Valve On Mac Gaming: Part One
Business boss Jason Holtman and Marketing VP Doug Lombardi on Steam OSX
Valve is a developer, a publisher, an online store, a middleware provider, a social network. It has its finger in most of gaming's current pies – and it all stemmed from a 1998 first-person shooter for the PC. Earlier this year, it finally confirmed rumours that it was seeking to launch a Mac gaming platform.
Four months on from Steam for Mac's launch, director of Business Development Jason Holtman talked to GamesIndustry.biz about the new platform's reception, the developer and publisher take-up, technical issues, why it helps out other developers and effective marketing in a truly multi-platform era. With further contribution from Valve's marketing VP Doug Lombardi, Holtman paints a picture of where one of the world's most successful independent game businesses believes Mac gaming is headed. Part two of this interview will follow soon.
Q: What's the uptake of Steam for Mac like, now we're a few months on from launch?
Jason Holtman: The uptake's been great. Initially lots of folks came to us, picked up a bunch of games they hadn't had available for distribution before. One interesting figure is that we're seeing between a 15 and 20 per cent increase in games that have a Mac version on Steam, so some of our baseline games with added Mac versions, they're seeing quite a healthy bump in people picking up their title.
Customers are very, very pleased because previously where they didn't have a Mac store or hadn't had distribution before, all of a sudden they're seeing some titles that are coming out. And then our titles in particular we've been rolling out, we had a few titles come out at launch and then we've been rolling out our titles successively through time, and each time we do that we see a whole new bunch of people come to us and say this is awesome, maybe they hadn't played it before, or maybe they wanted to play it cross-platform. You know, they owned both things and all of sudden they were able to play Team Fortress 2 on both platforms via SteamPlay. So customer response has been great as well.
Q: I was going to ask how many people were using it on both - I've seen people with desktop PCs but Mac laptops doing it. Do you know what the skew is to people playing it exclusively on Mac versus those who seem to be using it on both?
Jason Holtman: That's actually hard to see right now. People are moving back and forth between trying out one or the other, but we don't have a lot of data on that yet. But we do know from the response, just like you've said, they're really happy to be at work for instance and play on their Mac a little bit and play on PC. The other interesting thing is because the platform's now available on Mac and there's content there, we've seen people using their Macs for purchasing. So they're not thinking about their PC and Mac being separate anymore, they're really thinking about both of them being together and the platform just being there.
Q: Can you reveal approximately how many Mac users you've picked up, or even what percentage of the total user base they constitute?
Jason Holtman: That's still under wraps. It's evolving right now. We don't have a number on that, but there is a significant amount of people playing on OSX. One way to tell that is, if you look at TF2, if you go play that and see how many people have the little earbuds in, right? [Mac versions of the game were gifted with in-game iPod headphones]. Or when you get killed you'll see the representing OSX sign. And that's a fairly representative sample of seeing how many people have pulled out their Macs and started to play that game.
Q: It's nice to see it up-front like that. You get so many surveys where the methodology's completely opaque, but in this case players can see what's going on themselves.
Jason Holtman: Right, yeah. That's probably one of the best indicators. And that's just the guys who are choosing to use the white headphones. It's fun for us to see the Mac guys being able to play a multiplayer game like that, and having just as much fun. It's truly cross-platform. You can get beaten up by a Mac guy just as well as you can get beaten up by a PC guy.
Q: Is there any skill difference between players on PC and Mac - or is that too much like declaring platform war?
Jason Holtman: No, we haven't seen that.
Q: In general, watching the internet response to the launch, it seems to be described variously as either the spearhead for a new whole age of Mac gaming or the only serious attempt to corner an existing market. What's your take on that, how calculated a takeover is it?
Jason Holtman: Well, we think there is a large untapped market out there. We know people want to make games and get them out there to as many customers as possible, regardless of platform, and that's what game developers think about. So when we opened up and said we're on the Mac, that was our goal. We wanted more games for more people on more platforms. And we've seen developers embrace it. Developers who weren't thinking about the Mac a year ago are coming to us and saying "wow! Can I have my Mac version?" Or "how could I make a Mac version of my game?"
To that end - we haven't let anybody know this yet, but we'll let you know this - we're going to release some our graphics code for the GL layer that gets people there faster. So our Steamworks partners will have access to some of the hard work that we do to get our games up on Mac, and they'll be able to incorporate that into their games, and our hope is it gets them there faster. Because that's the real hard work in making Mac version is doing that graphics work, so we're going to help people along by giving them some of our code.
Q: Is this is a boarder philosophy at Valve, given you're giving away the Alien Swarm SDK?
Jason Holtman: That's been part of the company's philosophy since before we shipped Half-life. I can remember Gabe banging into all our heads how we made to make sure we had a mod SDK available within 30 days of shipping the first game. His Windows background was that the more people we had building stuff the more stuff there'll be for customers to experience and enjoy and at the time the more people we'll be able to find and recruit – vis a vis the Day of Defeat team and the Counter-Strike team and Adrian Finol who came from the Frontline Force team in Venezuela even.
So we've been able to recruit from that forever. But now it's even more true when you have distribution platform in Steam – even if you never meet these people or they come to work for Valve they may make something great with these tools and distribute it over Steam, and we benefit from that. There's no hidden agenda there. It's pretty blatant.
Q: You were saying developers were making some forward movement in OSX based on this, so does that mean there are a bunch of upcoming games that are much more Mac-orientated that they others would have been? When can we expect to see the results of that?
Jason Holtman: Oh yeah, it's been a great reaction from the development community. I think a lot of people, myself included, were Mac guys once upon a time, and we were forced over to the PC if we really wanted to be in games. I can actually remember the Fall of 95 or 96 when I finally gave up, when the original Windows era was just coming in to replace the old DOS days and Apple was sort of falling part, the wheels were coming off. So a lot of people are in their history somewhat fanboys or have a relationship with the Mac, so when they hear that it's coming back or there's something that can bring that back, they're sort of excited in a nostalgic way.
And then there's the business side of it, hey this is another platform. And it's a viable one – there are a lot of people that are getting Macs that you hear about, whether it's a mobile Mac or a new iMac or whatever have you. There's a renaissance in the Mac space and games should be part of that. The reaction that we've got from the development community is that this could be a big ingredient towards that renaissance. People have both a business motivation as well as a personal motivation to see games on the Mac. They want to play them themselves. I have a Mac in my house, and when we started putting the games on Steam it was a great convenience just for me personally and selfishly. We're hearing it from indies all the way up to the big guys.
Q: What about publishers? They've been the stopping point traditionally in that they haven't called for Mac versions of the games they release.
Jason Holtman: Oh absolutely. The moment we launched, and prior to launch too because they knew it was coming, but certainly the moment we launched and they saw the reaction, they saw some of the numbers of some of the games they brought out they went "oh. Right. Those people are out there." One of the nice things about Steam is it gives people instant feedback – you can actually see something that didn't exist before. It's really easy to run the numbers and say "oh, how about that."
The other interesting thing is, because Steam's a worldwide platform, people were all of sudden seeing that there were people with Macs all over the world. Right, that's a big difference – there are people that have bought them outside of North America, lo and behold. And they're playing with them and they're using them and they're travelling with them and there's a great need for games there. So publishers of course sat up and went "oh. There are customers out there. And they're using that type of hardware. So now I can go ahead and do it." Very, very different map than you would have done a year ago on a Mac port.
I guess the last thing I'd add is the other interesting thing we're seeing from publishers and developers alike is people aren't necessarily thinking of it as... it's kind of derogatory to think of it as a Mac port. They're not thinking about porting about their games to Mac: they're thinking "wow, I need to write for a Mac. I'm not going to do a port six months later or maybe a year later, I should bring that in and do that now because there's a fair amount of people out there."
Doug Lombardi: and people understand the value of the simultaneous release from doing it with consoles. I mean people struggled with that all throughout the last 10 years or so, maybe even longer, where this version came this day and the other version came maybe months later. And people consolidated that. The other thing too, added to what Jason said, the power of the information gathered via Steam I think is something that publishers have really turned onto over the last year and a half or maybe two years. You get sort of addicted to that level of information.
It took a while for everybody to get on Steam, but once they got there and started seeing the power of that information, by the time the Mac launch happened people were instantly curious as to what happens, they were asking very intelligent data-driven questions about what they had seen, putting in suggestions for us to run different types of experiment on pricing and promotion and all that stuff on Mac titles, so they could wrap their heads around it and make their own plans for it. So we see that as a really, really good sign of what's to come from the publishing community for the Mac.