Macworld Expo in games: Analysis and recap

Mac game mavens noticed a marked absence of “big” announcements from Macworld Expo. Despite that, however, there was still news from the show — though much of it was from smaller developers and publishers that might not have been on many gamers’ radar a year ago.

Aspyr Media led the way with an early announcement that it is porting Call of Duty 2 to the Mac. This is a hotly anticipated World War II-era first person shooter that’s sold like gangbusters since it was introduced with Microsoft’s new Xbox 360 game console. The Mac version isn’t expected out until Spring, but it will ship as a Universal Binary, which means that it’ll run natively on PowerPC or Intel-based Macs. Aspyr has similar plans for its already-announced Mac conversions of Quake IV and Civilization IV.

Major publisher roundup

Perhaps more notable for its absence, MacSoft elected not to exhibit at this year’s show. The company is actively developing new products for the Mac. What’s more, the company’s general manager Al Schilling noted that it plans to make an announcement about a major new Mac game headed our way some time next month, during the Macworld Live! Game Room session on the show floor on Friday afternoon.

Freeverse Software is best known for its publication of originally developed Mac casual games. That’s why the company’s news that it’s porting Heroes of Might and Magic V and Legion Arena to the Macintosh surprised many. The company’s moving in a new direction with these two games, which should cater to strategy and military game fans, respectively.

Freeverse hasn’t stepped away from its roots, however. Freeverse was also the co-sponsor of the Original Mac Games (OMG) Cup 2005 competition — a contest created to help spur the original development of Mac games. During the Macworld Live! Game Room session on Friday, Freeverse President Ian Lynch Smith announced the winner of the contest — a 2D shooter called Escort Wing, created by William Hogben and Stephen Johnson. As the grand prize winners, Hogben and Johnson win a cash prizes, game, and the opportunity to turn Escort Wing into a finished product that Freeverse will release either as shareware or publish as a commercial title.

Feral Interactive didn’t have any new announcements for the show, but the company was in force at Macworld Expo, with its own booth and plenty of product to sell, ranging from casual games like Worms Blast to full on shooters like XIII, racers like Ford Racing 2 and more. Expect to hear a lot more from Feral in the months ahead, as it prepares the release of Colin McRae Rally 2005, Fable: The Lost Chapters, Black & White 2 and lots more games.

Blizzard Entertainment also featured its World of Warcraft game running on a new 17-inch Intel-based iMac. The iMac turned in impressive frame rates, rarely dropping below the 40s and 50s in most areas, with graphics turned up to most of their maximum settings. That’s using a Universal Binary development build that will be rolled into a free, new update expected soon.

Indies galore

GarageGames, which produces a licensable game engine that Macintosh, Linux and Windows developers can use, has published TubeTwist, a new 3D puzzler that puts you in the role of an assistant to a professor who has discovered the secret of time travel. You must recreate his experiments, which involve routing energy spheres through elaborate tubular mazes.

Pangea Software — makers of Nanosaur, Bugdom, Otto Matic and other games that have been bundled with the Mac over the years — is back in the game with Enigmo 2, a new version of their 3D action puzzler. You manipulate water, plasma and other flowing substances through mazes, using switches, force fields, magneto-spheres and other objects to move the stream from the start point to the end point. It’ll ship as a Universal Binary when Enigmo 2 is released in February.

Popcap Games’ products have been brought to the Mac before by third parties, but now the company is offering Mac versions itself. The company has announced the release of three new titles — Bejeweled 2, Bookworm and Zuma.

Stone Design has distinguished itself as a creator of original Mac OS X applications like iMaginator, PStill and Create. Now the company is offering a level editor for McSebi’s free (and excellent) Pac Man homage, Pac the Man.

GameHouse used the event to show off its recently released puzzle word game Acropolis, in which you link letters to form words; succeed and you’ll win treasure and trophies. The game uses an ancient Greek motif.

The Games Arcade

The centerpiece of the games section of this year’s Macworld Expo exhibit hall was an arcade area. A fixture of the show for years, the area is coordinated by Apple and comprises dozens of kiosks populated by Power Macs and iMacs showing off the latest games. There were also two long rows of Power Mac G5s set up for multiplayer tournaments, which happened throughout the show.

Aspyr, MacSoft, Feral, Blizzard and MacPlay and other major publishers used the opportunity to show off games to passersby ranging from Zoo Tycoon 2 to Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2005, Rayman 3 to The Incredibles: Rise of the Underminer. There was even a G5 with a hefty display running Laminar Research’s X-Plane, which is more a serious flight sim than actual game.

Many smaller vendors also made their appearances there: Of particular note was Tabula Digita’s Dimenxian, an innovative game that combines elements of third-person and first-person action games with, of all things, algebra. The game’s motto is “Learn math or die trying.”

Crazy Machines — a brain-twister that puts you in control of Rube Goldberg-style wacky machines — and Agon, a Myst-style graphical adventure. Both games are published by Viva Media.

The elephant in the room

Taking the long-term view, once Windows Vista is released, will dual-boot Macs doom the development of Mac games? After all, what’s to make a game publisher support the Mac if they can just sell them a Windows game instead?

This doesn’t seem to be an overwhelming concern for many of the Mac game developers with whom I spoke last week. They certainly recognize that some “hardcore” gamers may indeed create dual-boot systems (something they can’t, as I understand it, do easily today thanks to Apple’s use of Extensible Firmware Architecture, or EFI, in place of the BIOS that Windows XP expects).

But people who identify themselves as “gamers” make up a relatively small percentage of the overall Mac-using population. By comparison, if you ask the average Mac user if he plays games, you’ll more likely get an affirmative response.

Game developers and publishers understand this, and we’re seeing fewer and fewer “hardcore” Mac games with each passing year. More and more of those folks have defected to video game consoles from both the Mac and the PC, or are building (or buying) PC systems to run the games they want to play.

Instead, we’re seeing more games like Zoo Tycoon 2 and The Sims 2, which are more likely to appeal to a broad base of gamers, as well as a massive expansion in the number of casual games that we can all play between meetings, on commutes, or when we have a few spare minutes.

The market evolves

An informal count shows that in 2005, more than 100 game titles shipped for the Mac that incorporated 3D graphics acceleration — a new record. Interestingly, though, the number of games that emerged as “A” or “AAA” titles — a loose definition applied to major, commercial releases — dwindled from more than 50 in 2004 to less than 30 in 2005.

This is indicative of a continued shift in the marketplace. Major game publishers simply can’t afford to port a lot of games to the Macintosh every year — certainly not in the volume they have in years past. People aren’t buying them in large enough quantities to justify further expansion of development teams and marketing and licensing efforts.

The good news is that original Mac game development, and parallel development with Windows and console games, is a continuing trend that shows no signs of abating any time soon, with more tools to aid developers in creating multi-platform games being released and updated continuously.

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