Aspyr: Gamerhood targets entire gaming experience

At a time when retail shelf space for game software is as scarce as it’s ever been while new Mac users clamor for games, Mac game publisher Aspyr Media has come up with a bold new initiative to meet that demand. Dubbed Gamerhood , the software targeted for a late-2006 debut will let you download not only the latest and greatest Aspyr Media games, but casual games and older titles that might otherwise get squeezed off of brick-and-mortar retail shelves.

To find out about Aspyr’s plans for Gamerhood and how it could potentially change the face of Mac gaming, Macworld sat down with Michael Rogers, president of the Austin, Texas-based game maker.

Welcome to Mr. Rogers’ Gamerhood

Outside of Apple retail stores, Comp USA and other select Mac resellers, it’s almost impossible to find Mac games on the shelves of a store. And if you live far away from any of those options, your exposure to major commercial Mac games may be minimal—or totally nonexistent.

Gamerhood, announced Monday by Aspyr, aims to change that by providing a one-stop shop for Mac gamers who want new games. But Rogers added that Aspyr also sees Gamerhood as a way to improve several elements of the Mac gameplay experience.

One such element is copy protection. CD and DVD checks, required by many games, force Mac users to have their discs on hand in order to play, even if they’ve bought the game legitimately, registered it, and entered the game’s serial number. That’s particularly burdensome for laptop users, who have to carry around game discs if they want to play when they’re out and about.

“We’ve been listening to people about CD checks, and we recognize that more people than ever have notebooks that they want to game on,” Rogers said. “Rather than forcing these folks to download a crack, we want to make it easier for people to play.”

Gamerhood will enable users to download games after buying them from Aspyr and back them up to another hard drive, CD, or DVD, depending on the size. Gamers won’t need a physical disk in their optical drives, though their machines will need to be authorized in order to play—Aspyr is still working on some of the details on how that will work, Rogers said. But he envisions a system where one user can pass along a copy of their game to another to save them the download time—as long as that new user is authorized to download games as well.

Another element Aspyr aims to improve via Gamerhood is the experience of playing and using a Mac game. Gamerhood will serve as a unified system for downloading updates and patches to new games, so users won’t need to worry about making sure they have the latest version installed.

“It needs to be easier to play a game and manage your experience,” Rogers added. “We want to make updates, backups and patches as simple as possible.”

Finally, Aspyr hopes to tackle the ever-present problem of game availability. With Gamerhood, Rogers believes Aspyr will have the opportunity to expand its library of available Mac games. “If you go into any Mac software retailer, there are only a few games available” he said. “And that space is limited. In order to get new games on store shelves, we often have to pull older ones out of circulation, even if they’re still selling okay.

“We’d like to get more choices and more games into people’s hands. Things that wouldn’t be available at retail anyway, and other products that are more casual-style games—card games, puzzle games and so on.”

By removing physical shelf space from the equation, Aspyr could, theoretically, resurrect older titles that still have some marketability but aren’t viable in stores. The company could also offer products like expansion packs for existing games which also aren’t shelf-friendly, but still may hold a market, as well as casual games that Aspyr hasn’t touched in a very long time.

Ain’t nothin’ but a G thang

Gamerhood will launch in the fourth-quarter of 2006 with mostly Aspyr-licensed titles, Rogers explained. “But we’re hoping this isn’t something that will be restricted only to our games eventually,” he added.

To that end, Rogers said that Aspyr has had discussions with other key Macintosh game developers and publishers; he hopes those initial talks will come to fruition before Gamerhood’s launch.

Aspyr will debut Gamerhood for the Macintosh, but it’s not going to be a restricted community. With Aspyr increasing its presences outside the Mac—it has about a dozen-and-a-half PC games in its current inventory—Gamerhood will eventually be made for other platforms too, Rogers said.

“For us it’s about getting the experience right first, and all of those experiences I’ve had on the Mac have been very positive,” Rogers said.

Aspyr envisions Gamerhood as an alternative to the tradition retail channel, which Rogers said will continue to be of key importance to the company. “Stores are still the biggest driver of our sales,” he added.

To that end, don’t expect a price incentive when you buy top-tier commercial games from Gamerhood—chances are that games purchased and downloaded online will cost the same as the store-bought copy, at least if the top-tier game is released simultaneously on Gamerhood and in stores. Documentation like game manuals, will be included as PDF files that you can view on your computer screen or print out.

iTunes the model, Mac game sales on the rise

Rogers said that Apple’s iTunes Music Store is the model for Gamerhood—not Valve Software’s Steam technology, which is required in order to play the hit Windows game Half-Life 2. While Steam similarly allows you to download and play games without needing a disc in your drive, it’s been criticized for problematic connections and accused of having buggy anti-cheating and anti-piracy technology.

“Unless they have PCs, Mac gamers haven’t had that experience on the Mac,” said Rogers, referring to Steam. “So we’re trying to more closely model the iTunes Music Store, because it’s simple and easy and straightforward about what happens and how it works.”

Another key difference between Gamerhood and Steam, Rogers noted, is the absence of a multiplayer component—Gamerhood doesn’t seek to replace the multiplayer mechanisms found in Aspyr games. (Steam incorporates its own game finding, tracking, and chat service.)

Rogers was pleased to note that Aspyr’s Mac game sales are up for the year. “Is that because people are buying more games for the Mac, or the games we have are better? We put that right at Apple’s feet,” he said. “There’s more interest in Macs than ever. More new Mac users are coming into the Apple stores, they’re buying new Macs, and they’re bringing them home and want to see what they can do. And we’re hoping to appeal to them with new games and an easier way of getting games onto their Macs with Gamerhood.”

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