Building a new audience for Mac games

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Talk to any PC or Mac game publisher these days and you’ll hear the same thing: It’s getting harder and harder to make money making games for computers. It’s no wonder, with consoles getting more and more powerful, and it’s certainly not going to get any easier with the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Revolution right around the corner.

By most of the accounts I’ve heard, Mac and PC gaming revenue has declined over the past few years, as more and more gamers have fled to consoles like the PlayStation 2, GameCube and Xbox. It’s not hard to understand why, either. Consoles are a cheap investment, compared to the constant onslaught of new video cards, faster motherboards and faster processors that hardcore gamers on the computer end of things require. You have to be really dedicated, and have really deep pockets, to be a computer-centric gamer.

Hardcore gamers are quick to point out that some games are just better on PCs or Macs, because you use a mouse and keyboard. First person shooters, for example, or RPGs, or some kinds of strategy games. But game developers have worked hard to blur those lines, and will continue to do so.

Macs as game machines

Let’s not fool ourselves, either. People don’t buy Macs for games. Games are a pleasant diversion for a great many of us, but I can’t ever recall meeting someone who’s told me that they’ve bought their Macs specifically to play games on. We use our Macs for work or for general use. Their game-playing ability is an ancillary benefit.

The limitations of Mac-based game playing are readily apparent and aren’t likely to change unless Apple increases its market share dramatically: The number of major game publishers that release simultaneous PC and Mac versions can be counted on one hand. And for the rest, the selection is limited, and usually involves waiting months or a year or more after the PC or console version is released.

This lesson hasn’t been lost on the game publishers themselves. Aspyr Media Inc. and MacSoft’s parent company, Destineer, have bet the farm on original game development. MacSoft has already released Close Combat: First to Fight for multiple platforms, and Aspyr will follow suit later this year with its first major original release, Stubbs the Zombie. Blizzard continues a trend it started several years ago with simultaneous releases of its games for both Windows and Mac OS X. And every so often there are other success stories. Ubisoft will release Myst V this fall for Mac and PC simultaneously, if all goes well, just as they did in 2004 with Myst IV.

Those efforts help to put Mac gamers on an even playing field with console and PC gamers, at least in those specific instances, but they’re equally unlikely to grow the market for Mac games. To that end, new Mac gamers need to start playing.

Making new gamers

The word “gaming” itself has some negative connotations in many people’s minds. It’s equated with frivolity, a waste of time. Game publishers need to find a way to break through that resistance by making their offerings more appealing to a broad base of users, by making the games themselves more affordable and less intimidating.

I expect there’s a large, untapped resource out there: A vast group of Mac users who don’t identify themselves as gamers, but who might be interested in playing games once in a while. The executive who has no interest in Doom 3, for example, but might fancy a round of golf with Tiger Woods. Another example is the graphic designer who doesn’t want to play the latest and greatest RPG or strategy game, but might want to play a quick puzzle game, card game or other casual title over lunch or between meetings.

Casual gaming, as it’s called, isn’t sexy or headline-grabbing, but it is a solid investment, at least if you can crack the market and differentiate your products from the rest. That’s largely what MacPlay has done, turning from a developer of A-list games into a publisher of casual games. And from what MacPlay tells me, it’s paid off.

I’m not advocating that all Mac game companies suddenly start producing an endless supply of Bejeweled clones. But looking at recent innovative offerings from companies that crank out titles in the casual gaming space like DanLabGames, Ambrosia Software, Skunk Studios and Freeverse Software, and you begin to understand that there are a lot of great companies out there whose products are top-notch and who deserve to be supported.

Anyway, enough of my rambling. I’m interested in hearing what you have to say. What do you think needs to happen to expand the market for Mac games? Please post your thoughts in this article’s discussion thread. And if you want to take the conversation off the record, you’re also welcome to e-mail me.

For more game news, reviews and information, please visit Macworld’s Game Room.

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