The Current State of Mac Gaming: Commercial Reality of Today
Last time, I wrote about history of gaming on the Mac. We took a look at how it came to be in such a sorry state by the time Apple announced the move from PowerPC to Intel architecture. We left off with the reaction to the Intel switch from developers, commentators and users. Some predicted the transition would be the final death-knell of Mac games, since there was no longer a barrier to playing Windows games on the Mac. Others suggested it would kill the porting industry, but only harm rather than destroy business for the few surviving developers of original Mac games. The more optimistic types thought it might be a boon for Mac gaming, as both porting and multi-platform development would be significantly easier now that Macs were built from the same parts as their PC brethren.
The evidence suggested something in between the two extreme scenarios, and indeed this is what happened. Market share continued to rise, while Apple as a brand became increasingly iconic. Some publishers started to take notice, and negotiated deals with TransGaming to bring "Cider-ized" versions of their upcoming PC games to the Mac. Others held back with a wait-and-see approach, while long-time independent developers Epic Games and id Software promised to support the platform with native versions of their games (and engines).
Meanwhile, it was business as usual for the established Mac game companies. Aspyr, Feral, and MacSoft continued porting the major PC releases that they thought could be successful with a Mac audience. Small developers like Freeverse and Ambrosia Software kept making original games. And Jeff Vogel of SpiderWeb Software continued using the Mac to develop his dual-platform RPGs.
Market share had been steadily rising since the Intel switch, boosted by the ability to run Windows on the Mac, the increasing strength of the Apple brand, and the disastrous launch of Windows Vista. But third-party software sales, of which games are a part, received little of the sales boost found in Mac hardware and Apple-developed software. For an explanation why, you have to look at a number of factors – many of which are seemingly unrelated.
Perception Problems -- Macs play games!?!
The most obvious problems in raising Mac game sales and revenues can be traced back to perception issues. Apple seems to take a somewhat short-sighted and arrogant view that they don't need to target gamers on the Mac. But they fail to see the link between games and long-term platform viability, or the fact that even so-called “casual” gamers will sometimes hesitate in buying a Mac because they want to have access to the latest “hardcore” games.
And that brings me to perception issue number two: there are no games on the Mac. This isn't true, but you can excuse people for believing it since Apple has done next-to-nothing to promote the Mac as a gaming platform. Surely, with their highly-talented marketing team, Apple could come up with some way to advertise the Mac as a gaming machine. But they don't. Instead, they offer half-hearted concessions like a game section in their online store, a relatively hidden editorial-based games section on their website, and the occasional statement to suggest they are supporting game developers. This last point is sadly unfounded, with Apple constantly lagging behind in OpenGL and Java support, or in adherence to other standards required by game developers.
The final perception problem is perhaps the most damaging, and it comes from within the games industry itself. It is that the Mac is too small a market to bother developing for. This is a difficult problem to fix, because it can only be proven wrong by sales data and profit analysis, which companies are unlikely to share with each other, lest they give away the secrets of their success. So they can only dispel the preconception by taking a risk, which they are unlikely to do given the current climate and missing precedents. It's a classic Catch-22.
But if only the decision makers would look at Blizzard's example, they could see that the Mac is a viable platform. Blizzard has supported the Mac since the mid-90s, releasing the majority of their games on hybrid discs that contain both the Mac and PC version. They don't do this out of charity. Selling Mac versions of their games boosts profits, and garners good will from a vocal minority.
The problem(s)/commercial reality
Now I come to what I call the middle-man problem, or the commercial reality of the Mac games market. It is the shelf-space problem described in Part 1; the grim reality of limited space, bottom-line profits, and retail chains still being the place people go to shop for games. You don't find Mac games in EB / GameStop. You might find games in an Apple store, though it will almost certainly be a limited range. And you have your work cut out for you if you're looking for Mac games in a department store. There are multiple reasons and causes for this, which I'll get into shortly, but they can be distilled down to two simple ideas. Only a small, scattered minority of people use Macs. And computer games don't sell enough copies to justify a place on the shelf, especially if they're for the Mac.
PC game sales are now much lower than their console counterparts. The big money is in million-selling console releases and specialty hardware. Brick-and-mortar stores are leaving ever-smaller spaces for PC games, often putting them against the back wall of the shop, or in some other place with low-exposure to wandering eyes. The effects of this have been largely offset by the rise of digital distribution and online stores, with Steam in particular driving sales of PC games both old and new. But PC game revenues still fall further behind the consoles every year.
There is no Mac equivalent of Steam (at least, not yet ). The closest you can get at the moment is Mac Games Arcade, which offers more than 600 games – most of which are “casual” – but lacks many of the big releases available elsewhere. Other online Mac stores suffer from similar problems.
The alternately maligned and celebrated Cider technology has come under fire for its involvement in piracy. I won't go into the details here, but users can “patch” their Windows game to run on Mac by replacing and modifying some files in a Cider-powered game. And with a little bit of tweaking, it can run almost as well as an official Cider port. Some argue that this boosts sales, as people buy the legit version then download the unofficial Cider port, or perform the Cider "patch" themselves. Others say it promotes easy piracy, which is partly true, but ignores the fact that piracy on the Mac was already at saturation levels. In the end, it is positive press for TransGaming and the power of their technology, since these unofficial Cider ports are being done by end-users – not dedicated hackers.
Whereas piracy on the PC tends to mean the difference between making a profit and breaking even, or occasionally between making a profit and making a bigger profit, it is often the difference between a slight profit and heavy losses on the Mac. Back in 2006, Peter Cohen of MacWorld wrote about how piracy on the Mac is just as rampant as on the PC, except with one caveat. The numbers at stake on the Mac are far more vulnerable. A sales total of 25,000 is typically considered successful on the Mac – not exactly a big number when development on a modern title costs hundreds of thousands of dollars or more. As proof of the Mac's piracy problem, you need look no further than the number of people downloading updates. It's been found that some games get several (or more) times as many updates downloaded as there are legal copies. And these aren't necessarily even the big games ported from the PC.
Supporting a new platform is hard
Before I move onto talking about the games that have appeared on the Mac in the past few years, there are two more reasons to discuss for why more games have not come out. First is the problem of becoming established on a platform. This is not just an issue of getting recognised by gamers, executives, and the media – who, it should be noted, are quick to get behind new developers on the Mac. It extends into the development process itself. Custom libraries, code fragments, and optimisations often get reused from one game to the next. It takes time to get used to developing for any platform. Even with its hardware compatibility, the Mac is still a very different system to the PC. To develop games on the Mac – when coming from a different platform – is to learn a new toolset, discover new optimisation techniques (while finding others don't work), and adapt to different expectations as to how a product should look and feel. Adding Mac support to the development cycle is far from trivial – although it is beneficial in the long-term, according to Blizzard.
It hardly helps that Apple has been notoriously slow in adopting standards and updating drivers – the hardware input manager and graphics drivers, in particular, have been criticised for lagging behind their Windows equivalents.
The final problem rests in the hands of porting companies. At its core, this is simply that a lot of middleware is too expensive to licence for a game that is projected to sell under 100,000 units. In some cases the middleware isn't even compatible with the Mac, leaving porting companies forced to resort to hacks and workarounds that take months of development time and result in an inferior game. Usually, though, if a game uses expensive middleware (like Havok before Intel acquired the company), or otherwise uses features and technologies unavailable on the Mac, that game simply cannot be ported.
Electronic Arts was the first to jump on the Cider bandwagon, announcing at Apple's 2007 Worldwide Developers Conference that six titles that would get ported with TransGaming's technology, with the first four arriving in July and the other two on the same day as their PC versions. They were three weeks late in shipping the four ports of previously released titles, with no explanation or even acknowledgement of the delay. And the two games slated for simultaneous release – Madden NFL 08 and Tiger Woods 08 – were both pushed back a few months for the Mac. The situation was poorly handled by EA representatives, leaving many Mac fans wondering if they could be trusted at all.
Since then, EA has released Spore and The Sims 3 (and their expansions) on hybrid discs that contain both the Mac and PC version. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince also got a hybrid release, while Warhammer Online took a year to reach Mac audiences. Command and Conquer Red Alert 3 also received a Cider port.
Ubisoft joined the Cider party in July 2008. With the help of TransGaming they released three Petz games, Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones, CSI: Hard Evidence, and Rayman Raving Rabbids later that year. In March 2009 they put out Mac versions of Prince of Persia and Shaun White Snowboarding, just a few months after the PC and console releases, while CSI: NY came to the Mac in April.
Other Cider powered games include City of Heroes, Puzzle Quest, EVE Online, Myst Online: Uru Live, Heroes of Might and Magic 5, and Dragon Age: Origins. At the time of writing, mega publisher Activision's only Cider powered release is Kung Fu Panda.
The Cider technology has improved considerably since its initial release, but Cider powered games remain inferior to Mac-native ports in both performance and stability. They also suffer from the absence of a Mac feel, as many minor interface issues are left with a “PC” mentality that is at odds with some Mac users.
Thankfully, there are still a number of companies working on Mac-native ports of PC and console games. Others have come and gone, but the big four Mac game companies nowadays are Aspyr, Feral Interactive, MacSoft Games, and Virtual Programming.
Aspyr scrambled to get a Universal Build (that's an executable containing both the Intel and PowerPC binaries) of The Sims 2 ready after Apple first announced the Intel switch. They had usurped MacSoft as the leading Mac publisher, and weren't going to see their most popular title lose its market longevity. Other Universal Build updates followed for much of the Aspyr product line. At the same time, the company set about ensuring that its upcoming games would work equally well for Macs of the two different architectures. They dropped PowerPC support in 2007.
Aspyr's porting efforts from the past few years include NeverWinter Nights 2, Call of Duty 4, Guitar Hero World Tour, Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, and the entire Civilization 4 lineup. While ports of Civilization 4 and its first expansion, Warlords, came less than a year after their respective Windows releases, the second expansion, Beyond the Sword, did not arrive until July 2009, a full two years after the PC version, due to difficulty in adding support for the PC version's many fan- and developer-made mods. Civilization 4: Colonization followed in December.
Feral Interactive's highest profile release came in October last year, with a Mac port of the award-winning Bioshock, which was released on Windows and Xbox 360 back in August 2007. But they've been busy working on the ports, too. In August 2008, Feral announced their Legends Series, which would be made up of older PC games that never made it to the Mac. Essentially forming the publisher's budget line, this label has so far brought Mac versions of Sid Meier's Pirates! and Rome: Total War, with more titles expected to come. In recent years, Feral has also released ports of LEGO Indiana Jones, Fable, Tomb Raider Anniversary, Black & White 2, and The Movies, amongst others. The delay between Mac and Windows releases is usually either around six months or a few years, although the ports are typically of a high quality.
The once mighty MacSoft Games have been disturbingly quiet for the past year. They published the Mac-only snowboarding title Drop Point: Alaska in 2007, and ported Age of Empires 3 and its expansions, with the most recent, Asian Dynasties, released in July 2008. But besides updating their earlier OS X games to run natively on Intel Macs, that's about all they've released in the past few years. Back in 2007 MacSoft announced a port of Unreal Tournament 3, but that has yet to surface.
Virtual Programming have been the most prolific of the Mac game publishers since the Intel switch, with more than 30 titles published in the past three years. Highlights include X3: Terran Conflict, Hearts of Iron 3, Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena, Europa Universalis 3, and Majesty 2. Their lineup also includes a number of adventure games, and some arcade and casual titles.
Multi-platform developed games
A handful of brave/daring developers actually create Mac and PC versions of their games simultaneously. Blizzard are the most famous among these, with the Mac versions of their games reportedly aiding in debugging and performance tuning. But others have caught on. Sports Interactive moved into simultaneous Mac and PC development after switching publisher from Eidos to Sega in 2004. They have since released yearly instalments of their Football Manager (Worldwide Soccer Manager in North America) franchise on hybrid discs, including an MMO version. And id Software are once again giving Apple a chance and providing Mac versions of their latest games, with upcoming shooter Rage slated for a Mac release to coincide with the other versions.
The story is far from over, though. Look out for part 3 next week, wherein I examine two far from insignificant portions of the Mac gaming scene -- “Casual” games and indie games – and discuss how they are changing the Mac landscape. I'll also profile the long-running independent developers that still support the Mac.