Does Apple Really "Get" Gaming?

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Nobody should be surprised to hear that I care passionately about computer gaming. Give me a choice between hunkering down over the latest Mac-based digital diversion or a hot fudge sundae ( with the cherry, thank you very much), and I'll take the game every time. But having this level of commitment to Mac gaming can be a burden. It's a bit like being a Chicago Cubs fan–the team may look good in midseason, but you just know that in the stretch the boys will find some way to screw it up.

This may help explain my feelings about the current state of gaming on the Mac. While I'm extremely enthusiastic about the latest advances, I also worry when those advances are undermined by the company that should be as passionate about this stuff as I am–Apple Computer.

It's possible that those of you who've spent the last few years organizing your sock drawer missed Apple's latest pronouncement that it "gets" gaming. What the company means by this is that–unlike during most of the eighties and early nineties–the folks at Apple have finally recognized that a fair number of its customers like to while away their free time with such seemingly pointless diversions as blasting interstellar cooties, unraveling confounding puzzles, piloting high-performance aircraft, and doing battle with both friends and strangers over the Internet.

Seeing Is Believing
Not only does Activision's Quake II play sluggishly on the iMac, the Rage Pro graphics chip on that machine (left) is incapable of producing the same smooth results as ATI's more powerful Rage 128 chip (right) .

The proof of Apple's commitment is tangible. The current lineup of blue-and-white Power Macintosh G3s contains a very powerful graphics card–ATI's Rage 128–offering the kind of quality 3-D hardware acceleration that beautifully enhances many of today's games. Apple has also adopted OpenGL, a hardware-acceleration standard used in several PC games. By employing a cross-platform standard rather than insisting on a proprietary one, Apple has made it easier for developers to port PC games to the Mac. This is vital, particularly considering Apple's push for game developers to release a Mac game in concert with the PC version. Simultaneous release isn't simply a bragging-rights issue: a number of serious Mac gamers–myself included–have begrudgingly purchased PCs because they haven't the patience to wait for a game to appear on the Mac a year after its release on the PC.

Certainly, Mac gamers have noticed that there are far more Mac games available this year than last. Apple's been working closely with developers to bring the best games available on the PC to the Mac market. One need only glance at the latest and upcoming Mac game offerings–Quake II and III, Half-Life, Fly!, SimCity 3000, Rainbow 6, Total Annihilation, Madden 2000, Tomb Raider 3, Caesar III, Railroad Tycoon II, Oni, Racer, and StarCraft–to understand that Apple's burning the midnight oil to get games to the Mac.

As a hard-core Mac gamer, I'm extremely pleased with Apple's efforts–I'm getting the games I want, and I'm getting them in a timely fashion. But I'm afraid that's not enough. Although Apple's addressing the needs of gamers like me, it's not doing enough to encourage other users to become gamers. Regrettably, this threatens the very future of Mac gaming.

During the most recent Macworld Expo I had the opportunity to speak with a number of game developers, and the message from nearly all of them was the same: While Apple's made a good start, the company must make a greater commitment if the Mac is going to survive as a viable gaming platform.

A common complaint is that Apple isn't doing enough to promote gaming. Sure, more games are coming to the Mac, but new Mac users don't seem to be buying them. According to developers I've spoken with, per-title game sales are no greater now than they were two years–and 2 million iMacs–ago. A good Mac game sold between 25,000 and 35,000 units in 1997, and that number hasn't increased. In order for it to increase, Apple must lend its marketing and engineering muscle to the effort.

To begin with, Apple must make games more available to its customers. Unlike major PC hardware vendors such as Dell and Gateway, Apple offers no gaming add-on when you purchase a Mac through the Apple Store, nor are games (except Pangea Software's Nanosaur and a demo of Delta Tao Software's Eric's Ultimate Solitaire) bundled with new Macs. Offering some kind of bundling option–as an add-on at the Apple Store, as a "free gift" to buyers of new Macs, or included among the discs that come with new Macs–couldn't help but raise the profile of gaming on the Mac. If Apple's concerned about bundling violent games with its machines, it could simply include a coupon that offers a variety of gaming bundles–a bundle of nonviolent games that would appeal to children, a more action-packed bundle for those who prefer a little mayhem in their Mac-ing, and a collection of traditional card and board games for the seniors who seem to be buying the iMac in droves. Let the buyer decide what is and isn't appropriate.

Apple could also help by making games more visible to the public. Currently, the cost of promoting Mac games falls completely on developers. Those colorful displays and advertisements you see in retail stores and mail-order catalogs aren't cheap, and some of the developers I spoke with feel that since their products encourage people to buy Apple's products, Apple should return the favor by entering into comarketing arrangements. At the very least, it needs to devote a portion of its Web site to Mac gaming–presenting streaming QuickTime movie trailers of the latest hot games, for instance.

Before Apple cuts another deal with a vast retail outlet, it needs to be sure that said outlet also sells software. Case in point: although iMacs are sold at Sears, the software that runs on them isn't. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that developers sell more games when their products are placed side by side with Macs, not tucked away in a store at the other end of the mall or, worse yet, the other end of the county.

Viability is just as important as visibility, and unfortunately, Apple's consumer models–the iMac and the iBook–aren't the viable gaming machines they could be (see "What a Difference a Chip Makes"). These computers contain underpowered graphics chips and lack the kind of RAM necessary to run today's most demanding games. In a consumer machine, 32MB is no longer an acceptable amount of RAM–64MB should be the bare minimum; and Apple needs to replace the Rage Pro and Rage Mobility with chips that offer the kind of graphics performance found in the current Power Mac G3s.

It's possible that even if Apple makes all the moves I've suggested–bundles games, helps with in-store promotion, gives games a more visible presence on the Apple site, and transforms each member of its product line into a kick-ass gaming machine–Mac users still won't buy games. Perhaps Mac users find their fun in other ways. But we'll never know until Apple makes a greater effort to encourage Mac gaming.

While I may not be able to predict what will happen if Apple sees the light, this much I can tell you: If Apple continues on its present course–if it only "gets" the side of gaming that appeals to hard-core gamers like me–we'll be right back where we were a couple of years ago. Only those games guaranteed to be hits–the Quakes, Myths, and Tomb Raiders of this world–will appear in Mac form, Mac users looking for a viable gaming platform will look elsewhere, and Apple will sell fewer computers. This is bad news for Mac users and Apple alike.

November 1999 page: 86

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