Where are all the sports games?

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Looking at the shelves of a console game store, a Mac gamer is immediately struck by one huge difference from their own platform: There are a lot of sports games available for the Xbox, PlayStation 2, and the like. So why aren’t there more on the Mac?

A lot of it has to do with money. Sports games are really, really expensive to license, especially if they’re team sports that feature well-known playing fields, teams, and athletes. The owners, leagues, and players associations all demand a cut of the action, and that adds up quick.

Mac gaming is a niche market—a blockbuster game is lucky to sell 50,000 copies on the Mac platform, compared to millions of copies on the console. That gives Mac game publishers a much smaller pool of customers to work with, so they have to pick and choose their licenses carefully.

On top of that, sports games aren’t easy ports. They often involve very complicated codebases that have been built up over years, and, like other major games, they’ve increasingly become dependent on “middleware”—software code licensed from other companies, which Mac game publishers have to relicense to use on the Mac.

And because the Mac is such a small market, sometimes these libraries haven’t been ported to the Mac, and that means more work. Often, the developers of this middleware aren’t willing to negotiate a deal with Mac game publishers despite the smaller market, and it can be prohibitively expensive. That’s killed more than one Mac game conversion, and I’m not talking about sports games, either.

What’s more, sports games have very limited appeal to computer users, and it doesn’t matter if they’re Mac or PC gamers. The latest Madden release, for example, will always make it to the top ten spot on PC gaming charts, but it usually fades quickly. PC gamers, like Mac gamers, seem to prefer role-playing games, real time strategy titles, first-person shooters, and games like that. For the most part, “big” sports games are relegated to the console, where they make lots of money.

And really, who’s going to wait five or six months for a $50 hockey, football or soccer game when they can buy it from EBGames used for $10? That’s another downside of sports gaming on the Mac—because the genre is so popular and so ubiquitous, the console games tend to lose their resale value quickly, and gamers turn them over within days or weeks of buying them.

They’re out there, actually

That’s not to say there are no sports titles for the Mac—in fact, there are. Many of them fall into the category of “Manager”-style games: games that lack 3-D action, but which emphasize business and negotiation skills as you manage every aspect of a soccer club, for example, or a baseball team. Feral Interactive has published Championship Manager, a popular soccer management game, and Sports Interactive has come out with soccer, hockey, and baseball manager games. Virtual Programming has even made a horse-racing manager game. Feral also seems to have a corner on auto racing games—they’ve developed several, and are bringing the Colin McRae rally game franchise to the Mac for the first time as well.

But still, there’s a lot to be said for good old fashioned sports action games. These have existed almost since the dawn of the video arcade game market—first as gridiron X’s and O’s on a black-and-white screen, then later as sprite-based action games, and more recently as realistic looking 3-D action titles on wide-screen TVs in people’s living rooms.

Those are few and far between on the Mac, and what’s out there is bound to not appeal to hardened sports game fans, though casual gamers might enjoy them. Skunk Studios offers Tennis Titans, for example, a fun cartoony-style tennis game, while DanLab Games has Island Mini- Golf, a very fun miniature golf game. Aspyr is still selling Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2005, a superlative golf game featuring real PGA pros, and their library has also been spotted with an array of “extreme sports” style games like wake-boarding and surfing in the past.

Having said that, I don’t expect the underlying economic principles affecting sports games to change on the Macintosh for a good long time, so my best advise to you, if sports games are your thing, is to pick up a console like a PlayStation 2 or an Xbox. You certainly won’t be disappointed with the selection you’ll suddenly find yourself open to.

My dream

I have been begging my Mac game developer friends for years to create their own sports games, but by and large my requests have fallen on deaf ears. I don’t want to see companies throw good money after bad by licensing sports game franchises, and I’m not really that anxious to see anyone step up to the plate with ultra-realistic sports games that let you watch incredibly detailed 3-D figures clash on the gridiron or inside the rink or the diamond.

But I do think there’s room for some imagination and creativity. I suspect a lot of gamers like myself would love some action sports games for their Mac that involve good quality, decent production values and fun gameplay, with some unusual twists and turns that make the stuff unique and fun.

How unique and fun? Well, that’s up to the game developers. But I’d love to see robot hockey with exploding pucks, for example, or zombie football. Soccer in outer space, perhaps? Half the fun of making a great game is thinking up the ideas, so I’ll leave that to the experts. All I know is that I have a credit card in hand when their ideas come to fruition, and I’m willing to bet a lot of other Mac users will too.

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