The tantalizing prospect of a future collaboration involving two of tech's powerhouses has set off a frisson of excitement about the possibilities for redrawing the technology firmament.
Last week, reports placed Apple CEO Tim Cook in Bellvue, Wash., on a visit to game maker Valve. Word had it that Apple was eying a business partnership with Valve, well known for creating software hits like the Half Life and Portal series, as well as for creating Steam, a digital game distribution service for PCs and Macs.
But any sort of future gaming effort would be intensely complicated and have to overcome more than a few potential obstacles.
First things first -- and to get it out of the way -- there are plenty of ways Apple and Valve are similar to one another. Like Apple, Valve plays the dual role of a software producer and software enabler. That includes Valve's development of its own games, as well as tools for other game developers to build their own. Valve also manages software and a digital distribution system for customers to discover and purchase digital content.
Like Apple, Valve is also well known for its secrecy, keeping details on what it's working on under wraps until it's time for a dramatic reveal, with a fervent fan base that pores over the details of its work, looking for clues of what comes next. And yes, like Apple's late co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs, and now Tim Cook, Valve CEO Gabe Newell has a publicly available e-mail address and a penchant for responding to messages, which are subsequently posted all over the Web.
However the similarities end there. Unlike Apple, Valve is a private company, and it doesn't make hardware -- it's best known for its games. These things have not missed Apple's attention, apparently.
According to a report in CultofMac over the weekend, the reason Cook was up there (a trip that Apple has not confirmed) was to discuss a game console Apple is working on. While the sources behind such information continue to go unnamed, the outlet said the console would include Apple's Siri voice assistant and have a camera-based motion control system--something much like Microsoft's Kinect.
That's a pretty big claim. After all, Siri has been kept exclusively for the iPhone 4S, Apple's latest smartphone. And Apple's given no indications of it spreading to other products, be it the iPad or the Mac. Also, Apple's Apple TV set top box is already how the company is pitching living room gaming, offering a way for iOS users to stream over their game sessions to their TV set, using the company's iPhone, iPod and iPad as controllers.
Apple and gaming: It's complicated
Until the growth and success of games on the iOS platform, Apple and gaming were just two words that did not go together. With the smaller user base, fewer modes of distribution, and a limited selection of graphics cards (which often could not be upgraded at the same pace of their PC counterparts), game makers focused their efforts for the PC, which as we've written about before, now plays second fiddle to game consoles made by Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo.
But in recent years that's changed--at least on the mobile side. While you still won't find many major titles arriving on Mac at the same time as the PC and game consoles, Apple's become a key player on mobile devices. The iPhone and the App Store paved the way for inexpensive, mostly casual games from developers big and small. Apple now boasts a library of more than 550,000 apps, most of which are games. In the process, Apple and developers have earned billions.
Back on the desktop though, Apple and Valve remain direct competitors. If you want a game for your Mac, you have many options, but the one place to go straight out of the box with any new Mac is the Mac App Store, where publishers can sell their wares and get a flat 70 percent of the revenue, with the other 30 percent going to Apple. Valve does not disclose how much it takes for each game sold on steam, though estimates have pegged it in the 30 percent to 40 percent range.
Likewise, Steam sells games for the Mac, including its own titles. The company has also spearheaded a cross-platform movement called Steam Play where a game you buy on a PC also entitles you to a license of it on the Mac, and vice versa. That's something Apple does not, and is not likely to ever offer.
That competition has sometimes caused a headache for developers and publishers alike, due in no small part to a difference in modus operandi between the two companies.
Take, for instance the story of Aspyr, a software maker that's been in charge of numerous ports of games from the PC platform to Mac. When releasing its version of Civilization V to the Mac App Store last year, Aspyr was able to quickly make it available on a disc and as a digital download through its own store. But when it came time to offer it on the Mac App Store, the studio ran into trouble.
Under Apple's rules, you can't use another application to run within the software if it's being released on the Mac App Store. Problematically, Civilization V relied on features built on Valve's Steamworks platform, which added multiplayer and community features. The result was that Aspyr cut out the multiplayer part of the game completely, which in turn removed some of the appeal for the real-time strategy game.
Apple has since announced plans to solve predicaments like these, but they're not here yet. In February, the company announced a version of its Game Center social gaming service for Mac developers that will come inside Mountain Lion, Apple's next major version of Mac OS X due out this summer. That's good news for creating software that's competitive with the social features one can have through Steamworks, and other platforms, but will still require additional work and create incompatibilities among those titles. It also adds another layer of competition between the two companies.
So where does that leave Apple and Valve? In the past year or so, Valve has been on a mission to extend the Steam platform. Last year, for instance, the company announced a deal with Sony to bring Steam features to the Playstation 3 version of Portal 2, Valve's hit game that's sold more than 3 million copies. Buyers of that console game got the added bonus of a digital copy they could own and play on their computer through Steam.
Valve's also since released a companion app for Apple's iOS and Google's Android that lets Steam users view the status of their friends on Steam, and communicate with them from their phone or tablet instead of their Mac or PC.
Yet, neither of those tidbits hint at an understanding behind a meeting with the chief executive at one of the world's top technology makers. If it really was to discuss cooperation on a console, it cannot be ignored that any rivalry between the two companies may be hard to shake. Just take a look back at gaming's history for proof that.
Sony's first PlayStation was originally a joint venture between Sony and Nintendo. Things fell apart though, and Sony forged ahead, turning the PlayStation into a huge success and a cornerstone of its entertainment strategy. The question remains what could have been if the two companies had stuck with the original vision, though most who look back on it now consider the result to be overwhelmingly positive. For the time being, Apple and Valve's current, opposing yet symbiotic ventures can be viewed the same way.