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Zmonk’s Game Cage

OS X, games, and the Digital Lifestyle

By Zmonk, zmonk@macedition.com, January 26, 2001

We’ve arrived at the banks of the river, and can just make out the other side. At long last, Apple is on the verge of shipping a new, modern operating system. It brings to the Mac a mouthful of new buzzwords: UNIX, multitasking, Aqua and so forth. A new emphasis on hardware and closing the megahertz gap seems to be evident, coalescing out of the fog on our metaphorical river’s opposite bank. We’ve made it to this point, from the desert of Rhapsody through the comforting meadows of OS 9 and now this. On the banks of the river, we’re ready to take the plunge. OS X is, as all new initiatives that spring from One Infinite Loop become, the Way. But the waters are dark, with eddies and unseen currents. It’s a scary thing, jumping into an unknown river.

For Mac game enthusiasts, this is the situation we’re in. Papa’s got a brand new bag. That’s great, but game developers are going to be slow to get on board. Oh, some might make noises about how OS X is the future, and how excited they are, but most of the game developers out there haven’t touched a Mac in years – if ever. Game developers shun the Mac market for good reason; there isn’t much money to be made here. It’s really as simple as that. If OS 9 isn’t commanding massive game clout, imagine what the next two years with a fledgling OS X are going to be like.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the Mac, and consider it to be simply the best operating system out there in terms of making computers easier to use, more accessible and simpler to maintain. Macs are absolutely fantastic computers. I never have trouble with my Mac that I can’t fix in minutes, and I didn’t study computer science in school. I also love games, ever since first playing Zork on my VIC-20. But I’m under no illusions – the Mac game market sucks.

Like most Mac gamers, I’ve compromised. I own a PlayStation. I own a PC. It’s not a particularly great PC, and it has its problems, but it plays lots and lots of games. Games which will never make it to the Mac. Games like EverQuest, Empire Earth, Asheron’s Call, Planescape: Torment and many, many more. For the hardcore gamer, the Mac has limited appeal. It simply doesn’t have as many games. nVidia has dominated the PC video card market for years, but it is only now moving to the Mac. For the game developer, the situation is very much the same; the numbers simply aren’t there.

For a while, it really looked like Apple got it, and was doing the right things. A year ago in San Francisco, Apple demoed Halo at Macworld SF during Steve Jobs’ keynote address. John Carmack was there, saying great things about OS X. I outlined in a MacEdition column some steps I thought Apple should take to reclaim some of their lost clout with the game development community, steps like really helping developers with free development machines, code support and even dedicated Mac game engineers on call for assistance. Not much has publicly happened along these (or any) lines. This is understandable on one level; Apple has been very busy shipping OS X, new hardware and new consumer software titles like iTunes and iDVD. A case could be made for games to take the apparent back burner they’ve been relegated to, but it isn’t one which Apple is going to voice publicly.

Apple could spend a lot of resources courting developers (as I championed last year) to bring high-profile games to the Mac. But it’s a defensive strategy, and it doesn’t really address the core problem. There are always going to be new games coming out, and playing catch-up is a game you are bound to lose eventually. Apple could (and probably does) have a skunkworks OS X-on-Intel project in the bunkers underneath the Cupertino campus, but even that won’t address the central problem the game industry itself is facing. The industry is shifting focus, and big changes are on the horizon. Bringing new games to the Mac simply won’t work.

I recently contacted a friend of a friend at a major game developer and asked them about their Macintosh development plans. They had none. I asked what their company’s policy was for porting their titles to the Mac. Their response? Only major hits get looked at for porting to the Mac, and even then, they usually don’t. Resources are scarce, and the Mac doesn’t command a lot of marketshare. The most telling quote of our conversation: “The bottom line really is that there is no Mac development internally, and the only time we think about that platform is when we have a massive hit on our hands (and even then, the ports have, in recent years and probably the years to come, been handled completely out of house). When one looks at the market share of Mac OS, how our games have historically performed on the platform and what offers us the widest audience/exposure ... there’s really not even a consideration or thought given to it. Yes, it sucks because the Mac has always been a class act, but it is what it is. Now, if you ask me about Xbox or PS2 considerations, we’re talking about an entirely different ballgame.”

This may look like the death knell for Mac games, but I think we as Mac users need to look beyond our little patch of the river and take in the big picture. The PC market is changing. Games on PCs are getting harder and harder to make. Why? Because of the arms race scenario. Game Company A has a new lighting or whizbang geometry effect, so Game Company B must have it as well. This means that you are constantly bloating your product, spending more time and resources developing it, until you’ve got a product that has cost you so much to make, it has to be a blockbuster for you simply to break even. The market can only support so many blockbuster, must-have titles. Ergo, some people are going to drown. It is, as the quote above shows, an entirely different ballgame.

Notice how many mergers and closings there have been in the game industry lately? Looking Glass, Digital Anvil, Bungie and many more smaller fish have gone to the hallowed halls of game memorial. Bungie leapt at the chance to move into Xbox development. This was no knee-jerk reaction or simply stupid decision, as I thought at the time. It marks the beginnings of a shift, I believe, away from desktop PC game development, and towards a more console-oriented industry. As much as it rankled long-time Bungie fans (myself included), for them their early move to Xbox is looking more and more like a good thing. The industry is not kind to startups, laggards and companies that produce bloated titles. Even Looking Glass, who produced great original games, had to close their doors due to lack of funding, to a chorus of great lamentation. The industry is changing, and boutique studios making good games that don’t sell enough units are not going to survive.

The Hollywood mentality is hitting home. If only blockbuster titles that require huge outlays of capital are what the market wants, then you’ve simply got to sell more units. How? Consoles. The console market dwarfs the PC game market. Consoles such as the PlayStation 2 and Microsoft’s forthcoming Xbox are going to rule the day. Microsoft has, in my humble opinion, the wind in their sails with the Xbox. Developers love it, since it is a standard reference platform with which they are already somewhat comfortable. Microsoft is courting developers actively as well, as we saw with Bungie’s “defection” and lately with the dismantling of Digital Anvil. Microsoft also has something Sony doesn’t: infrastructure.

The games MS could develop for Xbox with their own broadband and forthcoming .Net infrastructure could be truly groundbreaking. Do you like EverQuest? Xbox has megaplayer RPG written all over it, and they are already partners with Turbine, makers of Asheron’s Call. How about a collaborative music title? The potential is there forany number of groundbreaking titles, and with the WebTV experience under their belt, MS is in the catbird convergence seat. Bungie’s Halo is going to just scratch the tip of the iceberg, if Bill Gates and Co. listen to the smart folks they’ve brought on board and do the right things. Microsoft has a tendency to do things wrong at first, but whatever else can be said about them, they learn from their mistakes. OpenGL was going to trounce DirectX, remember? But DirectX is on its eighth iteration, and it has gotten a lot more developer friendly in recent years. Microsoft learns, which is their greatest strength. Apple, on the other hand, was always the innovator, the genius. Learning from mistakes is always harder for people who think they can’t be wrong. But perhaps that is changing.

At the recent keynote, Steve Jobs showed off a raft of “new” features for OS X which were mostly just Classic Mac OS elements brought over and put in their rightful places. Apple apparently does learn, and the new “Digital Lifestyle” initiative is a positive step. Supplement the technology that surrounds us, and make the Mac more of a digital hub that adds value to the other gadgets and appliances we own. Build rocking hardware that people lust for (come to me, PowerBook G4!). Address the core markets of publishing and digital creativity, but don’t try to shovel back the game industry current with a fork. Games have never been a core Apple market, and likely never will. Adding value to the stuff people already own is a nice enough niche to occupy for now. This is true convergence, and if Apple is serious about it, it’s a good move for them to make. Follow-through is key, however. Xbox is convergence, too, and right now seems to be poised for running the table. Apple needs to figure out a way to add value to the consoles of the future. Consoles are where games are headed, like it or not. There are plenty of ways for Apple to do it, and in my next column, I’ll look at a few of them.

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