The Year in Games

Mac gamers will likely look back on 2004 as the year when Mac game publishers grew up. Destineer, the parent company of MacSoft, and Aspyr Media both announced plans to release original games—quite an achievement for an industry that, by and large, has been dependent on conversion of titles from the PC and consoles.

Neither of those efforts have come to fruition quite yet, but we’ve got 2005 to look forward to, as Destineer publishes Close Combat: First to Fight and Aspyr publishes Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse. Both games are expected to be released simultaneously on Mac, Windows, and other systems.

The 2004 Mac gaming scene was also punctuated with a few high-profile releases that deserved attention, with perhaps the most significant game of the year—MacSoft’s Mac version of Halo— actually arriving in December 2003. However, the momentum of the game’s long-awaited Mac debut carried well into the new year. Halo had first been shown publicly at Macworld Expo in New York years before by Bungie Software—the darling of Macintosh gamers everywhere for its roots as a Mac game developer and creator of the legendary Marathon and Myth series. Halo spent several years as an Xbox exclusive before finally making its way to Windows and then the Mac.

European Union

While Minneapolis-based MacSoft and Austin, Texas-based Aspyr both deservedly share much of the spotlight this year, the efforts of Mac game developers in the U.K. and Germany cannot be discounted. This was a banner year for Feral Interactive, which grabbed a number of entertaining game licenses from A-list houses like Ubi Soft and Electronic Arts.

Total Immersion Racing
Feral’s stable of games included a little something for everyone: Total Immersion Racing (pictured right) and Ford Racing 2 for auto racing enthusiasts; Rayman 3 and Worms 3D for console gamers looking for fun on their Macs; and XIII for fans of the cult-hit French graphic novel.

Virtual Programming Ltd. continued its Mac game development and publishing efforts with a successful partnership with Freeverse Software that netted VP Ltd. a stateside distribution arm. What’s more, the scrappy game maker kicked off its Virtual Product Service, which enables users to buy Virtual Programming’s games online and download them, rather than incurring the time and expense of having the products shipped from the U.K. to their address. This is old news for gamers accustomed to shareware distribution, but it’s a novelty for commercial game publishers in the Macintosh space.

Virtual Programming differentiated itself from its U.K.-based rival Feral by licensing games a bit more off the beaten track, with a specific emphasis on the strategy genre—fully half of Virtual Programming’s current library are real-time or turn-based strategy games.

Intrepid German publisher e.p.i.c. interactive continued its efforts with unique strategy games. Like Virtual Programming, e.p.i.c. used Freeverse Software’s distribution capabilities to leverage distribution in the difficult North American market.

The Impact: More game publishers—regardless of where they’re physically located—enable more games to come to the Mac. Even the biggest and best-funded publisher will be able to produce only so many titles at a time, so it’s good to see these other companies bringing new blood to the Macintosh.

Destinee Calls

Railroad Tycoon
With so much effort expended on its original game First to Fight, it’s amazing that Destineer’s MacSoft label had the ability to do much else. Everything that MacSoft does seems worthy of attention, from the first-person shooter Unreal Tournament 2004 to the real-time strategy game Railroad Tycoon 3 (pictured right). Age of Mythology and Rise of Nations both arrived to appeal to strategy game fans looking for Civilization-style thrills, as well.

The Impact: MacSoft isn’t the most prolific game publisher on the Macintosh platform, but it is one of the most influential, thanks to careful decisions about what to bring. Everything MacSoft puts out is worth looking at, and it looks like it’s not going to change its formula any time soon.

Aspyring to Greatness

Media powerhouse Aspyr Media had another banner year, publishing dozens of games for the Macintosh, Windows and Game Boy Advance—and ending the year by diversifying into PocketPC as well. The company was responsible for bringing a number of hotly anticipated A-list games to the Macintosh in 2004, including Call of Duty, Battlefield 1942, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Homeworld 2 and many others.

Doom 3
The Impact: Aspyr Media is the most prolific Mac game publisher around right now. The company’s strategy focuses on both “big” games (like the upcoming releases Doom 3 —pictured right—and The Sims 2 ) and “little” games (like MTX: Mototrax and Space Colony ). Both efforts feed each other, as maintaining relationships with the same publishers that offer up the B-list games ultimately yield A-list opportunities. The net result is an embarrassment of riches for Mac gamers, and a wide library of titles from which to choose.

Whither MacPlay?

United Developers imprint MacPlay turned a corner this year. The company had, for years, struggled to carve out a niche for itself as a purveyor of A-list Mac games. With its development partner—The Omni Group, makers of OmniWeb and other Mac OS X utilities—returning its focus to its own software efforts and an increasingly competitive market, MacPlay did some soul-searching and came up with an alternative: they became a purveyor of casual gaming titles and a reseller of other companies’ games, too.

MacPlay released a slew of casual games for the Macintosh and PC this past year, ranging from arcade puzzlers to word games and more. Working with fellow United Developers studio MumboJumbo and with external developers like Jamdat and Gamehouse, MacPlay has beefed up its library considerably with impulse-priced games designed to appeal to a wider audience than its previous efforts. Finally, MacPlay surprised many in the game community late in 2004 by reselling games from former competitors MacSoft, Aspyr, and others—relaunching its Web site as a full-blown e-store.

The Impact: Hardcore gamers consistently underestimate the casual game market because it’s not sexy, it’s not headline-worthy, and it doesn’t make a huge splash. Despite that, there are a lot more casual gamers out there than hardcore gamers. If there’s a sleeper headline for 2004, it’s MacPlay’s move to appeal to the casual gamer. The ramifications of MacPlay’s decision to sell other companies’ games is less clear, but if it sells more boxes for companies like Aspyr and MacSoft, so be it—a rising tide raises all boats, after all.

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