Analysis: Will iPhone games lead to more on the Mac?

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The banners hanging in the lobby of San Francisco’s Moscone West conference hall for this week’s Worldwide Developers Conference tell you all you need to know about the event’s agenda. One banner reads “OS X Leopard” and the other says “OS X iPhone.” With both platforms—the Mac and the iPhone—so closely tied to each other, could the burgeoning game market on the phone side of things lead to an upswing of Mac games?

Developing for the iPhone requires both a Mac and a working knowledge of Cocoa, the Application Programming Interface (API) that Apple uses for Mac OS X, and a Macintosh to develop on. So intuitively, it seems to make sense that developers creating iPhone games might eventually make Mac games too.

“That might be what happens,” said Glenda Adams, director of development for Aspyr Media, the veteran Mac game publisher behind such hits as The Sims 2 and Guitar Hero 3. “It’s possible that iPhone games might lead to a new crop of little games for the Mac.”

Unai Landa Bonilla is new to the iPhone and the Mac. Handheld technology director of Spanish game developer and publisher Digital Legends, his first iPhone game, Kroll, was featured during the WWDC keynote. Kroll is a side- scrolling action game that uses the iPhone’s accelerometer to manage jumps. He says it’s more complicated than that, especially for developers who are starting out on the iPhone.

“The problem I see is the size of the content,” Bonilla explained. Most developers creating a game for the iPhone will be generating a limited amount of content—smaller graphics and fewer gameplay levels than many Mac gamers may be expecting.

And unlike iPhone games, which will be sold through the App Store, Apple doesn’t offer a ready mechanism for distributing smaller games online. So developers have to worry about Mac copy protection and a distribution mechanism for getting those games into gamers’ hands.

One possible solution may be GameTree Online, a new game distribution site created by Mac game developer TransGaming Technologies, creators of the Cider technology that EA uses to bring its games to the Mac. Already the company has published three casual game releases itself; the service emerged from a public beta period early this week. But casual games are only the start of GameTree, according to TransGaming CTO Gavriel State.

“GameTree can be home to all sorts of Mac games,” State said. “We have gauged a lot of interest from PC game publishers who want to publish their back-catalog of games for the Mac.”

Retail shelf placement of games is a very expensive proposition, requiring the publisher to have a distribution partner and to pay for the shelf space in retail locations. Online distribution affords them the ability to continue to publish those games without having to pay for shelf space, which makes them viable long after their shelf-date has expired.

“Steam proved to a lot of these publishers that it could be done,” said State. But Steam—a distribution and copy-protection scheme developed by Half-Life maker Valve Software—only works on the PC at present, so publishers interested in creating products for the Mac need to look at other solutions.

Adams agrees that online distribution looks like the way to go. Her company is readying the summertime release of Game Agent, a Web site that users will be able to purchase and download games from, including games in Aspyr’s back catalog, which dates back a decade.

Even for iPhone game publishers, however, it’s not a free ride. Consumers who will be buying iPhone games are as discriminating as gamers on consoles or computers, according to Digital Legends CEO Xavier Carillo Costa.

“For a high-quality game for a device like the iPhone, you need a team. It’s not two guys working for two months anymore. You need to do high-polygon models, using high technology. To be successful in this business you’ll need to use a console approach to developing a mobile game,” Costa said.

Perhaps the more important question is whether Mac users would even buy games that were originally developed for the iPhone. Apple’s increased Mac market share hasn’t translated into a dramatic uptick in Mac game sales. Anecdotally, it seems that Mac users have found a balance between working on their Macs and playing on game consoles, or in some cases for “hardcore” gamers who prefer the Mac in their day to day work, on PCs built especially just for games.

If game developers take a chance on the Mac and it doesn’t turn out as successful as their iPhone efforts, they’re unlikely to repeat that experience again. Which could just make the iPhone Apple’s premier game hardware platform going forward—OS X notwithstanding.

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