40 Years Later, Apple Is Returning To Its Gaming Roots

It’s the late 1970s, and a couple of hippie Steves are hard at work creating the successor to their first computer. A successor that would go on to become one of their companies most successful products: the Apple II. Apple at this time was nothing like the company we know today. This was during a time where IBM was the leader in market share for a relatively young but booming industry. Apple had made small splashes with their first computer, the Apple I, which was somewhat revolutionary for its “hassle-free” setup that created a cheap and effective alternative for display output, which allowed everyday consumers to use the product without breaking the bank. The demand and uses for computers was still very much outside of the everyday household, however. That is until the Apple II would come out in the spring of 1977 and be the leader to spur the soon-to-be bustling “personal computer” market.

The Personal Computer For Gamers, By A Gamer

What some may not know is that Steve “Woz” Wozniak actually built the Apple I as a personal computer to play games. This love for gaming is what led Wozniak to incorporate color graphics commands, controllers, a speaker, and the ability for developers to write their games using BASIC. In an interview with a magazine a decade later, Wozniak would explain how these design decisions came about by saying, “So a lot of these features that really made the Apple II stand out in its day came from a game [Breakout], and the fun features that were built in were only to do one pet project, which was to program a BASIC version of Breakout and show it off at the club.”

Apple II
A still from Apple’s original Apple II advert.

While Wozniak worked on getting the Apple II ready for market, Jobs was thinking about the different ways in which to get this computer to the hands of the consumer, and what better way to do so then by getting them into schools and into the hands of future life-long Apple users. By winning a bid that partnered Apple with an organization called the MECC, which provided computer services to the state of Minnesota, the Apple II saw itself becoming a prominent presence across classrooms throughout the state, and eventually throughout all of the U.S thanks to the MECC expanding outward. The Apple II was chosen because of its aforementioned features, the most substantial of which being its use of BASIC programming that allowed developers to make educational games. These games would become a staple in computer rooms for the decades to come and cement Apple as the leader in educational computing.

But it wasn’t just educational games where the Apple II shined. The platform was a haven for RPGs, strategy games, and a flurry of other genres. From The Bard’s Tale to the Ultima series, the Apple II saw thousands of games release between 1977 all the way to the end of the 80s, making Apple the go-to platform for gamers, and the primary choice for big developers like Electronic Arts. The sentiment at the time was that companies like IBM and Commodore were for the serious businesses, while Apple was the fun, gaming-focused computer for the common person. This sentiment, as we all know, wouldn’t last for too much longer. So what changed?

Competition Drives Innovation, But Kills (Apple) Gaming

In the mid-1980s, as iterations of the Apple II continue to sell well across the globe and Apple have made their mark as a proper competitor in the space, Jobs and Co. realized that for them to truly compete against the big boys in IBM and Microsoft they’ll need to not only dominate the family home, but also the corporate office; and gaming was not the way to do that. As such, Steve Jobs went ahead and brought on then Pepsi Co. CEO John Sculley in the hopes to use his marketing expertise to push Apple in front of IBM. Jobs personally met with Sculley to lure him away from Pepsi Co. by telling him, in the most Jobs fashion, “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to change the world?”

Even though CNBC in a piece in 2009 listed Sculley as the 14th worst CEO in American history, Sculley was moderately successful in keeping Apple afloat. Wozniak himself gave credit to Sculley in an interview with The Verge for the continued success of the Mac after Jobs’ departure a couple years into Sculley’s tenure. Though his time at Apple did give birth to one of the more contentious events in the company’s history: the “1984” commercial. It was an ad made to go against IBM and their supposed totalitarian control over the computer market, and hailing Apple as a savior to break the consumers out of the stranglehold. Absurdly hyperbolic, sure, but it worked as Apple saw an immense uptick in sales following the commercial’s airing.

John Sculley Apple
Steve Jobs, as Apple Computers chairman, John Sculley, as president and CEO, and Steve Wozniak, co-founder (l-r) unveiling the Apple IIc computer in San Francisco on April 24, 1984. (Photo: AP)

The “1984” commercial was just a slice of the strategy to put Apple ahead of IBM, as Sculley and Jobs worked in tandem to erase gaming as a feature point in magazine articles and print adverts about the Apple II in hopes to drive a more corporate sentiment for the computer. Co-founder of id Software, John Carmack, noted in a lengthy Facebook post a few years ago that Steve Jobs had rejected Carmack’s proposal of adding a NeXT (Jobs’ company after leaving Apple) logo on the start-up screen of their soon-to-be released first-person shooter, Doom. Carmack would further elaborate by writing, “Several things over the years made me conclude that, at his core, Steve didn’t think very highly of games, and always wished they weren’t as important to his platforms as they turned out to be.”

This sentiment by Jobs would continue in the decades following, and would become almost a part of Apple’s identity as the company headed into the new millennium. Ironically, Microsoft would go the other route as it saw a slump in software sales due to corporate offices never needing to upgrade their machines, but saw that those interested in games were the ones that required Microsoft’s latest and greatest products. And so with versatile programs like DirectX as a part of its software offerings, you saw the rise in PC gaming with Microsoft essentially having a monopoly on the market as the 2000s rolled around. Apple, on the other hand, shifted its focus to a different portion of the consumer market.

Make Movies, Music, and Art, But Don’t Game

Some of my favorite commercials growing up in the 2000s were Apple’s “Get A Mac” campaign. These adverts saw actors Justin Long and John Hodgeman standing in a plain white space — a color that was slowly becoming associated with the simplicity of Apple — playing a Mac computer and a PC, respectively. The “Mac” would be dressed in casual attire, while the “PC” would be in a blandly colored, loose-fitted suit and tie; visually signifying that the Mac was “hip and cool” while the PC was “stale and boring.” The template was simple: the PC would offer an issue that they were experiencing, and the Mac would retort by casually saying how that never happened to them. It was a lighthearted format, though one that was clearly and intentionally aimed at Microsoft, and ironically the corporate atmosphere that surrounded the company at the time.

Get a Mac
“Get A Mac“

One of the more contentious spots from the campaign was one that saw both actors getting ready to come out of a box, illustrating the unboxing experience of both a PC and a Mac. Where the PC mentioned how they had to install a number of drivers and other software before getting started, the Mac boasted how they could begin making movies with iMovie and music with GarageBand straight out of the box. Many at the time joked how the PC should have just retorted with any mention of gaming, which was something the Mac and Apple had long moved away from since their Apple II days. Because that was what the Mac had become and still (mostly) continues to exist as: a product for the creative. Whether you’re a filmmaker, a music producer, a writer, a visual artist, or a photographer, chances are you use a Mac to get your projects done. Note, however, that I refrained from jutting in the word “professional” prior to “creative.” Because although Apple’s presence in the creator marketplace is well-documented, their products still lack all the features needed for true professionals to get their work done. A Hollywood video editor is still likely to use Adobe Premiere or DaVinci Resolve before Final Cut, for instance.

Still, Apple wanted to be the place where creatives go to create, and for the most part, they’ve succeeded in establishing that niche. But in much of this success in building a reputation of being a product for the artistic every-man, they’ve obfuscated the industry that started their success: gaming. The Apple II was a gaming powerhouse, but for the longest time the Mac — and all its iterations since the 90s including its laptop counterpart — could never garner the attention its grandfather once commanded from the gaming public, mainly because its CEO wanted nothing to do with the space. But forty years later things could finally be changing. A change spurred not by Apple’s computers, but rather, to everyone’s surprise, its smartphones.

A New Era (?)

Apple created quite the stir in the fall of 2020 when they revealed their first MacBook Pro’s fitted with an in-house built chip based on the mobile ARM architecture that they’ve been using for their “A” series chips on the iPhones. The M1 was revolutionary for a number of reasons, but its impressive performance was what stood out. Essentially being a mobile processor one would think that the M1’s power would be akin to that of a Chromebook, as that’s what we’ve been accustomed to seeing at the time. But as this video illustrates, its capabilities turned out to be far more than tech industry journalists ever imagined. To many peoples surprise, a primary showcase for Apple in the years following has been to boast the gaming capabilities of their computers that have all adopted the “M” series chips. They’ve even built the Metal API to help developers port over their games, which has seen a number of big-name titles come over to the platform.

Gaming on MacBook Pro
With enough support from developers, we could be seeing many more triple-A games make it on to the App Store. (Photo: TechRaptor)

Much of this new, albeit slow, transition over to gaming started not with the Mac, but with the iPhone. The iPhone has long been considered the primary platform for high-end mobile games, mostly due to the fact that iPhone users are more likely to pay for apps than Android users. Furthermore, making a game for a singular platform instead of having to worry about compatibility issues for the hundreds of different Android phones makes development for iPhones far easier. When Apple announced in 2019 that they’ll be starting a new subscription service named Apple Arcade, where users could find classic and premium titles exclusively for the platform for only a few dollars a month, it was the first of many dominoes in Apple’s fall back to gaming.

The most recent domino fell just a couple months ago when Apple, in their annual September event, announced that their new iPhone 15 Pro will come fitted with an all new 3 nanometer chip labelled the “A17 Pro,” which brings such immense performance gains that it will be capable of playing the recently released Resident Evil 4 Remake and Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed: Mirage. My reaction to the news was similar to many around the web who were astonished at seeing brand new triple-A titles being run on a phone. A month later and Apple would continue to impress by showcasing their recently announced M3 Pro and Max line of chipsets that are to come fitted inside the new MacBook Pro’s, bringing in more power and efficiency to an already beefy M3 chip. The “Max” variant, showcased here in MKBHD’s recent video, illustrates just how well the chip can handle recent titles like Lies of P at max settings; a phenomenon that wouldn’t be in the realm of reality a decade ago.

Resident Evil 4 on iPhone
Resident Evil 4 Remake on iPhone 15 Pro. (Photo: CNN)

Though one needs to question whether buying a laptop north of $2000 USD makes such a thing impressive — seeing how gaming laptops half the price exist and can achieve the same result — having it being done through an ARM-based chip is quite the feat. Though once again, gaming is still not the primary feature when Apple showcases these chips. They are merely a means to showcase their power, but are not intended to to be the sole use-case, which remains marketed for creators. But where “gaming” wasn’t even a term used in the marketing jargon in the Jobs-led decades, it’s now becoming more and more audible from the mouths of Tim Cook and Co. If Apple can get more developers back into creating and porting titles across the Macs and now iPhones, and if they can somehow — like Xbox and Game Pass — weave those deals with Apple Arcade, then we could potentially see a new era of gaming for the Cupertino company the likes of which we haven’t since the Reagan administration.

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