Steve Jobs was many things, but if we’re being honest, a gamer wasn’t one of them. It was a running a joke in enthusiast gamer circles, that until the iPhone came along, the Mac was where games went to die. Oh, you can dredge up the odd games-related interview here and there, where some diehard Apple enthusiast managed to corner Jobs long enough to produce gems like this, his response in 2002 to the question: “Why do you feel that games are necessary to the success and expansion of the Mac OS?”
Simply put, games are fun and lots of people want to have fun with their Macs. When I returned to Apple a few years ago, games were viewed as something which would paint the Mac as a less-than-serious business tool, so game development was discouraged. We feel quite differently, and actively try to nurture our game developers.
And yet gaming on the Mac (or until recently, any Apple device) was like begging for scraps at the dinner table. With few exceptions—Bungie’s Marathon series foremost among them—the Mac was basically gaming’s graveyard, a place where noteworthy originals rarely materialized, and ports of Windows games, when they happened at all, ran like performance-crippled shadows of the original versions (even after Apple switched to a mostly Intel-inside architecture). Even today, we see that legacy in OS X, where running a cutting-edge, ultra-developed and optimized game like StarCraft II on the Mac side, then popping over to a Windows install courtesy Boot Camp on the same system, reveals substantial double-digit percentile performance disparities.
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It took a little something called the iPhone—okay, really iOS, Apple’s mobile operating system—back in June 2007 to catalyze one of the fastest gaming turnarounds in video game history. Steve Jobs may not have set out to change the world of gaming or even really anticipated iOS’s potential to do so, but iOS (and a raring-to-go, vibrant development community) upended video gaming and rewrote the rulebook anyway.
It’s easy to get that mixed up or turned around. Today, gaming and Apple are ubiquitous. You can’t shake most people’s iPads, iPhones or iPod Touches without a half dozen tiny squarish game icons popping up, whether tucked away on one of iOS’s secondary screens or no. Apple’s probably done as much over the past four years to upend casual, touch-based gaming as Nintendo’s done for motion-related goofing around since the Wii arrived in 2006.
Nintendo and Sony are both running scared, and with good reason. In May 2010, Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata declared the battle with Sony was over, then boldly admitted Apple was “the enemy of the future.” And, it turns out, the future was right around the corner: In September 2010, during an Apple keynote, Steve Jobs claimed the iPod Touch alone outsold both Sony and Nintendo combined. While that last claim may have been exaggerated, in April this year, an analytics firm estimated iOS and Google devices accounted for 34% of 2010 game revenue, compared with 57% for the Nintendo DS and just 9% for Sony’s PSP. And that’s before the iPhone 4 fell into Verizon’s lap, and the iPad 2 launched with a faster, high-end gaming-friendlier A5 processor.
Today: Sony’s PSP has nearly fallen off the map in monthly unit sales, and Nintendo’s 3DS, off to a galloping start in March, quickly stalled, forcing an unprecedented price drop in August, barely five months after the no-glasses 3D handheld launched. Next on deck: The iPhone 4S, with the iPad 2’s dual-core A5 processor, and you can add Sprint to the Verizon/AT&T carrier mix, likely putting Apple’s gaming platform in the hands of millions more would-be mobile gamers.
As we step back and evaluate Steve Jobs’ career, it failures, missteps, and triumphs, Apple’s future as a gaming heavyweight seems all but assured, and the thing about that is, the guy who made it all possible—who spent years ensuring that Apple was in fact a relatively poor place for gaming—probably didn’t see it coming.
It’s testament to the incredibly scalability of the products Steve Jobs designed over the past four years that gaming (and consumer demand for it) have, in short order, gone on to redefine what iOS, Apple, and the games industry overall, are capable of.
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Matt Peckham is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @mattpeckham or on Facebook. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.