Vista's built for games; how about OS X?

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Billing its forthcoming general release of Vista as “the most significant day in gaming for the next several years,” Microsoft is ready to throw its weight into an important message for gamers. Apple, meanwhile, is missing in action.

In an open letter to the press, Peter Moore, Microsoft’s corporate vice president of its interactive entertainment business, called next week’s general release of Windows Vista “the largest and most significant advance in gaming technology Microsoft has ever made.”

Moore explained that for the first time, Microsoft is offering “an operating system built from the ground up with gaming as a core scenario.” Moore said the company has made a concerted effort both in engineering and marketing Vista to appeal to gamers—the release will coincide with the launch of a new “Games for Windows” marketing campaign.

Fanning the embers

The effort comes at an important time for the PC gaming industry. According to market research from The NPD Group published by the Entertainment Software Association, sales of computer games in the United States have fallen year over year, from $1.1 billion in 2004 to $953 million in 2005.

Gamers cite increasingly sophisticated gaming experiences on consoles as one cause, while some game developers and publishers have moved to consoles because of concerns over software piracy and a more tightly controlled hardware and operating system environment. Microsoft hopes gaming on Vista will breathe new life into the industry.

“We’re taking the world’s most popular gaming platform and making it easier, safer, and more fun for everyone, while delivering new technologies that will deliver the most powerful, most immersive, most innovative gaming experiences to the Windows platform,” Moore said.

New technology

Windows Vista incorporates a new graphics Application Programming Interface (API) called DirectX 10, which Moore says “improves performance, graphic fidelity, and ease of development.” The new software makes additional demands of graphics hardware, however—DirectX 10-capable cards only emerged from Nvidia in November 2006.

Vista also features a “Games Explorer” that puts all games installed on a PC under a single umbrella, providing native support for game controllers designed to work with Microsoft’s Xbox 360 video game console, parental controls with support for game content rating systems used worldwide, and a “Live” experience akin to Microsoft’s Xbox Live system, which provides users with a single online identity, unified friends list and consistent experience from platform to platform.

DirectX 10 raises a potential issue for Mac game developers, as it promises to unlock new features that aren’t currently matched by Apple’s graphics API, the more platform-agnostic OpenGL. If Mac game developers have to wait for Apple, ATI, and Nvidia to create OpenGL extensions to match DirectX 10’s capabilities, that may jeopardize the development of Mac games ported from Windows Vista.

It’s also readily apparent that Microsoft wants to give gamers reasons to use Vista, by providing some games as Vista exclusives, such as the upcoming PC release of Halo 2—as yet unannounced on the Mac platform. Efforts like that, the “Game Explorer” and support for Xbox 360 gamepads all give gamers a reason to prefer Windows to Mac OS X.

Fresh marketing

Microsoft is matching the technical effort with Vista with a new “Games for Windows” marketing push. The new brand is being adopted by major publishers such as Atari, LucasArts, Midway, Turbine, 2K Games, THQ, Vivendi Universal and Microsoft’s own Game Studios.

The marketing effort dictates a consistent packaging and advertising campaign, playable kiosks for major titles, and a new merchandising campaign at Circuit City, CompUSA, GameStop, and Walmart, as well as international outlets.

The Macintosh equation

Apple hasn’t done anything to match Microsoft’s efforts either to engineer or market Mac OS X as an operating system for games. The company has put some effort into improving key areas of Mac OS X gaming performance in recent months, however, revealing multithreaded OpenGL, for example.

The past year saw the Mac OS X software industry make the switch to supporting Intel-based Macs, which have certainly helped boost performance of Mac games that are created as Universal Binaries. And efforts like multithreaded OpenGL, which is limited (for now) specifically to multicore Intel systems, have helped as well.

But Apple is entirely absent a specific message to Mac game developers, publishers or gamers themselves—they’re all left to find their own respective paths.

Over the past year, Mac game publishers have seen dwindling shelf space in Apple retail stores as Mac software has been pushed to the back in favor of more popular iPod accessories. The effort has forced some publishers, like Aspyr Media and Virtual Programming, to develop their own online software distribution methods. (Virtual Programming sells its products through the Deliver2Mac service, and Aspyr is expected to launch Aspyr Game Agent 2.0 later this year with support for online transactions.)

With dwindling retail space an issue, publishers have taken a more cautious approach to releases, which caused the number of major commercial games to drop dramatically in 2006, leading some gamers to believe that the Mac game industry itself is on the wane. In fact, sales have remained more or less solid—it’s just that the mix of games has changed, as Mac game publishers put more emphasis on selling top-tier commercial titles and focus less effort on bringing “b-list” games to the platform.

As on the PC platform, casual gaming on the Mac has grown in leaps and bounds, as well. Casual gaming, which relies much more heavily on electronic distribution than on retail sales, continues to attract new developers and publishers to the Mac platform, with myriad puzzle, card and simple arcade action titles.

If you can’t beat ’em

For the short term, Mac users’ best course of action may be to follow the old adage, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” Vista functions well on Macs equipped with Boot Camp, and such systems can run Vista games.

Vista isn’t likely to dramatically affect Mac OS X gaming in the short term, one way or the other. Although Microsoft is generating a lot of smoke and light now, it has a long row to hoe. Many consumers won’t upgrade to Vista until they buy new PCs, so Windows XP—the platform that so many of the games Mac OS X gamers get to play comes from—will be well-supported for a long time into the future.

Looking farther down the road, however, virtualization systems like TransGaming’s Cider, CodeWeavers’ CrossOver, and Parallels Desktop for Mac may also offer Mac gamers an alternative; the former two solutions don’t even require you to install a separate Windows partition. Parallels has said it will update Desktop with hardware-based graphics support as soon as it can.

The Mac certainly isn’t lacking in games—in fact, there are more games available than most people have time to play. But there’s no question that Apple has the perception of being a consumer computer maker who really doesn’t care that much about gamers, and that has to change.

Ultimately, it’s incumbent upon Apple to craft a message that gamers and game developers alike need to hear: That the Mac is a great platform for gaming, that Apple is game developer-friendly, and that now’s a better time than ever to buy a Mac and play games on it. Without it, we’re doomed to also-ran status, at a time when the Mac operating system itself is getting better than it’s ever been, and at a time when more and more consumers are coming to the platform than ever before.

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