Put gaming focus on Macs, not iPods

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Rumor has it that Apple is adding game development talent to its iPod team. If true, this turn of events would be ironic, since the game market for the Mac—you know, that other hardware product Apple makes—is in serious, serious trouble.

First, let’s dive into the rumor. As the story goes, Apple has reportedly hired a former LucasArts developer with impeccable bona fides to manage a game development group for the iPod. It’s hard to say at this point even if that much is true, much less hazard a guess about what he or others under his management would develop for the iPod.

It’s possible that such a maneuver might just be aimed at beefing up the iPod’s existing game-playing abilities—current video iPods come with four games installed, and they’re all pretty lame. Perhaps future models could include newer and more compelling games.

I’ve also seen suggestions that Apple is going to make downloadable games for the iPod available through the iTunes Music Store, that Apple is going to come out with a special “gaming iPod,” or that this is just the first step in an all-out coordinated assault from Apple on the lucrative gaming market.

I think that most of those ideas are more wishful thinking than educated guessing. I’d happily be proven wrong. Apple doesn’t exactly have a stellar track record in the game market, at least where the Mac is concerned. Remember Apple’s Pippin game console ? Yeah, well, neither does anyone else.

While all this iPod-related speculation is going on, Mac gaming finds itself in trouble. Big trouble. People just aren’t buying a lot of games for their Macs. The reasons for this are myriad—piracy, the perception of the Mac as a machine for work instead of play, limited retail availability, long wait times for Mac ports, lack of Mac-compatible middleware, and so forth. Boot Camp —which lets you install and run Windows XP on an Intel Mac, making it possible to play PC games —isn’t helping, either.

But the bottom line is that is a problem, and companies that have long supported the Mac game business are moving away from it. Here are just two examples to consider:

Aspyr Media’s PC release schedule is picking up speed. In 2006, for the first time, the company, a 10-year veteran of the Mac game market and one of the Mac game market’s biggest publishers, will ship just about as many Windows games as Mac games.

• Casual game publisher Freeverse Software isn’t any stranger to the Windows market, but the company recently announced plans to develop a console title—TotemBall, a game for Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade, which is a feature of the Xbox 360 console.

This situation has to be turned around, and Apple has the capacity to do it. That could be by starting an internal Mac game development studio that makes best-of-breed games. It’s a proven model that’s been used successfully by Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo over the years. Apple could instead just step up to the plate with better and more co-ordinated support for existing and potential Macintosh game developers and a more focused and aggressive marketing effort to court potential gamers.

It’s up to Apple to find the strategy that will work. But the one strategy that I hope Apple doesn’t pursue is throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and just focusing on iPod gaming. There’s just way too much to lose for a company that’s seeing massive interest in its new computer hardware from the consumer PC market for the first time in years.

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