Apple Needs to Get Its Game On

It's time for Apple to use some of its superior design skills to come up with a game for the beleaguered Mac loyalist -- like me

I've been a Macintosh partisan since the very earliest days. I first touched a Mac mouse when I was on my high school's newspaper staff. I forget exactly what year it was, but Ronald Reagan was President.

For about two decades now, I've endured the emotional and practical ups and downs of Apple Computer AAPL, and what at times seemed misplaced loyalty to its Mac platform. I got through high school, college, my first full-time job, and graduate school almost entirely on the Mac.


 It wasn't until my first post-grad-school job that I was forced to use a PC-running Microsoft (MSFT) Windows 95, and its terrible, horrible, no-good Web browser, Internet Explorer (I called it Internet Deplorer).

It was then that my faith was truly tested. Apple's very existence was in doubt, and software sections of all the good computer stores saw Mac-specific shelf space dwindle or disappear entirely. Still, I bought Macs. Still, I endured the ribbing of colleagues -- even family -- who told me to get a real computer. My view, then and now: There's nothing that can be done with Windows that can't be done better on a Mac. With one major exception: games.

Gaming is the one area of computing where the Mac has seriously lagged in the area of software. While a few major titles have been ported over the years, Mac gamers are treated like a market afterthought. Major releases on the Mac are usually a year or so behind those on Windows. Most of the feelings I have about this situation can't be put into polite language.


 Finding good games -- or rather, the inability to find any games -- has tested my Mac fealty over the years. When I was introduced to the first generation of Command and Conquer on Windows 95 I was instantly hooked. That it wasn't available for the Mac infuriated me.

My fortunes changed when, in 1997, I was buying a new Mac and found a Mac version of the game on the J&R Computer World shelf. That game is single-handedly responsible for most of the lost weekend hours of my adult life. But as the Mac operating system evolved from OS 7.5 to OS 9, compatibility with Command and Conquer ebbed. At one stage, I turned to eBay (EBAY) to buy a used PowerBook G3 with OS 8.1 installed, just so I could play Mac C&C.

Meanwhile, the C&C universe expanded, but not on the Mac. There were no official Mac releases of The Covert Missions, nor sequels like Red Alert. Ultimately, in 2003, I had no choice but to buy a Windows PC to feed my addiction to the C&C family of games. But of course, this required all the various Windows maintenance tasks. It seemed every time I wanted to play, there was some Windows update that had to be accomplished first.


 Thankfully, the game -- even the expansion pack -- finally came out on the Mac. The company behind it was a small shop in Austin, Tex., known as Aspyr Media. Right now it makes more games for the Mac than any other company. It has produced Mac versions not only of C&C: Generals, but also of Activision's (ATVI) Call of Duty and EA's (ERTS) The Sims. Its next major release will be a Mac version of Take Two's (TTWO) Civilization IV (the latest iteration of my other favorite time-killing habit.) These games are all produced for the Mac under license.

How many Mac developers does Aspyr have? Five who work full time. That's it. Why so small a team? Because, as Aspyr's Director of Development Glenda Adams told me, a successful Mac game might sell 50,000 units. It physically hurt my head to hear so low a number. My first question after hearing it was, "How do you do this profitably?" Her reply: "It's always been a razor-thin kind of thing."

Turns out, Mac users aren't really into games. That, or they just don't think of Macs as the machine they turn to for gaming. It's strange, since Macs have always been generally better at graphics, producing animation, editing sound, and so on. It would seem the Mac would be an ideal gaming environment. And yet the market indicates otherwise.


 Maybe Apple's user base just isn't fully aware of great games that are now available for the Mac? Sure, there are games to be found at the Apple store, prominently displayed in the software section. But does Apple market the Mac as a gaming machine? Adams says it should. "The biggest thing that Apple could do is educate its users," she says. "Apple's message is so closely tied to iTunes and iLife and the iPod and these are all great selling points. We have a great relationship with Apple and they help us get the games ready. But we really need the users to meet us halfway, and only Apple can make that happen."

But first, another question needs to be addressed. In the Boot Camp era -- in which Mac users can simply install Windows on their machines -- is there even a need for Mac-specific games? Aspyr's Adams thinks so. "The majority of the end-users we talk to still want Mac-native games," she says. "If they can get Mac-native games, they're willing to wait for them."

If only there were more scope for cross-platform networked gaming. If Mac owners could get into the same gaming environments as PC users -- and play against PC gamers over the Internet -- it would be a lot more fun. I've played on the Mac against PC users at games like Starcraft and, while it works, it can be tricky. Maybe Apple has some ideas about making this kind of experience better.


 And while we're on the subject, why doesn't Apple try its hand at building good games for the Mac on its own? Apple is full of creative people turning out great software, but why hasn't it ever turned out a game? After all, gaming is in Apple's very DNA. Early in their pre-Apple careers, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak (some accounts suggest that Woz did most of the work) created Breakout for Atari (ATAR).

The rumor mills have been buzzing of late about Apple hiring some game developers who will work in the iTunes division under former Lucasarts developer Mike Lampell, whose credits include three titles in the Star Wars genre and NHL 97 for Electronic Arts. (Apple declined to comment on the rumors.) Talk is, the development project -- if there is one -- is focused more on an iPod-based game than on the Mac, but then again, it could easily be an effort aimed at both.

An Apple game might help prime the pump. One great game would get Mac users looking for more great games, and thus help demand, which would encourage more games. In time, one of the weakest planks in the pro-Mac sales proposition would start to look stronger. And I would have more ways to waste time.