New GameSpy terms threaten Mac to PC online gaming

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New software licensing fees dictated by GameSpy Industries Inc. may make it impossible for Mac game publishers to let their forthcoming games play against their PC counterparts. GameSpy's licensing fees have increased by a factor of five to ten in recent months, an amount that Mac game publishers say is unreasonable to expect them to pay.

IGN Entertainment Inc.'s GameSpy is game matchmaking technology that helps gamers find each other online. GameSpy is relied upon by some popular PC games that have been ported, or converted, to the Mac: MacSoft's Halo and Neverwinter Nights, for example. Aspyr Media Inc. uses GameSpy's technology in Battlefield 1942 and other games.

By licensing the software development kit, or SDK, from GameSpy, Mac game publishers can make their versions play on the same servers used by PC gamers. Gaming enthusiasts frequently cite cross-platform online gaming compatibility as an important consideration when deciding which games to buy.

Economy of scale?

Up until now, GameSpy's licensing fees have been discounted to Mac publishers to a much smaller fraction of what the PC version costs. This discount is common among the developers of software development kits -- the developers understand that the Mac game market is smaller and less able to distribute these licensing costs, according to Glenda Adams, director of PC and Mac game development for Aspyr Media Inc. GameSpy changed its tune months ago, however, and the company has been unwilling to renegotiate a lower rate.

"The other third party library developers we work with give us a reduced licensing fee," Adams told MacCentral.

GameSpy's fee still ran into thousands of dollars per game, but Mac publishers were willing to pay it to put their customers on a level playing field with their PC counterparts. But now, with that discount gone, GameSpy licensing costs have skyrocketed for Mac publishers.

GameSpy is now asking for an amount that, in some cases, is the equivalent of 50 to 100 percent of the total Mac development budget, according Adams. Doubling the cost of development just to make the game play with PC users isn't something that Aspyr can afford to do, she added.

"What GameSpy is asking for now is more than what I'd pay up front for a game license," said MacSoft general manager Al Schilling. Like Aspyr, Mac game publisher MacSoft has seen its discount with GameSpy evaporate in recent months, according to Schilling.

Licensing third-party software libraries is nothing new for Mac game publishers -- many original game developers cut corners by licensing libraries that allow them to use multimedia playback, networking, and complicated physics engines without needing to write their own code from scratch. But the dependence on third-party libraries requires that Mac game publishers reach separate licensing arrangements for such code when the games are licensed for Macintosh publication.

Money for nothing

From where Adams sits, the demand for more money seems unreasonable not only because of the economics of Mac game publishing, but also because GameSpy provides little in the way of development or technical support. The GameSpy SDK is largely static code that's managed by the individual game conversion programmers Aspyr has on staff and contracts work to -- GameSpy isn't involved at all.

"They don't do any engineering for this," she told MacCentral. "They basically just have to cash the check. We handle the SDK and get it working in our game. To GameSpy's servers, a Mac client looks just like another PC, and there are fewer Macs playing online than PCs, so the added server load is small."

Schilling agrees. "We were already paying more for the GameSpy license than we would have liked to," he said.

Schilling added that Mac game publishers aren't the only ones in this fix -- he's spoken to PC game publishers who have recently seen higher licensing costs for GameSpy code. No one is seeing the same increase that Mac game licensees are, however.

GameSpy won't talk about the particulars of its contract negotiations with MacSoft, Aspyr or any of its other licensees.

"... we are in continual discussions with publishers and developers as it relates to our platform support; however, it is not our policy to discuss games that are in current or future development, on any platform," said Elizabeth Geisler, Director of Investor Relations and Corporate Communications for IGN Entertainment Inc., in a statement released to MacCentral.

Not the first time

Mac game publishers have faced this particular quandary before. Many PC games capable of multiplayer modes use DirectPlay, a software API developed by Microsoft that isn't portable to the Macintosh platform.

The result has been a number of A-list Mac games that feature Mac-to-Mac only networking. Mac-to-Mac online gaming has even spawned a Mac-specific matchmaking service called GameRanger, which is broadly supported by commercial Mac game publishers.

Gamers suffer

Ryan Gordon's credits include America's Army, the multiplayer team-based action shooter developed and published by the United States Army. He recently noted in his Weblog that America's Army has lost its license to use the GameSpy SDK for its Mac version.

"For a purely-multiplayer game, this complicates things, to say the least. There are some minor contingency plans in place, but this means more delays." said Gordon. As a result, Mac gamers who want to play the latest version of America's Army will have to wait until this "contingency plan" is deployed.

Gordon is also working on the Macintosh conversion of Men of Valor, a Vietnam-era shooter coming soon from Aspyr, which uses GameSpy for its multiplayer component. Glenda Adams confirmed that Aspyr has elected to remove GameSpy game matching from Men of Valor. Aspyr has had to do the same with another unannounced title in development, also. Cross-platform gameplay should still be possible, but it may be limited to direct TCP/IP communications or LAN play only.

Mac games now available that use GameSpy are in no jeopardy, said Schilling -- GameSpy is required to provide service for those titles. This point was reiterated by IGN's Geisler as well.

"All shipped games that are supported by GameSpy on the Mac platform will continue to be supported per our contractual obligations," said Geisler.

The elephant in the room

Online gaming is popular with a certain segment of the Mac gaming population, to be sure -- and it is more prevalent in some genres of gaming, like first person shooters. But for every gamer that gets hooked online, many others try it and don't like it: They face latency issues with their Internet Service Provider which can reduce the overall performance of online games, or get turned off by the antics of cheaters and foul-mouthed players who are more interested in causing trouble than having a good time.

Would GameSpy's departure cause a sea change in Mac multiplayer gaming? The short answer is no. Although online gaming enthusiasts are up in arms about this latest news, they make up a small percentage of the overall Mac gaming user base.

MacSoft's Schilling estimates that fewer than 10 percent of Mac gamers regularly participate in online gaming at all. And GameSpy isn't used by all PC games, just some of them -- though its absence from the Mac may diminish the marketability of high-profile Mac game conversions whose PC versions depend on the service.

The long-term, solution, said Schilling and Adams, is for the industry to focus on using cross-platform technology that enables gamers to compete online regardless of platform. At the very least, GameSpy's tough negotiating tactics open up room for a competing service to be created, as well.

Schilling thinks the actual number of gamers that would be affected by GameSpy's absence on the Mac wouldn't be huge -- though he admits that GameSpy's departure from the Mac platform would be an unfortunate loss for gamers and game publishers alike.

Updated 3:20PM 12/08/04: Comment about Men of Valor's support of GameSpy and its cross platform online gaming support clarified.

This story, "New GameSpy terms threaten Mac to PC online gaming" was originally published by PCWorld.

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