Apple still quiet on game strategy

Windows PCs still own the game world, as Apple seems content to focus on digital media and portable music.

Anyone who has seen Apple's television ads knows "PC" is a stodgy business guy. But he sure spends a lot of time chasing down alien terrorists in video games.

Given the "cool factor" of the Mac as portrayed in those ubiquitous ads, some might think gamers choose Macs more often than the average PC buyer. (Apple's market share among the U.S. general public is 4.7 percent.) But analysts say that by a wide margin, Windows-based PCs are preferred by serious gamers, who often influence the buying decisions of their friends.

A little more than a year ago, after Apple launched its first Intel-based Mac, some Apple users were hopeful that adopting the same processors as the Windows crowd would let Mac users quickly get their hands on the best games. Now Apple's entire lineup has moved over to Intel, and Mac users are still forced to wait for the best games. Some decide to buy a Windows machine just to play.

The reason for that Windows versus Mac preference is equal parts historical, technical and business strategy, according to analysts and game developers. Microsoft has spent far more time than Apple courting game developers, and it has the larger group of users that game developers seek. PCs are more flexible, and they allow gamers to add do-it-yourself features to accomplish tasks like improve graphics. And for now, Apple appears content to focus on lifestyle software like its iLife suite.

While most of the hype, and increasing amounts of money, go to console games like Microsoft's Xbox 360, Sony's PlayStation 3 or Nintendo's Wii, the PC game software market was actually worth $970 million last year, according to researchers at The NPD Group. So it's not a market to sneeze at.

Some believe, however, that Apple could be preparing for a renewed attack on the game industry through products like the iPod and Apple TV. Certainly, many games are available for the Mac. Apple maintains a list of games on its Web site that are currently available for its technology, and that roster includes popular titles such as Age of Empires III and Civilization IV. And with the switch to Intel, it's easier than ever to compare the performance of the Mac to other PCs on the market.

"The Mac is faster and more powerful than ever, has stunning graphics and a growing list of popular games that our customers enjoy, including World of Warcraft, Prey and The Sims 2.0," Apple spokeswoman Lynn Fox said in a statement.

But with the notable exception of World of Warcraft, those games were available for Windows PCs long before they made their way onto Macs. Apple users often have to wait several months for new PC game titles to be ported over to Mac OS X, said Glenda Adams, director of development with Aspyr. Major game studios tend to develop for Windows and let others, such as Aspyr, port Windows games to the Mac platform, a process that can take several months, she said.

It's not that Mac users are less interested in playing games on their systems than the Windows crowd, Adams said, but the perception among game developers is that Apple's priorities are its own products like iLife or iTunes. "At some point, they kind of shifted to where they are only focusing on Apple software," she said.

Keeping it casual
These days, some Mac game developers are concentrating more on so-called "casual games," a category of software-based entertainment that includes word and puzzle games, board games and even some classic arcade titles that are generally easier to pick up than complicated first-person shooters or epic strategy games, Morrison said. These games don't require cutting-edge performance or expensive game rigs that hard-core gamers covet, but they are becoming more and more popular among those intimidated by intricate games.

Casual games also bypass some of the technical reasons Apple trails Microsoft in the hard-core gaming arena, said Bruce Morrison, a producer for Freeverse. Freeverse produces games mostly for Mac OS X, including such titles as Heroes of Might and Magic. "Mac OS X could have a lot more support for gaming," he said.

For example, while Apple took a big step forward with the addition of the OpenGL specification for 3D graphics to Mac OS X, it still doesn't have an answer to the DirectX technology found in Windows, Morrison said. DirectX is a collection of APIs used by developers in their designs.

OpenGL is "old tech" compared to DirectX, said Jake Richter, an analyst with Jon Peddie Associates. And since DirectX can only be used with Microsoft's software, Apple would have to undertake a significant development effort to come up with its own technology or encourage the development of a different open standard, he said.

Featured Video