and are enthusiastic gamers often express disappointment that Macintoshes aren't stronger gaming platforms and that Apple doesn't seem to ever take steps to make it one. The idea, of course, is that if Macs were supreme game computers, sales would go up. What could be better?

What I'm going to express next is just my opinion, but an opinion derived from experience: Apple has no real corporate interest in the gaming community and does not see computer games as a path to success or a better image for Apple. That's not to say that some parts of Apple don't enjoy games and their promotion. Just look. But the reality is that Apple has struggled for a long time to avoid the perception that Macs are toys, and so their principle emphasis is on science, small business, education, and the creative arts. All very grownup stuff. If a market doesn't appear on Apple's main page tab, you can be sure it's a secondary market.

Of course, all that may seem obvious to many observers of Apple. And yet, many continue to wish that their favorite computer company would put so much effort into the market that the Mac would become the premiere game platform. Right now, that's not a realistic expectation.

One reason is the practical realities of business. Historically, the slim profit margins for modestly priced games require large sales numbers to recoup the investment and turn a profit. For years and years, Apple's market share has barely been sufficient to entice game developers, although there are some notable exceptions.

In my view, this long drought in the gaming business has allowed Apple management to reflect on how they really feel about the game business. Especially during the time that the iCEO became the CEO. To some extent, the recent "Get A Mac" commercials provide some insight into Apple's thinking.

Note that gaming relates to power. The user is in control of his universe and seeks to exert his will. So any discussion of games has to include the utilization of power.

First off, let's look at some facts.

1. Without making any judgments and without getting into a discourse on current military events, it is nevertheless no secret that Steve Jobs has concerns about some components of the military and its leadership. Now that's a complex statement because it has a lot of overtones that I don't need to get into. Because you don't earn respect by being disrespectful, any further comment is irrelevant.

2. The "Get a Mac" ads say something subtle about power. Recall what I said previously about the two actors representing the computer, not the user. There is some additional, subtle symbolism in those ads that says something about Apple's public (not internal) image of power. The PC, who wears a suit, is the computer that's used as an instrument of power. Having been in federal sales, I can tell you that the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy have embraced Microsoft almost completely. [1] The PC can be taken as an instrument of willfulness and power that shouldn't be but often is abused in that role.

3. If you look at the WWDC 2006 list of presentations, there is very little explicit material on gaming. The tracks are focused on core OS technologies and information technologies. And while there has always been a gaming center at WWDC where young developers are kept entertained, you'll see very little high level emphasis. It's just something that is tolerated and allowed to grow and flow at its own pace.

4. Apple sells consumer and professional computers. They differentiate them based on the power of the graphics subsystem. The message there is clear: If you're a professional, you should be editing movies with Final Cut HD or manipulating RAW photos with Aperture. If you're a consumer on a more modest budget, then you get hardware more oriented towards writing and surfing. This is a clear marketing message from Apple that de-emphasizes games for the consumer, no doubt about it.

On the other hand, those who are really into games want the fastest possible hardware and the lowest possible cost. It doesn't take long to find a litany of negative comments on the Internet about how Apple's most affordable consumer systems are just not up to serious gaming. Rather than complain, this should be taken as an outward sign of Apple's most serious branding intentions:

Yes, games are fun, and we love many of them, but this is not the most significant message we want to deliver as a company.

This mixed message confuses and annoys many Apple customers.

I want to close with a comment on why Apple's culture is so mixed on the subject of games. I think it's a recognition by Apple's management that this is a fact of life for most of its younger employees. But amongst many more senior managers, including Steve himself, I suspect there is some lingering concern about the essence of the game market. Computer games, as we've come to know them, are mostly (not always) about aggressive behavior, conflict, battle, wars of power, domination, and sometimes, in the worst cases, some very unwelcome social behavior. To put it bluntly, death and destruction.

Apple's public culture appears to celebrate, on the other hand, creation and life. When you have several hundred senior managers at Apple who are most likely married and typically have children, you'll find a culture of affirmation, family, and life. There have been many instances of Steve doing a keynote and demoing, say, iMovie, in which children are involved. More than once, I heard Steve say, after editing one of those movies on stage, "This is why we do what we do."

Games are a part of life, learning, and growing. Some computer games have terrific redeeming value, and many do not. Action movies and games permeate our culture, and in some ways, they just can't be ignored in our day-to-day lives. But that doesn't mean that Apple's management believes that considerable emphasis needs to be placed on this market when there are so many other more important things for people to do with their lives and their computers.

Remember, it's not in Apple's culture to hold people back. They create insanely great tools for people to build whatever their imagination can conjure up. In addition, Apple could try to build the greatest game machine on earth. Silicon Graphics, Inc. (SGI) built those kinds of expensive graphics toys for years. Today, they are in bankruptcy.

Finally, Apple likes control. They need and love to manage and control the image of their company. If Apple computers were to become the darling of the gaming industry, then the natural evolution of the worst driving out the best would infect their culture. So Apple doesn't mind supporting game developers, but they just don't want to let outrageous success in gaming cause them to lose control of the Apple message.

I know, it's contradictory and complex. But that's the hidden dimension of Apple.

[1] The U.S. Army has shown me better perspective.