, “Byte of the Apple” columnist Charles Haddad says that Apple needs to get game developers to support the Mac simultaneously with the PC, or first. It’s important for the business, claims the columnist, who offered his advice in a new article entitled
Games Kids Play — but Not on Macs.
Many Mac users may dismiss Haddad’s criticism as trivial, but the columnist said that at the root of the problem is how Macs are perceived by school-aged kids — kids who develop a loyalty early to PCs because they can play games.
“In the classroom, Apple’s greatest foe isn’t Dell or any other PC maker. It’s kids. They expect — no, demand — to learn on the same computer they’ve played games on since toddlerhood. And that computer is a PC,” said Haddad.
The Mac’s reputation as a machine not suitable for gaming is partly Apple’s own fault, said Haddad. It’s because of what he calls “a strategic mistake committed more than a decade ago.”
Haddad is referring to a conscious decision made by Apple executives looking to establish the Mac’s position in the business world. To avoid growing criticism that the Mac was a toy, Apple dismissed game developers as irrelevant to their long-term goals — thus missing one of the decade’s biggest trends.
“By the time they entered kindergarten, most kids in the late 1990s were veteran users of computers. And the machines they had been trained on were PCs, the platform for which most games are written. Not surprisingly, kids expect to find PCs when they reach school. And, increasingly, that’s what they’re demanding to find,” wrote Haddad.
Haddad said that Apple has some of what it needs to succeed in the games marketplace. OS X is “the greatest operating system ever designed for gaming,” and it’s up to Apple to make sure that PC game developers release their own hot titles either just for the Mac, or simultaneously for Macs and PCs. Haddad cites the example of Myst, the now-classic Cyan graphic adventure that sold millions — in its original form, Myst ran on a modified version of HyperCard, Apple’s early multimedia authoring system made just for the Mac.
“Someday, a game on the Mac will hook kids like a sticky lollypop. Then, they’ll return from the first day of school and complain that there were no Macs in their classroom. And a group of angry parents will browbeat a school into dumping PCs for Macs,” said Haddad.
This reporter has a slightly different perspective on the importance of games to the Macintosh, and what Apple’s role is.
Kids are influential, because it’s their opinions that can help to form their parents’ buying decisions. But it’s important to have both kids and adults view the Mac as a viable gaming system; the bulk of the game market is driven by sales to adults for adults, not sales to kids or sales to adults on behalf of kids. To that end, there’s certainly no shortage of Mac games available — companies like MacSoft, Aspyr Media, MacPlay, and GraphSim continue to pump out top-notch Mac game conversions year in and year out. Their Mac game conversions are often a few months later than their PC counterparts, but these publishers have gotten a lot better than they used to be about narrowing that gap.
I’d like to see more companies support the Mac with cross-platform simultaneous releases. There must be reasons why this hasn’t happened, and Haddad offers no explanation. Here’s a few solid reasons that can be used to explain the infrequency with which cross-platform simultaneous game releases are made.
A smaller market share for Macintosh software.
There’s no question that companies that support the Mac with simultaneous or near-simultaneous offerings see larger returns on Windows than they do on Mac OS. It’s stuff like this that makes it most difficult to argue with the product managers and actuaries who decide what platforms will be supported by major game publishers.
There are some interesting idiosyncrasies, however: Blizzard Entertainment released Diablo II for the Mac about a month after its PC debut, and the follow-up expansion pack Lord of Destruction came out simultaneously for PC and Mac. While there’s no doubt that Blizzard sees much of its revenue come from Windows machines, I’ve been told by sources inside the company that Mac users make up a disproportionately higher percentage of users than the 95 to 5 percent ratio you might expect. I’ve heard similar comments from other companies that support the Mac with simultaneous or near-simultaneous releases. Is the proportion enough to make other mainstream PC game developers adopt a similar strategy? If history is any evidence, it’s not in Mac gamers’ favor. Despite sometimes extreme content, game publishers are notoriously conservative in their decision making. In such a volatile industry, risk is not welcome.
By and large, unless a Mac gamer already has another gaming platform — perhaps a PC or a video game console, for example — he or she doesn’t read the same trade publications that “hardcore” gamers using PCs or video game systems do. This means that a PC game publisher extending into the Mac space needs to add a substantial cost to their marketing budget to get the word out, by buying advertisements in Mac magazines both in North America and overseas, buying banner advertisements on Mac game Web sites and developing relationships with the Mac press, as well as coming to Macworld Expos. None of this happens in a vacuum, and outside of drumming up grassroots support by evangelizing end users themselves, none of it happens inexpensively. This cuts into the profit margins of an already risky enterprise, and this alone has been the straw that broke the camel’s back for some PC game publishers.
If you’re running a game development studio and you’re lucky enough to have Mac programmers on staff, as well as talented game developers that can craft their own libraries and tools to be platform-agnostic, it’s possible to create a multiplatform game and expend limited additional resources in the process. But this is the exception, not the rule. Because most of today’s game developers and producers are trained in a Windows-centric environment, very few of them have the skills or the discipline to manage a multi-platform project. This very fundamental issue has to change in order for Apple to gain a foothold here. And it’s going to take a long time to change in any substantial way.
Haddad’s description of Mac OS X as “the greatest operating system ever designed for gaming” is hyperbole. While the core technology unquestionably has a lot to offer game developers, there’s no question that it’s a huge risk right now. For people outside the Mac industry, Mac OS X is a niche within a niche, rather than the undeniable future as those of us within the industry rightly view it.
The huge strides made in Mac OS X 10.1 not withstanding, Mac OS X still needs work as a gaming platform, too. Support for game controllers in OS X — seemingly a fundamental part of game development — is still non-existent, months after Apple documented its OS X game controller technology, called HID Manager. And some game developers privately admit problems getting games to run well under Mac OS X, because of issues with Apple’s own graphics drivers. Are these insurmountable problems? No. But they are impediments to Mac OS X’s support by developers — and more importantly, they’re impediments to the quality Mac OS X experience that end users demand.
So, the Mac market is still too small for most mainstream PC game companies to bother with. Games that do make it to the Mac often take longer than users would like, creating a negative impression of the platform. And cross-platform game development, while feasible, still isn’t a solution that most developers can manage effectively. Mac OS X is still a work in progress.
No shortage of original development
The Mac has some great original game developers. Pangea Software is the standout — this company (largely a one-man show under the aegis of Brian Greenstone) has struck deals with Apple to bundle its original 3D action games since the advent of the iMac itself. Freeverse Software and Ambrosia Software continue to turn out terrific games for the Mac, too. They’re not the only ones — the list of shareware and non-mainstream commercial Mac game publishers is actually quite lengthy. But none of these companies have the budgets or the resources to go toe-to-toe with the best of what the PC or console markets have to offer.
One practical, simple and relatively inexpensive solution would be for Apple to install some of the products from these original game developers on the Macintosh alongside the current offerings licensed from Pangea, Cro-Mag Rally and Bugdom. It’d be nice for Apple to showcase its consumer computer lines with a variety of different games rather than just one or two titles. And in the conversations I’ve had with some of these developers, they say they’re very amenable to cutting Apple a sweetheart deal for licensing. Sure, it doesn’t bring new A-list entertainment to the Mac, but it does bolster the Mac’s image as a rich gaming platform, rather than a one-trick pony.
An in-house game development studio
As a solution to at least some of these issues, I propose that Apple creates its own game development studio. The studio would be tasked with the creation of truly killer games for Mac OS X; games that rival or exceed the best of what the PC and game console systems can offer. Totally original games that you can play only on the Mac.
The concept of first-party game development isn’t new, or revolutionary. It’s something that’s been done for years, by every major platform developer. Nintendo, Sony, Microsoft — they all have studio subsidiaries that work on some of the hottest and most innovative titles for their platforms year in and year out. Sega’s decision to cut the Dreamcast loose has made their own internal studios focus on bringing best-of-breed games to other platforms, too.
The idea of an Apple-owned game studio might create concern for Mac game developers and publishers whose livelihood depends on the continued sale of their products. But I see this as an opportunity. Such a studio is bound to be able to harness resources that others can’t. Perhaps that would help to generate development tools, products and services that Mac game developers don’t have access to presently. And perhaps by showcasing the Macintosh as an outstanding platform to both develop and sell games for, Apple could lead the way for other game companies to follow.