Is the Mac App Store a rip-off for games?

Sensing a potential opportunity to save Mac gamers a few bucks, we checked the top core-gamer titles from the Mac App Store and compared them with both the downloadable and disc-based versions from Amazon and Steam.

Apple's Mac App Store is now on virtually every Intel-based Mac out there. It's come preinstalled on new systems since January, including the brand-new MacBook Air and Mac Mini desktops, and it was pushed to owners of prior systems (who have at least OS X v10.6.6) via a downloadable update.

While you're not locked into it for buying new software as you are with the App Store for the iPad, iPhone, and other iOS devices (jailbreaking aside), it's so convenient and easy to use that it's probably your first stop when looking for Mac apps (the same cannot be said for various attempts to duplicate the App Store model on the Windows side).

As with the iOS App Store, the Games section is among the most popular. It should look especially familiar, as many of the games, from Angry Birds to NOVA 2, are featured in both stores. The Mac App Store, however, does have a small collection of more traditional computer games for sale, including several that have been hits previously on the PC (a term used here as shorthand for a computer running Windows, although I'm sympathetic to the argument that these are all "personal computers.")

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Looking through the games available in the Mac App Store, there were several excellent choices, such as Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and BioShock--great games, despite being a generation or two behind. But, some of the prices attached to these games were surprisingly high (in app stores, prices are generally set by the software publisher). Call of Duty 4 was the first game in what became the Modern Warfare spin-off series, which is now up to Modern Warfare 3. Yet, that 2007 game was still selling for $50 in the Mac App Store (it was on sale for 20 percent off for about a week as an OS X Lion launch-window discount). The PC version of this game can be found for as little as $20, and even the Mac version is less expensive on Amazon.

Sensing a potential opportunity to save Mac gamers a few bucks, we checked the top mainstream games from the Mac App Store and compared them with both the downloadable and disc-based versions from Amazon and Steam (depending on which version was available from which retailer), and threw in a few PC versions as a control.

Compiling the data, a few trends were obvious. First, there is evidence to support the claim of a Mac Tax for games. This can be partly explained by the additional work required by the third-party companies (primarily Aspyr) that translate PC games for OS X, but you're still paying more for older products compared with Windows gamers. Second, there is also a clear premium for the downloadable versions of Mac games, as opposed to the boxed retail versions. We'd expect downloadable versions of games to be at least comparably priced, if not less expensive, as the nonphysical nature of the product eliminates manufacturing and shipping costs. At the same time, there is something to be said for the benefits of downloadable games, including updates and patches, and the overall ease of installation.

While it's the most convenient, buying from the Mac App Store isn't always the least expensive way to get Mac games. If you can live with the disc-based version (you'll need an external drive for the MacBook Air and Mac Mini, such as the $79 Apple SuperDrive), you'll save some money, but even downloads may be less expensive through Amazon or Steam. (We've also been reminded that OnLive has BioShock from our chart below as part of its $9.99/month PlayPack subscription.)

The charts below reflect current prices on Mac games through the Mac App Store, Amazon, and Steam, as of July 28, 2011, and are subject to change. We've seen a couple of these games drop in price for a limited time at the Mac App Store in the past week, as part of an OS X Lion launch promotion, but those promotions appear to be over.

Would you pay more for a Mac game to get it from the Mac App Store? Would you buy a disc-based copy of a game if it was less expensive? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.

Mac game prices as of July 28, 2011 (best Mac price is in bold)

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

Mac App Store $49.99
Amazon Mac disc $23
Amazon Mac download $32.20
PC Steam download $19.99

Civilization V

Mac App Store $49.99
Amazon Mac disc $43.78
Amazon Mac download $42.94
Amazon PC download $29.99

Call of Duty 2

Mac App Store $29.99
Amazon Mac disc $14.99
Amazon Mac download $18.47
Amazon PC disc $10.50
PC Steam download $19.99

BioShock

Mac App Store $29.99
Amazon Mac disc $37.70
Amazon Mac download $29.99
Amazon PC disc $5.88
Amazon PC download $14.91

Star Wars: Empire at War

Mac App Store $29.99
Amazon Mac disc $19.99
Steam PC download $19.99

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

Mac App Store $19.99
Amazon Mac disc $17.30
Steam PC download $9.99
 

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