2008 in Review: The year in Mac gaming

In some ways, the most exciting developments in Mac gaming in 2008 didn’t involve the Mac at all. The iPhone, with its Software Development Kit enabling game-makers to bring their wares to Apple’s hot-selling mobile devices, stole most of the Mac’s thunder during the past year. But a hardware development toward the end of 2008 could mean a Mac gaming revival in the year to come.

Still, mobile gaming ruled the roost this year. Even before the iPhone’s 2007 launch, game developers increasingly turned their attention to mobile games. Despite the low-graphics capabilities and small screen sizes, mobile gaming was a growing market.

Going mobile

With the unveiling of the iPhone SDK in March and the subsequent opening of the App Store in July, the iPhone emerged as an attractive option in the mobile game market, offering developers an adaptable platform, a bigger screen, and better graphic capabilities.

Ngmoco made a splash in 2008 with iPhone-exclusive games like Rolando.
In just six month’s time, we’ve seen the iPhone take its first few steps into the world of mobile gaming. In addition to many quality games made by independent developers, big-name publishers such as EA, THQ, and Gameloft have launched games for the iPhone platform. These have debuted with mixed results—THQ Wireless’ Star Wars: The Force Unleashed failed to impress despite some strong graphics and the Star Wars pedigree, while Asphalt 4: Elite Racing proved to be entertaining (if immature at times).

With heavy hitters taking the platform seriously and some, like the newly formed Ngmoco, even launching iPhone-exclusive games, the iPhone is coming into its own as a gaming platform. Titles such as Real Soccer 2009 and Freeverse Software’s Flick Bowling and Flick Fishing sports games have taken advantage of the iPhone’s tracking pad and motion sensors to offer new levels of game interaction.

For more on iPhone games, see our favorite iPhone games feature as well as the 2008 Game Hall of Fame

Not just the iPhone

On the Mac gaming side, the year has seen some blockbuster titles make good on their promises while others disappointed. While Call of Duty 4 didn’t arrive on the Mac until several quarters after the initial PC release, the action-packed shooter delivered one of the most complete, cinematic, and engrossing experiences in recent memory.

While Call of Duty looked fresh, games like Prince of Persia: Two Thrones, Jade Empire, and Battlestations: Midway showed their age by coming out several months or even years after their initial PC releases. While these three titles provided solid platforming, role-playing, and action gameplay, respectively, the enthusiasm for each one among Mac gamers had faded by the time of their belated release.

The latest World of Warcraft expansion, Wrath of the Lich King, proved that Blizzard’s massively multiplayer online game continues to get better.
Still, other Mac games enjoyed simultaneous debuts on multiple platforms, such as the much-anticipated Spore and World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King. WoW continues to get better and better, and players eagerly jumped into the new worlds and features provided by the latest expansion, some waiting in line hours for the chance to play.

Meanwhile, Spore can safely be called the biggest disappointment of the year. While wrestling with a PR disaster centered around the strict digital-rights management software included in the game, the game became the most pirated game on the Internet. The irony, of course, is that while the downloads (legal or not) have been numerous, the game has been slammed by critics for its shallow gameplay and limited strategy options. The latest expansion does nothing to address these flaws, and comes across—to use a popular phrase of the year—as so much “lipstick on a pig.”

Other relatively unknown developers scored big hits in 2008 with their latest releases. The beginning of the year saw the popular puzzle game Peggle Deluxe come to Mac, while 2D Boy’s World of Goo helped the year end on a high note with another quirky, original, and addictive puzzle game.

Graphics get better

If Mac gaming is to reassert itself in the coming year, a product release from Apple this past fall may turn out to be the driving factor. Apple’s consumer-oriented MacBook line finally got a graphics system worthy of the popular laptop.

The switch to Nvidia 9400M graphics in the new unibody MacBooks has improved things dramatically for gamers.
When Apple switched to Intel processors, the MacBook suffered from dreadful graphics performance which made it unsuitable for games, thanks to seriously underpowered Intel-made integrated graphics processors installed on the motherboard. That changed in October, when Apple introduced a revamped MacBook lineup highlighted by the addition of Nvidia 9400M graphics.

Yes, the MacBook’s graphic processor still shares memory with the system RAM, but there’s a lot more to share (256MB, as opposed to 144MB in the older MacBooks). What’s more, it’s faster memory—the new MacBooks use DDR3 SDRAM. The end-result is improved graphic performance, particularly in games, where the latest titles no longer suffer from single-digit frame rates.

The fact that one of Apple’s most popular Mac models is a much-improved gaming machine gives us hope headed into 2009. We’ll take a closer look at more of the trends that figure to influence Mac gaming over the next 12 months in a future Game Room post.

Senior news editor Peter Cohen contributed to this article.

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