November 2006. Then-Palm CEO Ed Colligan makes a statement about Apple’s iPhone that will forever haunt him. “We’ve learned and struggled for a few years here figuring out how to make a decent phone,” he said. “PC guys are not going to just figure this out. They’re not going to just walk in.” But Apple surprised everyone and did just that; and the iPhone laid the groundwork for a gaming revolution – removing the ‘phone’ led to the iPod Touch. Adding the App Store resulted in thousands of games being released via a flourishing ecosystem reminiscent of the Eighties indie games scene and, what’s more, millions of happy consumers were buying more games than ever before, due to their low price points. Seemingly from nowhere, Apple is a major player in gaming. But, again, should we be surprised? Apple’s success might well seem a combination of fluke, digital distribution marketing savvy and aggressive expansion into the mobile marketplace, but Apple has always dipped a toe into the murky waters of videogaming.
Apple’s beginnings were in the hobbyist market. Co-founder Steve Wozniak had wowed by designing a Breakout prototype so technically advanced that Atari had to double the number of chips to manufacture the game itself. Wozniak’s technical savvy then birthed the Apple I, a basic home computer where the user had to supply a keyboard, monitor, transformer and case. The Apple II arrived a year later and offered high-res graphics, sound capabilities and, importantly, you didn’t have to put the thing together yourself. “At the time, I thought computers were the coolest thing in the world, and I was a videogame addict,” recalls Brian Greenstone, founder of Pangea Software. “The Apple II was the PC of its day, and it was the platform to work on.” He recalls not disliking anything about the machine, but admits the bar was set low in the late Seventies. “Just having black, white, blue, orange, green and purple was plenty back then, and the basic audio seemed magical. The best thing was you could turn the Apple II on and start writing BASIC. Doing assembly was easy, too, because the 6502 only had a handful of registers and commands.”
The platform also fascinated a young John Romero, who says early Apple II games he sampled – David’s Midnight Magic, Castle Wolfenstein, Gorgon, Sabotage – made him want to learn to program. “It was a wonderful machine, and I saw its limitations as challenges to overcome. It was rewarding working with a computer that rewarded you more when you put time into learning it. I loved how much there was to learn, from the ROM to DOS/ProDOS to 6502 coding to advanced techniques for rendering. To me, the Apple II was pure magic.”
Dan Gorlin, creator of Choplifter, wasn’t so enamoured, saying he “in a way disliked everything about the Apple II,” complaining about the lack of any means to make music or sound effects other than with the CPU, so everything had to stop while sound was being made. “But one thing I did enjoy was having absolute control over timing. Everything was real-time – no hardware interrupts or other programs running – so you could polish timing perfectly.” Romero reckons the Apple II’s “peculiar limitations” merely dictated the kind of games you could make, as he says: “Other platforms, like the C64 and Atari 800, were superior for action games, because they had hardware for graphics and sound. But the games looked similar, because they were rendering through the same API, the same graphics chip. The Apple II had no hardware for that, so programmers had to invent their own ways of getting graphics on the screen.”
Romero says varied approaches led to a vast array of rendering techniques that provided you with unique identification of a programmer – you could tell who wrote each game. This, he thinks, made the Apple II a platform where a creator could express their creativity, with a very open canvas. And while other platforms surpassed the Apple II in the games market, Apple’s machine still had plenty to offer: various Ultimas, Night Mission Pinball and Pinball Construction Set, Flight Simulator, Star Blazer, Karateka, Lode Runner, Choplifter – all great games at home on the Apple II. As the Apple II aged, Apple updated the line, with the Apple IIe in 1983 and the Apple IIGS, a 16-bit offering that retained backwards compatibility with its forerunners. However, despite a loyal user base, the platform was gradually eclipsed by the Macintosh. Not everyone made the leap. Gorlin recalls obvious contenders at the time for the next gaming platform were the Mac and Amiga, but the Mac’s black-and-white display put him off. Romero adds that Apple’s success in the publishing industry caused Macs to become ‘typecast’, and many Apple games developers made a surprising jump to the PC. Greenstone recalls the same, as he says: “It was weird – in high school, no one would use a PC, but in the late Eighties everyone ditched Apple IIs and bought PCs.” Wanting nothing to do with command-line interfaces and “primitive graphics and audio on the PC,” Greenstone decided the Mac was the technical winner, but Apple’s support for videogames was decidedly sporadic.