The Current State of Mac Gaming: How It Got This Way

mossy_11 on Monday, 25 January 2010. Posted in Opinion

The Mac isn't exactly known for its ability to play games. And given the repeated snubbing from big publishers and developers in recent years, this isn't without reason. But it hasn't always been a wasteland for games, sparsely populated by a handful of the PC's sloppy seconds. In this series of articles I will discuss the highs and lows of Mac gaming.  We start with some history, then we will look in-depth at the current situation, and finally we will take a look to the future.


The early days


In January 1984 Apple released its revolutionary Macintosh 128k computer, which featured an operating system that used a graphical user interface (GUI) instead of the command-line interface found in other personal computers at the time. The Macintosh's monochrome display and limited RAM restricted its potential as a games machine, and it was marketed for its potential as a productivity machine -- Apple were very careful to avoid having the Macintosh labelled a "toy". The closest thing to a game available for the first Macintosh was a desk accessory called Puzzle.

It wouldn't be a computer if it didn't have games, and entertainment software soon emerged on the system. Text adventures and Apple Lisa ports came almost immediately, with Lode Runner -- ported from the Apple II in 1984 -- hot on their heels. 1985 highlights include Chris Crawford's seminal work Balance of Power and a port of Wizardry, while the brilliant Dark Castle came a year later, amidst a growing number of ports and original titles.


The Macintosh simply wasn't built for the fast, exciting and colourful games being made for other platforms -- although technically it was capable (except for that whole “colour” thing). It was designed to be a productivity machine best suited to the emerging desktop publishing field. So Mac gamers would miss out on many high-profile arcade ports and other commercial twitch-based games. Instead they got slower-paced adventure, strategy, and role-playing games. LucasArts and Sierra graphical adventures, Ultima- and Wizardry-style RPGs, and Will Wright's Sim games all found a strong audience.

Still, impressive original titles continued to emerge. A number of notable Mac-first games were released in 1987, including Scarab of RaThe Fool's ErrandBeyond Dark Castle, and Crystal Quest, which was the first Mac game that could be played in colour. The 80s closed out with more of the originality and graphical detail the Mac had excelled in, with titles including a visually superior port of SimCity, first-person action game The Colony, and fan-favourites Shufflepuck Café and Glider. Together with some top-notch ports of popular Apple II games, these titles helped to soften the blow of the Mac being a low priority with many leading developers and publishers.


Struggling against the competition

The Mac was getting its share of multi-platform releases, but its gaming audience often had to wait months to years for the big-titles to make their way over. And it only got worse as the Apple II lessened in popularity. Rather than migrate to the Apple II's more advanced cousin (the Macintosh), developers flocked to the AmigaAtari ST, and IBM PC with its new Windows operating system.

It didn't take long for Mac's to get colour monitors and higher-resolution graphics, but by then Windows -- with its vast array of cheap (and customisable) IBM-compatible hardware options -- had gained a very strong advantage in market-share. This made it difficult for Mac gamers to be taken seriously, no matter how boisterous they were in preaching the merits of their favourite platform, there was simply no arguing with the numbers. There weren't enough people using Macs to make it a worthwhile target platform for all but already proven (on Mac) niche genres. Worse still, the Mac had to compete with cheaper machines designed and marketed with games in mind, such as the Atari ST, Amiga, and the rejuvenated console market, with the Nintendo Entertainment System and Sega Master System.

From Stackware to Killer App

One application, bundled with all Macs (from 1987 onwards), soon opened the door to a new kind of gaming experience. HyperCard was branded as an all-purpose software platform, with a simple-yet-powerful programming/creation interface built upon the idea of hypertext, later popularised by the Internet. It allowed easy creation of interactive multimedia applications, complete with sounds, animations, graphics, and user input. Its use of "cards" and "stacks" made HyperCard perfect for games that used a static background (e.g. adventure and simple arcade-style games). Software created using HyperCard was typically shared on bulletin board systems and Usenet, although there were also some disc releases for more commercial or polished applications. Notable HyperCard games include Cosmic OsmoThe Manhole, and Spelunx, all of which were created by the Miller brothers, founders of Cyan.


HyperCard's real (gaming) legacy, though, came from a game more famous for being the killer app for the CD-ROM format, which had previously struggled to gain traction. Released in 1993, Myst cast players as the lone explorer of a lavishly detailed, but apparently deserted, island of the same name. It was praised for its graphics, mature story, and "immersive experience," but derided (especially in later years) for its obtuse puzzle design, and lack of characterisation and interaction. Many consider Myst the beginning of the end of the adventure game genre, mostly due to the huge number of clones and sequels, none of which overcame the original game's shortcomings.


On its way to becoming the highest-selling game of the 90s, Myst changed the video game landscape. Games immediately started coming out on CD, with better graphics, movie cutscenes, better sound, and voiced characters. But most of its sales came from the Windows version – released two years later. And the Mac shared little of the consequential boon to the computer games market, for Apple was spiralling into financial crisis – attributable to some poor decisions, the rise of Windows, and a horribly confusing product line.

Dark Days Ahead

Were it not for the writing on the wall, telling of mismanagement at Apple, gamers may have been excused for thinking bright days were ahead for Mac gaming. In a rare twist, SimCity 2000 (Maxis and Will Wright's 1993 follow-up to the original SimCity) was developed on a Mac and then ported to Windows. Bungie proved their talent and commitment to the Mac with Marathon in 1994. And in the same year Ambrosia Software was founded, following the success of a highly-polished Asteroids clone called MaelstromSpiderweb Software and Freeverse Software were also founded in 1994, releasing one-man-team projects Exile and Hearts Deluxe, respectively. Meanwhile, in-house porting teams at BrøderbundInfogrames (MacSoft), Microsoft, and Interplay (MacPlay) ensured that most big Windows titles could be ported quickly.

Between three talented new shareware developers, support from big publishers, and a growing number of games made on a Mac, you get a picture of a healthy platform, but as you'll see, it wasn't destined to last.

In 1994 Apple replaced the Motorola 68k CPUs used in Macs with the more powerful RISC PowerPC architecture, which not only put the Mac operating system further ahead of Windows in functionality and multimedia capability, but also resulted in a sales boost. It appeared the Mac was set to make some ground on the IBM-compatibles running Windows. In reality, it was quite the opposite.

Game Over

Windows 95 was released to ridiculous levels of hype in August 1995, touting "new" and revolutionary features long present in Amiga and Mac operating systems. Mac sales fell while PC sales rose, further increasing the divide in installed base. Apple had no answer. They tried licensing hardware-clones (too late in the game) and hurried to put together a major upgrade (later cancelled) to their operating system, but between mismanagement, poor finances, and retreating momentum Apple simply could not compete with Microsoft. The Mac's market share, which peaked at around 12% in 1993, fell to just over 3% by 1999, before finally beginning to rise from under 2% after 2004.

The Mac was never a particularly strong gaming platform, but these falling sales ensured it would not be considered by any except a die-hard few developers and publishers of games. It wasn't just the computers that weren't selling enough, either. Retailers began refusing to stock Mac software and games, citing low sales per square inch of shelf-space (compared to Windows 95 products). Thus began a vicious feedback cycle of declining sales leading to fewer orders, which in turn brought fewer sales (and so on). It took its toll Mac game companies. On April 29, 1998, MacPlay (by far the biggest Mac game publisher at the time) announced its closure by parent company Interplay.


Commentators and analysts wrote Apple off; their market share was shrinking, the Mac operating system was outdated, and the company was bleeding money. The Mac was dead...or so they thought.

The Messiah Returns

Steve Jobs became interim CEO of Apple on July 9, 1997 having returned to the company as part of its purchase of NeXT in December the previous year. He immediately set about restructuring Apple to make it profitable again. Announced on May 6, 1998, the iMac (along with a new partnership with Microsoft) signified the return of Apple to mainstream culture. Market share continued to decline (albeit slower), but the company now had a chance of survival if its latest attempt at a major operating system rewrite could succeed (spoiler: it did).

In the meantime, though, it was slim-pickings for Mac gamers. GameSpot lists just 28 Mac games released in 1998, and 37 in 1999 -- many of which are "edutainment", while most are ports of PC games released one or two years earlier. Undoubtedly, there were other games released for Mac in those years that are not listed. But a few missing games mean nothing in the face of GameSpot's listing of 479 PC games released in 1998, and 543 in 1999. And despite the huge discrepancy in number of released titles, Mac games – whether port or original – continued to manage only an ever-shrinking fraction of the sales achieved by their PC counterparts.

Released in August 1998, the iMac revitalised the Mac as a computer platform, but not so much as a games machine. Even though the colourful new hardware (with USB ports as standard, and the relatively powerful G3 processor) was powerful enough to run the latest games, the installed-base was much too low to justify continued support from the big publishers. The Mac gaming scene now consisted of little more than a few Mac-only publishers and porting companies, a half dozen successful shareware companies, cross-platform support from Blizzard, and Bungie (the popular independent developer of the Myth and Marathon games).


Finding a good (relatively) new game on the Mac became somewhat easier when MacPlay was revived in 2000 by United Developers LLC. They ported a flurry of Interplay games (new and old) before becoming a software retail outlet in 2004. (The MacPlay domain is now used by MumboJumbo, a casual games company). Other porting companies were also in relatively good health, with Feral, Aspyr, and MacSoft all growing during this period. Apple convinced id Software to release the Mac version of Quake 3 alongside the Windows version. And they promised to improve support for games technology. For a while, people believed them.

Halo was first announced at MacWorld 1999. It would be a third-person action/adventure for simultaneous Mac and Windows release, and would prove the Mac's capacity for hardcore gaming. It wasn't to be, however, as Microsoft bought Bungie in 2000, and the game was released for Xbox in 2001 re-designed as a first-person shooter. It eventually came out on Mac (in December 2003), but that did little to ease the bitter taste in the mouths of many Mac gamers. One of the most successful, long-running, and dedicated developers of original Mac games had defected to the competition.


OS X Arrives

The long-awaited overhaul of the dated Mac OS was released in March 2001. Dubbed Mac OS X, it brought the necessary features of a modern operating system while dropping much of the baggage of its 17 year old predecessor. It kept support for Mac OS 9 software through the "Classic" environment (essentially, a software abstraction layer) and the Carbon API. For OS 9 games, as with other applications, compatibility with Classic was pretty hit-or-miss, with a majority of recent software working and a good chunk of older software not. Of course that wasn't much of an issue until hardware revisions some years later dropped support for booting into Classic, by which time only a few die-hards still cared.


The changes brought by OS X were hugely significant for Apple's future and the operating system's functionality, but they had little immediate benefit to gamers. If anything, the arrival of OS X was bad for Mac gaming in the short term. Some games were not compatible with OS X without an update. Others required longer development time to ensure compatibility with both OS 9 and X.

On the other hand, the long term benefits were considerable. Apple improved support for OpenGL and Java, in addition to updating or introducing a number of other frameworks useful in game development. Then there's the addition of other features (such as memory protection and pre-emptive multitasking), which benefited games more indirectly by improving the stability and performance of the operating system (amongst other things).

Of course, what really matters to games is potential audience, and, due to the Mac's tiny market share, these enhancements were not enough to attract the big publishers. Sales continued to rise as Apple improved their public image and brand exposure, thanks largely to the instant-hit iPod (also released in 2001). But still it was business as usual for Mac games, a handful of developers releasing a steady trickle of games, most of which were old news for Windows or console gamers.

With market share creeping up and the Internet enabling a better distribution channel, Mac game development became slightly more profitable every year. Then Apple through a spanner in the works.

New Beginnings: The Intel Transition

The switch to Intel architecture was met with (extremely) mixed response by the Mac gaming community, far more-so than previous transitions from 68k to PowerPC and from OS 9 to OS X. Some heralded the move as the saviour of Mac games, as multi-platform development and porting to the Mac would be much easier (and cheaper) for developers of Windows games. This would soon be supported by the announcement that TransGaming had developed a wrapper technology, which would reduce porting time dramatically, with nothing more than some tweaking to Cider (the translation layer) required.


But others called it the final death-knell of Mac games. You could run Windows on a Mac, they argued, so why would anyone bother to make a Mac version of their games? Perhaps the greatest fear of these doom-sayers was that the few remaining Mac-focused developers would either run out of business or jump ship and later stop supporting the Mac (a precedent set and upheld sadly too many times by the likes of Cyan, Bungie, and Maxis).

Porting companies, among the few surviving bastions of Mac game development, feared the worst. Rather than make the turnaround for Windows ports faster, they expected a marked increase in development time, as they would initially need to support both PowerPC and Intel processors. Even when looking ahead a few years to when they could drop PowerPC support, the reduction in porting time was expected to be insignificant.

The crux of the problem was that Mac ports of Windows software tended to be slower, buggier, less-supported, missing features, partially incompatible with the PC version (for mods or online play), or released months or years later. Sometimes even all of the above. This is partly due to the fact that some popular middleware technologies were Windows-only, which meant that ports of games built with these tools had to use hacks and workarounds, or else drop key features. Worse still, in some areas it could be extremely difficult to find the Mac versions of popular games, which sometimes weren't available even in Apple stores, and often were more expensive.


Uncertain Times

You could finally run Windows on the Mac at full speed. The one big reason not to buy a Mac had been removed. Fans of the Mac operating system or Mac-only applications who needed Windows for one reason or another could now have the best of both worlds, running the two systems side-by-side on the same machine. And it appears there were a lot of people waiting for this possibility. Sales rose markedly, especially for portable Mac systems.

Part II will look at the commercial games of the Intel-Mac era, and the impact of this transition on the Mac gaming landscape.

Comments (0)

Leave a comment

Please login to leave a comment.