How Vintage Mac Games Inspired the Indie Developers of Today



I was a child of the late 80s and early 90s. Computers weren't super common in households just yet, so for a while it was an oddity that we had TWO of them growing up because my dad tinkered with computers in his spare time, and frequently brought home old Macs from work that were headed for the scrap heap once more robust machines started filling the office.

So, gaming on old Macs comprise some of my earliest memories. From the super compact models like the Macintosh SE and what later spawned several vaporwave memes like the Macintosh Plus to the "pizza box" Performa, the simplified point-and-click interface of early Macs was what colored most of my childhood. System 7's UX and look and feel are something I haven't felt in at least 15 years but I still remember that Chicago typeface and easy-to-use drop-down directory like it was yesterday. Then It was a huge deal when my family got a shiny new Power Mac at CompUSA (remember them?) 

Mac users are no longer a tiny niche in home computing. But that wasn't always the case, and I believe that early Mac games definitely ushered in today's era of indie developers looking to do what hadn't been done before.

The Mac Was Known for Graphic Superiority, Even in 1-Bit

The absolute earliest days of Mac gaming were quite simplistic in black and white with very fine-tuned pixels since the rendering was just 1-bit. A hallmark of a Mac shareware game (because that's what you were called instead of an indie developer at the time, if you lacked the backing of some of the first game publishers) circa 1988 were shockingly detailed black and white graphics that were capable of telling a story and creating an atmosphere. Early scanners were not common devices for businesses and developers, let alone consumers, so you'd often click that little apple in the upper left hand corner to read about the developers and see highly-dithered all-black versions of their photographs. 

Lucas Pope of Papers, Please fame is utilizing this very style in his upcoming game Return of the Obra Dinn. 1-bit art with well-defined tiny pixels definitely harkens back to those early Mac games and as more indie developers embrace minimalist art styles to both save on the art budget and rebel against the $5 million eyelash rendering seen in AAA, it'll be interesting to see how this style continues to make a comeback.

Color soon seeped into later Macs with 16-bit rendering offer a whopping 256 colors, with the Power Macs dazzling us with 32 bits and THOUSANDS of colors (but you still had the option in the control panel to switch back to 256 colors or even 16 colors if you really wanted to be old school!) PC users still outnumbered Mac users for home use by a huge margin, but Macs offered a graphically-superior experience to PCs if you really see the beauty in those hand-drawn or painted game backgrounds.

The User Interface Was Mind-Blowing at the Time

Booting up a Mac was so easy back then, that a child could do it. Literally. Of course, the same has also been true of PCs since Windows 95 onward when the point-and-click interface was decidedly superior to manually booting up DOS every time you wanted to do anything from play a game to run invoicing software. And who didn't want love being greeted by that iconic Happy Mac after starting up? Or seeing the equally-iconic Sad Mac if the machine crashed?

The early days of Maccery were just rife for innovation with games because you didn't have this cumbersome process in just booting it up in the first place. Early computers weren't exactly known for being simple to use, so the fact that the Mac was relatively plug-and-play was just a revolutionary concept. Because disk space was at a premium, installing games and any other kind of software was still a long and tedious activity until the advent of the CD-ROM. But once you got those games installed, you were on easy street because all you had to do was point and click: you weren't forced to use the keyboard or type in commands for everything under the sun.

But how come in spite of an interface that seemed practically made for intuitive games, PCs were still outselling Macs 16:1 in 1989 and 10:1 in 1992?

The Ports Never Came, So We Just Made Our Own

This is because, interestingly, Apple executives were initially recalcitrant about wanting to include a game with the first Macs or push made-to-spec Mac development to early game developers. Because the interface was so simple and graphical style super smooth and not highly-pixellated, they were afraid that doing so was going to relegate the machine to toy status and not be taken seriously in the marketplace compared to DOS. Because of this, Macs were just not as heavily-adopted for gaming in the 80s and 90s so developers treated Macs as an afterthought for the most part. After all, given how PCs outsold Macs by a huge margin, it made perfect business sense.

So, a major and bittersweet part of Mac gaming the early 90s that I recall strongly  was the high likelihood I'd have to wait 1-2 years for a Mac port to come out for a game I was really excited about-- that is, if one ever did. Monkey Island is seriously the only game series I can recall playing in sequential order and long after both the first and second games had already hit the market because LucasFilm made Mac ports of their more well-known games.

Mac-only developers were a bit of a novelty back then and that was often what it took to get great games for the Mac. Shufflepuck Cafe is one of the more prominent games from the 1-bit era that actually eventually got ported to Windows. What was probably the most well-known Mac-to-PC port was Myst because it was a revolutionary game for its time and the biggest one made in Hypercard.

Because speaking of Hypercard? Since it was so hard to find Mac ports, if they were ever made, this led to-- you guessed it-- TONS OF SHAREWARE!

Whether those games were made with Hypercard, WorldBuilder, or your very own proprietary engine since this was before the days of fairly accessible pre-packaged engines? That's what Mac gamers mostly had to rely on since it would take F-O-R-E-V-E-R to see those Mac ports appear at your local Egghead or Babbage's (remember those too?) It was always so cruel to get incredibly excited looking at a cool game box, and virtually never ever seeing a MAC sticker on it. Then if you did, chances are it would also cost $10-15 more than the DOS version since boxed games regularly cost in the upwards of $25-60 and no, they were nowhere the size and scope of AAA games that sell for $60 a pop nowadays.

By the late 90s, The Journeyman Project, Bungie's Oni, and Jump Raven followed suit after Myst for being major hits that made PC gamers feel the envy us Mac gamers felt for years. Middleware proved to make those ports difficult, but it was still nothing compared to the ports that never came, took forever to come, and/or entailed a "Mac tax" when they hit the shelves.

So, Mac gamers had no choice but shareware. Since those ports often never showed up, we already had to make our own. Little did we know this was going to predicate indie developers making the kind of games big publishers wouldn't touch. You just had more wherewithal to take the risk on the kind of game you wanted to make, and could rest assured that the superior graphic quality on Macs could make your own pixels look shinier than they would on DOS, because in spite of the mechanisms for gathering an audience not being as prevalent as they are now you had a hungry market. It was basically the indiepocalypse in reverse: you had people who played Mac games and not enough of them to pick from, and instead of decision fatigue on Steam and sundry you just couldn't get your game through retail channels unless you had millions of dollars and were in California or Washington.

What Can Today's Indie Developers Learn From Early Mac Shareware?

Fast-forward to today: PC and Mac desktop and laptop sales still have a gap that favors the former but it's very close compared to the old days. Between those glory days of Mac gaming-- which have been pretty hard to preserve given how OS X and beyond functioning in Classic Mode totally butchered the functionality of most Mac games intended for System 8.1 and earlier-- and the modern gaming era, Apple had a first-mover advantage with its portable devices. The MacBook was considered a top-of-the-line laptop once and a dream machine stacked up next to comparable portable PCs. When the burgeoning Internet culture of the late 90s reached critical mass and MP3 files were no longer these huge things that had to be split up to send to somebody, Apple changed the world with the iPod and other portable devices that made the competition go crazy trying to emulate or improve upon.

It's no surprise that soon enough, Apple left those old shareware games in the dust and now you have to go through so much more to get an iOS Developer account, and you'll do it because it totally holds the dominant market share. Plus, after spending the past five years as an Android user before finally caving in and getting an iPhone? Some days it feels hard to believe everything on the mobile market from chargers and accessories in stores to games is practically iOS-first, remembering that pernicious "Mac tax" on games growing up.

With how much more seamless ports are today, never getting a Mac port seems unlikely given how it's no longer seen as this oddity that executives initially didn't want sullying a machine with 1-bit rendering.



The industry has also come into its own and now you're called an indie developer for better or worse. That decision fatigue is totally a thing and there's simply a hell whole lot more games out there: TOO many games, or no? Having a new interface and tools to work with is definitely what spurred early indie developers, along with mainstream publishers not fulfilling a niche.

Technology is one way indie developers can rise above the indiepocalypse by solving a problem niche gamers are facing that other devs and publishers aren't addressing, just like the Mac shareware devs did back then. But I think subject matter is the way we'll have to go: what about marginalized groups who are underrepresented in games? What kind of stories are not being told, compared to the ones that have been told millions of times? Looking at what AAA and Hollywood are both up to these days: aren't we getting tired of the same old stories being told over and over, and need to see some new voices?

What hasn't been done before, and what niche is being ignored?