What's old is new again

Shareware isn’t exactly a new idea. But the distribution model for shareware is being adapted by commercial game publishers for a new breed of commercial game that’s starting to impact how Mac games are sold.

Mac games are scarce enough these days and their shelf space keeps dwindling—even at Apple Stores, which have really done a lot to keep Mac games in peoples’ crosshairs over the past few years, according to what Mac game publishers tell me.

Why the dwindling shelf space? It isn’t just games: Software shelf space is shrinking altogether to make more room for iPod accessories and other products that Apple Store visitors are more likely to buy on impulse.

This has made a bad situation worse, where one of the few places that Mac game publishers have had to showcase their products has reduced the amount of space available to them.

At least one company—Vindico Technologies, out of England—has done something about it. They've created Deliver2Mac, an online distribution system that lets you buy games and download them on the spot. Vindico has also branched out into the distribution of non-game titles like Mariner Software’s MacJournal and Mariner Write software, for example.

This is no different than what shareware authors have been doing for years now. The difference is that Vindico—founded by the same folks who run Virtual Programming Ltd. (hence the plethora of VP Ltd. titles in the Deliver2Mac library)—is distributing the same game you’d otherwise find on a CD. Getting stateside distribution and retail shelf space is an expensive, tricky business, and this helps software makers cut out the distributors and the retailers all together, selling directly to the public.

Macgamestore.com is another good example of this alternative to store shelf space. Put together by the same folks who run the excellent Mac news site Inside Mac Games, Macgamestore.com gives you a place where you can buy the latest commercial releases online and have them shipped to you. The company hasn’t broadened its delivery system to include online downloads for big, commercial games, though it’s gotten part-way there with an entire cottage industry of casual games, many of which you can play online for free. It seems like commercial game downloads are an inevitability for Macgamestore.com to start trafficking in before too long.

This idea of buying a game online and having it shipped to you is the same thing that Macsoft, Aspyr Media, and Feral Interactive are doing as well. That process doesn’t reward folks who put down their money with any instant gratification the way that Deliver2Mac does, but it will get you the game without having to deal with the hassle of finding a retailer who carries it. And these companies are only too painfully aware that they’re leaving money on the table by not offering a download service, so expect that to change.

It was the release of Steam, a system developed by Half-Life creator Valve Software, that really got the momentum going in this direction. More than just a simple download technology, Steam also uses digital rights management and features its own multiplayer communications system and anti-cheat technology. It’s also a way for games to stay updated with the latest patches.

Steam serves to not only make sure that people who play Half-Life 2 have actually bought it, but it’s also being used more and more as a content delivery system for other companies who want to get the word out about their own games. And while DRM-managed systems aren’t the most popular things in the world, and some of Steam’s idiosyncrasies and early instability problems shook consumer faith in it, it’s definitely paved the way for similar systems to be developed.

But whither the iTunes Music Store? Why doesn’t Apple “get in the game,” so to speak?

I don’t see Apple becoming a broker for Macintosh games because frankly, it has bigger fish to fry. If the murmurings out of Los Angeles are correct, then Apple is making a full-court press to try to win the hearts and minds of movie studio execs to use the iTunes Music Store as a way of distributing major motion picture content.

But more importantly, Apple’s biggest successes to date with the iTunes Music Store have involved one aspect that Mac games lack—cross-platform compatibility. Let’s not forget that the iTunes Music Store exploded once Apple introduced iTunes for Windows. It’s kept Mac and Windows users on a very even keel, and the user experience for iTunes and the iTunes Music Store is identical regardless of which platform you’re using.

But there really isn’t anything Mac-specific about the iTunes Music Store itself. The files you buy there can play on a Mac, or a PC, or an iPod—it just doesn’t matter. Setting up an iTunes Music Store for Mac games would fracture that platform-agnostic method for content distribution, and I don’t see Apple changing its tune, if you'll pardon the pun. So I believe we’ll need to continue to look at third parties as ways of getting Mac games for the future.

Unless the percentage of Mac games sold increases dramatically, I don’t really see the retail situation changing any time soon—I think Mac games will continue to get short shrift in retail stores where Mac software is sold. But by employing new technology and reinventing old ideas, there’s no reason why Mac game makers can’t continue to forge ahead and give their customers what they’re looking for.

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