The year in Mac games: Seven trends for '06

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Mac gamers often find themselves on the wrong side of disparities with the PC gaming market. But there’s one aspect of PC gaming that Mac users should be grateful not to replicate—PC game sales plummeted in 2006. Meanwhile, on the Mac side of things, the commercial game publishers I’ve talked to have said that unit sales didn’t drop dramatically this year. That’s a good sign in what was otherwise a tough year for the traditional game market on the Mac.

For instance, Mac gamers probably noticed they had fewer choices when they went looking for new software. That’s because fewer major commercial titles were released in 2006 than in 2005—and the number of major new releases will probably hold steady in 2007, at best.

There were few new mainstream hits in 2006, though upon closer examination, that’s not as worrisome a trend as you might think. Aspyr and Blizzard continue to get plenty of mileage out of their respective releases of The Sims 2 and World of Warcraft. MacSoft shipped Age of Empires 3 fairly late in 2006, and Blizzard pushed back to January 2007 the release of The Burning Crusade expansion pack for World of Warcraft. And there was plenty of activity from U.K.-based Virtual Programming as well as Freeverse’s first major entry into the Mac game conversion market with Legion Arena. That’s more than enough games to keep Mac gamers busy, unless they truly had a lot of time on their hands.

Major commercial titles aside, the one area that saw tremendous growth in 2006 was the casual game market. Big Fish Games, PlayFirst and other vendors of casual games that have historically stuck closer to the PC market discovered a wide-open opportunity with the Mac, which has been long underserved by popular game publishers. Casual game makers finally realized in 2006 that the Mac market happened to be rife with the kind of users who like to kick back and enjoy themselves with a quick casual puzzler or round of cards. It’s a trend that will continue through 2007.

While some Doom fans and Call of Duty enthusiasts might poo-poo the casual games market as not “serious” enough, the fact is that the market is huge, and Macs are every bit as good at playing those games (if not better) than their PC equivalents.

What’s more, PC-to-Mac “switchers” are looking for those games, as well. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve received an e-mail this year from a reader who tells me he’s just gotten a Mac mini, or a MacBook, or an iMac, and when he had his PC he used to play this game, and wanted to know if it was available for the Mac, or if anything like it was available for the Mac. That’s a very hopeful sign for the continued growth of the casual gaming market.

In addition to mainstream hits and the rise of casual games, here are five more gaming developments from 2006—some bright spots, some troublesome, and some a little bit of both.

The switch

Apple’s switch to an Intel CPU architecture wasn’t strictly a gaming story—but it really set the tone for the year for the entire Mac market, games included. We all knew the processor switch was coming, thanks to Steve Jobs’ 2005 revelation at the Worldwide Developers Conference, but how fast it happened and how quickly Apple wrapped things up took some folks in the Mac market by surprise.

By and large, game developers haven’t given up support for PowerPC-based processors, although there are some early indications that some major games headed for a 2007 release in 2007 will be available only for Intel-based Macs. But one thing is clear, anyway you slice it: Macs that have discrete graphics systems (in other words, anything that isn’t the Intel-based Mac mini or the MacBook) offer considerably better performance than their PowerPC predecessors when it comes to games. So PowerPC-based Mac users interested in optimal performance had better start considering a switch to Intel soon—if they haven’t switched already.

And of course, the move to Intel chips sparked another major development in Mac gaming this year, namely…

Windows gaming on the Mac

Thanks to Boot Camp —the software that lets you install and run Windows XP on an Intel Mac—Mac users could fianlly enjoy many of the same games their Windows counterparts take for granted—a first for us, an all together impossible to do back in the bad old days of emulators like Virtual PC.

When a Mac is running Windows XP through Boot Camp, it is a PC, for all intents and purposes—a pretty mid-range PC, as far as system specifications go (except in the case of the Mac Pro). Many Mac gaming enthusiasts who made the Intel switch this year have given it a try and generally are pleased with the result. For the first time, we don’t have to wait the months it often takes for a Mac game conversion—we’re on a level playing field with PC users.

Boot Camp isn’t the only way that Intel Mac users can run Windows — there’s also technology like Parallels Desktop for Mac, which lets users run Windows concurrently with Mac OS X. That has promise for gaming, too—Parallels’ developers are very interested in implementing DirectX support, which would accelerate 3-D graphics. But that capability isn’t there right now.

Two other nascent Mac OS X products hold promise for Windows gaming on Mac OS X as well: CrossOver Mac and Cider. Both are related to the open-source WINE translation layer technology available for Linux, and both allow Windows applications to run on Mac OS X without a separate Windows installation. CrossOver Mac is in development at the moment, so it’s too early to tell how dramatic an impact it’s going to have on Mac gaming. But Ciderized games are now starting to make their way out the door: It looks like the first Cider effort for the Mac will be Freeverse Software’s release of Heroes of Might and Magic V, the long-awaited strategy game, which should ship in the next few weeks.

Of course, the convenience of playing Windows games on your Mac comes at a price. As mentioned above, major Mac game publishers have already cut back the number of games they publish from year to year—a trend that began before the Intel switch. And if Mac game sales slide noticeably, Mac game publishers will be that much more inclined to cut back their rosters even further. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. The good news is that there isn’t a lot of evidence to suggest that that’s happening right now.

New blood

Maybe it’s just the novelty of Intel-based Macs; maybe it’s evangelism on the part of Apple’s developer relations personnel. Maybe it’s just a healthy curiosity about the condition of the grass on the neighbor’s side of the fence. But one way or the other, new game companies we haven’t seen before popped up on Mac gamers’ horizons this year.

Companies like Rake In Grass, for example—this indie developer from the Czech Republic was responsible for the deliciously addictive side-scrolling shooter Jets‘n’Guns. PlayFirst isn’t quite new to the Mac, but it made a solid push in 2006 with the simultaneous Mac and PC release of Diner Dash: Flo on the Go, a sequel to one of the most popular and successful casual games in recent memory. Large Animal Games is another relative newcomer—its recently-released Rocketbowl Plus combines mini-golf and bowling in a unique Atomic Age mix.

Another company that established a strong Mac presence in 2006 is Mac Joy —the Macintosh counterpart to Arcade Lab, a casual games site for Windows. Based in Sweden, Mac Joy offers up casual game titles with an arcade flavor—the brickbashing game Bricks of Egypt, for example, and the side scroller Pizza Panic. The production quality is top notch and the games are fun to play.

iPod gaming

The year also saw the advent of gaming on the iPod—well, more sophisticated gaming than that low-tech version of Breakout you’d find on early-generation iPods. Late in the year Apple introduced downloadable premium games, available at $5 a pop from its online iTunes Store. Developed only for the video iPod, the games run the gamut from tried and true titles like Tetris and Pac-Man to mini-golf, 3-D brickbashing and poker games, all thoroughly optimized to be played using the iPod’s click wheel.

So far, Apple’s published nine games. A couple of them were developed by Apple, while the rest come from third parties including Electronic Arts, PopCap Games and others. Apple’s kept a tight rein on iPod games so far: it hasn’t published a Software Development Kit, for example, which would allow third party developers to create games. And as of this writing, only those nine are available for download: Apple hasn’t announced any new ones, and it’s not letting any potential developers talk about their efforts, either—moves that have cast a pall over what otherwise would be a bright turn of events.

It’s doubtful that the iPod will—at least in its current incarnation—battle the likes of Sony’s PlayStation Portable or Nintendo’s DS for the hearts and minds of gamers looking for portable device. The controls, horsepower, and battery life of the iPod all make it a less-than-optimal portable game system for anything but casual fare. But Apple’s proven that the iPod can be a competent casual gaming platform similar in capabilities to a cell phone. And that seems like a perfect combination, providing commuters and people on their lunch breaks with yet another excuse to twiddle with their iPods.

Improving availability

Shelf space for Mac games continues to diminish at an alarming rate. Even in Apple Stores, which for several years have been the one solid retail environment for Mac games, the shelf space devoted to games has dwindled. Apple has restocked most stores so the entire Mac software collection is pushed to the back, making room for more and more iPod accessories, which visitors to the store seem to purchase with reckless abandon. But how many Swarovski crystal-encrusted iPod nano lanyards does the world really need?

This has led to some Mac game publishers looking for alternate ways to get their products into the hands of their customers. Certainly mail order distributors and remain key outlets, but that hasn’t stopped some companies from trying to roll their own solutions.

Deliver2Mac, for example, is a new effort started by the same people behind Virtual Programming, a U.K.-based Mac game publisher that has historically searched for the right mix with distribution and retail publish deals with a variety of U.S. companies. Deliver2Mac enables users to digitally download CD images of the games they want, and what’s more, it’s not just limited to Virtual Programming’s library. The service is perfectly happy to be a conduit for delivering other companies’ virtual goods as well.

An idea that’s on the same line but that still hasn’t seen the light of day is Gamerhood, the new distribution and download system promised by Aspyr Media. It looks like Aspyr has delayed the new system’s release until sometime in 2007, so it’s hard to say what sort of impact it will have. But the company has offered some tantalizing details, such as the ability to download games that are part of Aspyr’s vast back-catalog—titles that haven’t seen the light of day on retail store shelves in a while because Aspyr had to make room for newer products.

has taken the Mac world by the horns too. This service is owned by Tuncer Deniz, who also owns the authoritative Mac gaming site, Inside Mac Games. It provides a way for users to buy and download games, and it also provides a retail venue where you can purchase boxed versions of games as well. The more word gets out about the better—it can never hurt to know of other ways to get Mac games.

Casual gaming “portals” also made an impact in 2006. If you check the Web site of companies like Big Fish Games, Phelios and others, you’ll find many of the same games available for purchase and download. No, they’re not doing anything illegal—they’re just spreading the wealth a little bit, offering multiple ways for users to find games that they can play on their Macs. Freeverse Software rolled up its sleeves and got to work with a casual gaming site of its own called MacFun — one of the few Mac-specific casual gaming portals out there.

So, with fewer “big” commercial titles in circulation, there are still enough big titles to keep many Mac gamers happy, and a veritable explosion of casual gaming titles. All in all, 2006 hasn’t been a bad year for Mac games, though it’s had its ups and its downs. With the Intel transition in the bag and the Leopard update to OS X promising a whole new bag of tricks, it looks like it’s going to be a happy new year for Mac gamers, too.

[ Peter Cohen is Macworld ’s Game Room columnist. ]

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