Update 4:24am: The ‘not much to say’ thing is no longer true. See the last couple of paragraphs for details of the first third-party titles coming to Steam for the Mac
My invitation to the Steam for Mac beta came with an explicit statement that there was no embargo. I was implored to take screenshots and write up my impressions etc. The thing is that there’s really not all that much to say at this stage. I think the gushing excitement in my previous post on the subject adequately conveyed what I think this might mean for the whole games industry, and for Mac gaming in particular. All that will only be more true if the rumoured Linux version should also come to pass.
At the moment though, the Steam for Mac Beta is essentially just that. A beta of the Steam client for Mac OS X. We won’t know how big the revolution is until the public release next week, when we get to see how many games make it in to Valve’s Mac store; and more particularly, how widespread is the support for the ‘Steam Play’ cross-platform license.
With all that in mind, the rest of the article follows roughly the mould of that highest form of videogame writing: the ‘Lets play’. There follow large screenshots, pointing out tiny differences between the platforms, and frame rate comparisons for the currently available games on my ageing MacBook Pro 2,1. If I were a professional blogger then I might have spent the weekend testing the games on a variety of Mac models. As it is, I can compare performance under OS X and the the same machine running Vista with Boot Camp.
So, starting at the beginning, Steam’s install process will be familiar to anyone who’s ever installed a decent OS X application, and entirely alien to most Windows users. The download unzips into a folder containing the application and a symbolic link to your Applications folder and, as the above screenshot indicates, you need ‘simply drag’ the one onto the other. This is the start of a precedent that’s generally held throughout: Steam for OS X obeys most Mac UI conventions. As was noted when the beta was leaked a couple of weeks ago, the exception to this is that it dumps all its data files in the user’s Documents folder, rather than in Library where they belong.
From here on in we’re into familiar territory for anyone coming from the Windows Steam client. On starting Steam for the first time we’re presented with a dialog asking whether we want to log in or create a new account. There’s nothing here any different from the new Steam for Windows released last month, apart from standard OS X window controls in the top left. I’ve had my existing account enabled for the beta, so I want to log in with that.
Having logged in, there’s another site that will be familiar to users of Steam for Windows: the update news pop-ups. There’s a deluge of these before I’m allowed at the main Steam window. Thankfully, the Mac store page isn’t operational yet, so I can’t be tempted into spending any money.
Once we’ve closed the Steam update news window, we’re presented with the Steam storefront window. Except there is no store at the moment, only an invitation to try Portal for free during the beta. I already own Portal, so that’s not really necessary. I’m interested to find out how it runs on the Mac, however. While we’re here though, we might as well observe what appears to be the biggest difference between the Mac and Windows clients: Steam on OS X is using Helvetica where the new Steam on Windows uses Ariel. Otherwise, standard OS X user interface conventions apply: the window controls have moved to the top left, and the menu bar has moved to the top of the screen. The file menu being renamed to ‘Steam’, of course, has happened in the new Windows release too, and was the first thing that got my hopes up when I signed up to the beta back in February.
Switching to the Library view, we can see all the games in my regular Steam for Windows collection. Selecting any of them gives the same info screen as the new Steam for Windows, only with a message at the letting us know that they are ‘not available on your current platform.’
As indicated by the front page, there is one exception. Lets get started on downloading Portal and see how it plays.
We click on the install button and, again, everything is familiar from Steam for Windows. First, a dialog showing the disk space available and the disk space required. I’m hoping I might be able to reclaim some of the space wasted by my Windows partition if it’s no longer needed for gaming. Sadly that doesn’t seem likely for the time being, and we’ll get to why in a moment.
Having stepped through all the same stages as on Windows, Portal is finally downloading. Note the Dock icon has changed, in the same form as the the notification area icon on Windows. Here it’s large and shiny though.
This is where it starts to get a little disappointing. Portal has downloaded fine, the game has loaded beautifully. But it’s defaulted to a pretty low resolution. The overlay runs in native resolution over the top of the lower resolution game, which is a nice touch. It certainly can’t do that in most games on Windows, though it’s been a while since I ran any Source based games in anything other than native resolution. So I switch the game resolution up to native 1680×1050 and, oh… Oh dear.
Now, I know that my three year old MacBook Pro 2,1, with its 256MB ATI X1600 and it’s 2GB RAM, is not exactly a top of the range gaming rig. But it ran all the Orange Box games at native resolution no problem in Vista under Boot Camp. I can’t remember the exact settings I used (I’m downloading Portal again as I write, so I can test it properly), but certainly Half Life 2 ran a dream on maximum settings. Everything from Lost Coast onward required turning down a little to get perfectly smooth, but I don’t think anything in the Orange Box was that far down. Recently I’ve been playing Left 4 Dead 2 fine in native resolution with everything else turned down. Probably not at a frame rate pro gamers would love, but it’s enough for me to have fun. I can’t imagine that being the case under OS X based on the performance I’ve seen here. And certainly I don’t expect to be playing Portal 2 under OS X.
Running at lower resolution, or in a window on the desktop, the game was playable. But, much as I hate doing it, I’d prefer to continue rebooting to Windows to play in native resolution full screen. I guess I’ll just have to get on with saving for that 27″ iMac.
Running the game in a window did reveal one other curious thing, however. When I started the game, Steam (or maybe Source) seemed to noticeably colour shift my screen. You can’t see the effect here, as everything, including the screenshot, went back to normal when the game quit. It explains why the above screenshot appears to have a dark tint though – when the game started everything, including the Steam Window and my desktop background, took on a noticeably bluer hue.
Valve don’t seem to have publicised it yet, but Portal isn’t actually the only game available to download. Selecting the Mac Games category in the Library reveals that TF2 is also available for download.
As the above screenshot shows, TF2 is clearly at a much earlier stage than Portal, and I strongly suspect Valve won’t be delivering their entire back catalogue to Mac users on launch day. I guess we’ll be seeing incremental releases for the next few months, presumably cumulating in the release of Portal 2 on both platforms simultaneously. Hopefully there’ll be improvements to the frame rates as well, which affect TF2 just as much as they do Portal. The colour shift happened here as well, so, again, that explains the tint on my screenshot. TF2 did seem to receive a fairly large update as I was writing this, so I’ll test it again, and see if I can measure the framerates compared to Windows and do another update in another day or two, if I’ve not been beaten to it by then.
Also while I was editing this post, something rather exciting happened:
Yes, the Mac Games category has grown to include several third party and indie titles. This is good news. I bought Touchlight in the Christmas sale and haven’t played it yet. Hopefully it’ll be run at a playable framerate on my ageing machine, and won’t suffer the issues Source games seem too. Machinarium was one of my highlights of last year, and probably my favourite adventure game since The Longest Journey. Hopefully Peggle Nights is a sign that Popcap will be bringing their whole collection to Steam Play. And since I took this screenshot, the entire Civ IV series has been added to the list, so hopefully the same goes for Firaxis, or maybe even the whole of 2K. I can dream.
So, who want’s to buy me that iMac?