Playing games with Apple

Mac gamers have long suffered from PC envy. But this year their holiday spirits are unexpectedly up.

Published December 19, 2001 8:30PM (EST)

It's the season, all right. Game console fans are taking to heart the president's patriotic call to consumerism, buying Xboxes and GameCubes in big numbers; even the year-old PlayStation 2 has seen a significant jump in sales. Billions are being spent to shoot aliens on a ringworld, bust ghosts or play as a mulleted secret agent. But what might come as a surprise is that in the almost-marginal world of games for the Macintosh, the kids are pretty much all right.

It's a surprise because the irrelevance of the Mac in the business world, in the consumer market and in the education world is an evergreen topic, as are the regular stories heralding either the death of Apple or ruefully noting that the company is not bankrupt -- yet.

The game market especially, Doom and beyond, has been owned by consoles and the PC since the Apple II's obsolescence. As many have noted, 1990s-era Apple management reacted to taunts in the business world that the Mac was merely a toy by purposefully distancing itself from games and game developers. Today, a solid seller in the Mac market may rack up one third of the unit sales of an A-list PC title -- perhaps 30,000 boxes instead of 100,000 -- with breakaway hits such as Tomb Raider or The Sims being a rare exception. This doesn't seem to bode well, especially for a computer that sits on over 30 million desks worldwide.

And yet, call up a Mac game developer today, ask them how it's going, and you'll hear them say things like "it's been a great year" and "we're optimistic."

The release of Mac versions of new PC game sensations will still usually lag behind, frustrating Mac fans no end, but over the last year, there has been a healthy growth in companies catering to those who want to spend some particularly unproductive hours in front of their Macs. In marked contrast to the events of a few years ago, when game giants Sierra On-Line and Interplay forsook the Mac market, new companies are picking up the slack and some steadfasts in the field are adding staff.

One, United Developers, even went so far as to license the venerable MacPlay name -- under which such games as Castle Wolfenstein and Descent were produced -- from Interplay. The company also runs subsidiaries Mumbo Jumbo and Rogue, both of which are turning out Mac versions of titles that sold like hotcakes on the PC side. Henry Price, MacPlay's director of sales, is happy.

"It's been a great year for us," he says, "though software is bounded by the economy, which has been weak, and there are two new game consoles. And," he adds somewhat smugly, "this year has been considerably down on the PC side, year total."

Price notes that his company, United Developers, had no A-list titles this time last year. But now it's headed into prime selling times with Giants: Citizen Kabuto, Sacrifice, Aliens vs. Predator and more, including the already successful Baldur's Gate role-playing game. Price says the change is partly due to his company having enough funding to make significant deals and assign the proper resources in porting a title from one computer platform to another. But it also helps, says Price, that the games market is more mature, with clearer marquee properties.

Delivering higher-profile games is key, agree others. Peter Tamte, long a player in the Mac game world, recently started up Destineer Studios which, along with its subsidiary Bold, is focused on bringing PC titles to the Mac. "A bulk of the top 20 PC games make their way to the Macintosh right now," he said.

But getting a handle on exactly how many games for the Mac are sold is something like determining the current whereabouts of the Holy Grail.

Publishers, which are for the most part privately held companies, are reluctant to share hard numbers unless a title is a landmark hit (as was The Sims). Few tracking companies note Mac game sales. And even those that do, such as NPD Intelect, conjure up numbers that appear to ignore the basic realities of the Mac market.

NPD Intelect regularly puts out lists of the top 10 sellers in various software categories with numbers gathered from retail store sales. As in so many things, though, what's good for the PC market doesn't quite work on the Mac side of things.

Though Apple has in the last two years made a push back into the retail space, partnering with CompUSA and others as well as opening its own chain of boutique stores, the vast majority of sales of Apple hardware and software has been through catalog and online retailers such as MacMall, MacWarehouse, and even Apple's own online store (representatives from all declined to discuss the topic). None of these are polled by NRD Intelect, nor are the individual companies, which often sell product directly from their own Web sites.

As a result, while the market for Mac games apparently supports the expansion of developers and publishers, who all claim strong sales, NRD Intelect numbers for the third quarter of 2002 show a drop of unit sales from 103,000 in the same quarter last year to 59,000 this year. Something's not right, especially when two Mac game publishers contacted for this article casually mentioned they each had titles that sold over 30,000 units.

No one may know how big the pie is or what flavor it is, but the reports from the field appear to indicate that the games are selling. Which brings up the next question. Why? Why, in a recession, especially when personal computer sales are tanking, are games -- and games on the Mac -- doing well?

First up is the 9/11 argument: People are turning to relatively trivial entertainments, especially home-based ones, in the wake of horrible events. But this doesn't account for why PC games don't seem to be doing as well. It could be that the events of Sept. 11 have sparked a sudden sales downturn for some of the more violent titles that are sales linchpins of the PC market. Or perhaps the heavy promotion for PS2 and Xbox verions of some currently selling Mac games is resulting in a coattail effect.

But the most likely explanation is the growth of a more focused business model for producing, distributing and selling Mac-specific titles.

Tuncer Deniz, the editor in chief of the Web site Inside Mac Games, points to what some call the bad old days. "In the past, PC game publishers tried and failed miserably in the Mac market," he says. Since they viewed the Mac market as just a small subset of their regular business, they put minimal effort and dollars into the attempt. Their inattention was partly understandable: There was little financial incentive to invest the time and effort for the modest (to them) profit a Mac title might show. The most telling example of where this trend would lead came last year when Sierra On-Line decided to shut down the work that was almost done to bring Half-Life, a tremendously popular PC game, to the Mac. At the time, the company cited future costs of supporting another version and maintaining both to ensure cross-platform online play.

This is just one example, says Deniz, of companies "releasing poorly done ports, providing awful customer and technical support for their Mac games, and putting zero dollars into a marketing campaign."

Today, larger companies such as Activision, Electronic Arts and Eidos Interactive have learned to outsource their porting and publishing to specialized businesses. The porting houses, like Westlake Interactive, are comprised of programmers who know the Mac operating system inside and out rather than Windows experts trying to stuff that particular peg into a differentially sized hole. And the smaller publishers, including MacSoft, Destineer, MacPlay, Aspyr and others, not only maintain closer contact with Mac users and their targeted media outlets but also can react with more flexibility to bugs or, in a worst case scenario, when an update to the Mac OS breaks compatibility with their games (it happened most recently with MacPlay's Giants: Citizen Kabuto and OS X 10.1).

What's more, notes Deniz, this works out well for both the original PC and the contracted Mac publishers. By handing off to the Mac-centric companies, say, the work to bring Tony Hawk: Pro Skater 2 to the Mac, "Activision gets a nice check from Aspyr and doesn't have to worry about the porting, the publishing, the marketing, etc," says Deniz. "Aspyr, on the other hand, makes a decent profit since their overhead costs are low (it's a small company of about 10 people or so), they have really good distribution in the Mac market, and know how to market the product in a Mac world."

Compared to initial development costs that can run into the millions, porting even an A-list title totals between $100,000 and $500,000, according to Destineer's Tamte.

It seems like a no-brainer, but it took years and plenty of failures before some companies learned to give up day-to-day control of some of their products. (There are exceptions -- Blizzard Entertainment maintains its own in-house Mac porting and testing group and has seen solid successes with their Warcraft, Starcraft and Diablo franchises.)

Finally, there's one more mystery factor to evaluate for the present and future of games and the Mac: the ever-popular Mac OS X.

Peruse Mac-centric message boards, Web sites and professional groups and you'll find every possible opinion about Mac OS X, Apple's next-generation operating system that, though preinstalled on all new Macs, has yet to become the new default OS. Some see OS X as Steve Jobs' Next Big Thing; some approach it as they would the Antichrist; others take a wait-and-see approach.

In general, consumers are hesitating when it comes to buying. In Apple's second quarter 10-Q report filed with the SEC, OS X sales totaled only $19 million of net sales; in the company's third quarter report that number wasn't broken out but "software, service and other net sales" (which can include Apple's other products such as AppleWorks, Final Cut Pro and others, as well as repair revenue) came to $230 million, down $30 million from the previous quarter. These aren't the kind of numbers that indicate a gold rush.

As Apple itself admits in these reports, one reason users aren't migrating in droves is the lack of applications specifically designed for OS X; older apps run, but within a "Classic" environment. This fall saw the release of Microsoft's Office v. X, which will run on Mac OS X 10.1 (note the redundant nomenclature) only; this -- along with more and more applications both large (Adobe Photoshop, soon) and small (IRCle) evolving to new versions -- may tempt a greater number of users both professional and consumer.

Some developers have expressed a hope that Mac OS X would make it easier to port games from one platform to another. But in the world of Mac game publishers, where development money is never free-flowing and many customers are playing on older hardware, most companies are taking a cautious approach, writing games to Apple's "Carbon" standard, which allows applications to run both on OS X and older operating systems, back to the now-venerable OS 8.6. "It'll be great when we can do some OS X-only games," says Mark Adams, president of Westlake Interactive, "but I don't think we will until the end of 2002 at the earliest." So far, only one game -- MacPlay's Giants: Citizen Kabuto -- exists in an OS X-only form. Surprisingly, it sold out. Which could be good news not only for MacPlay but for Apple.

As more games play only in OS X and sell well, more game makers will feel secure coding for that operating system. Graeme J. Devine, a game designer and programmer at id Software, makers of Quake and the new Return to Castle Wolfenstein, (for which there will be a Mac version close on the heels of the PC release) can't wait. He's a "big fan" of the technologies that underlie OS X, stating, "Apple evangelists should only be saying 'Cocoa,' 'Objective-C,' 'IB files' and 'QuickTime.'" (Cocoa is the OS X-native object-oriented programming environment.)

The more games that require OS X, the more people will be interested in that operating system. And simply to run OS X, which has rather stiff RAM and CPU speed requirements -- oddly, almost as high as those for many new games -- users may have to buy new iron. That's good for Apple, which has always derived the lion's share of its revenue from hardware sales. And it's not so improbable: We all know some game fans who have dropped a hundred or so on a new video card or even spent a few thousand on a souped-up machine just to accommodate a must-have game. True gamers, like audiophiles, will not be denied.

Drawing a line back to game sales, Destineer's Tamte says, "It's my hope that OS X will cause growth in the sales of Macs, which will quickly make the Mac games market much more profitable." He posits that "even a small growth in the rate of Macintosh sales will cause exponential growth in Mac game profitability."

But even if Steve Jobs unwraps WunderMacs at next month's Macworld Expo trade show (rumors are currently flying), don't expect the Mac to be a heavy hitter in the gaming world the way the Xbox has suddenly become amongst consoles. As Suellen Adams, co-founder of Westlake Interactive, puts it, "We expect [Mac gaming] to remain the niche market it is but we don't see that niche going away soon."

In a post dot-com world, there are worse fates.

By Daniel Drew Turner

Writer and editor Daniel Drew Turner covers technology, design and politics.

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