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Gaming on the Mac: Still playing second fiddle

analysis Or is it third, fourth, or fifth? Windows PCs and consoles usually take priority for publishers. But there are signs Mac gamers may finally be getting their due.

Cyan Worlds' Myst, a game that was a Mac exclusive in 1993, later being ported to nearly every other platform.
Cyan Worlds' Myst, a game that was a Mac exclusive in 1993, later being ported to nearly every other platform. Ubisoft

analysis A decade ago, if you picked a Mac over a PC for your gaming machine, you could pat yourself on the back for loyalty to your favorite OS while you complained you didn't have very many games to play. And yes, that games list includes the bootleg version of Tetris you played in your college dorm room.

Life for the Mac gamer got a little more diverse in 2006 when Apple switched to Intel processors and soon after introduced Boot Camp, a free software utility that lets Mac OS X users install Windows on their Intel-based machines. But five years later, the software library conundrum remains for gamers who want to stick with the Mac OS.

So why are Mac users still treated like second-class gamers? The simplest answer is that the Mac is still a smaller market, at less than a tenth of the size of machines running Microsoft's Windows. For a development house, putting resources into a Mac version may not bring back the kind of returns you get on the PC side, which itself now plays second fiddle to game consoles.

But there are signs that inequality between native versions could be changing, such as the introduction and growth of Valve's Steam service. Steam was launched by Valve in 2004 and finally made its way to the Mac just a year ago. The service lets customers buy digital copies of games through a piece of software that doubles as a download manager, game updater, and chat tool.

When it launched for Mac, Valve included an option called "Steam Play" that gave buyers a dual-license to any game they bought so they could install and play it on both a PC and a Mac with Steam installed. At launch, there were just a handful of Steam Play-enabled apps. Since then it's vaulted to 160 titles, with the company's own software being released at the same time as their PC counterparts. The first new game to do that was Valve's own Portal 2, which was released in late April.

A screen from Portal 2, Valve's latest game and the company's first to launch on both the Mac and PC at the same time.
A screen from Portal 2, Valve's latest game and the company's first to launch on both the Mac and PC at the same time. Valve

The Steam client wasn't the biggest part of the news, though; Valve also brought its Steamworks suite to Mac. This was the set of tools for game developers to add automatic game updates, copy protection, social networking, voice chat, micro-payments, and other features to their titles. Valve had offered these tools to PC game makers since 2008, but the fact that they weren't on the Mac meant that a studio making use of those technologies, and that wanted to launch on both platforms would have to ditch those features on the Mac version.

Still, for Mac gamers, more Mac-friendly companies like Valve are in the minority.

"Typically our licensing partners' first concern is the shipment of the lead platform, not even the PC usually," said Elizabeth Howard, the director of business development and digital publishing for Aspyr Media, a 35-person company that's been porting PC games to the Mac since 1996. When a PC game maker wants to bring their creation to Mac, Aspyr is one of the big companies to go to with clients like 2K Games, Lucas Arts, and Activision.

Howard noted that while publishers have become Mac savvy, lag times can still crop up between the PC and Mac release. "It just totally depends. We've shipped very close to the PC ship date because we were able to get access to the code during development. And there are certainly times where the licensing partner might want us to wait for a game to finish being developed," Howard said.

Other options besides porting the game include wrapping it up with so-called "middleware" that can effectively translate the PC code to Mac. Such an option exists with tools like Transgaming's Cider, which is used by Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, and Disney. Apple proudly announced that EA was bringing its games to the Mac at its Worldwide Developers Conference in 2007, without mentioning that the company was using Cider. That system involves Transgaming receiving completed versions of PC games from publishers, then optimizing it to run on the Mac, a process that can take less time than a traditional port, but means that the Mac is still an afterthought.

Recent changes
But a more friendly attitude toward Mac gaming comes with its own issues. Complicating the coexistence that's been formed from having Steamworks on both platforms, and other efforts like it, is Apple's nearly five-month old Mac App Store. Similar to the App Store on its iOS platform, Apple has a set of rules and guidelines that dictates what can and cannot be included in software it sells. Besides the content restrictions, that list includes third-party software that games use, including Steamworks.

To get around that, some developers have come up with workarounds. For instance, Aspyr is working to bring the popular Civilization V title to the Mac App Store. The company has already ported it over to the Mac in both disc form and as a digital download through its own store. But because it makes use of Steamworks, they couldn't just put that same version on the Mac App Store.

"Currently in the Mac App Store there are some issues in supporting specific titles," Howard said. "For example, Civilization V is our most recent giant release from last November, and it utilizes Steamworks. Currently the Mac App Store--as far as we understand in the terms and conditions--does not allow for content that requires another application to be installed, and for Civilization V to work, it requires Steam."

Aspyr's answer has been to cut Steam-integration out of the game entirely, which it's in the process of doing to bring the software to the Mac App Store. As a result, the game will now be a single-player only experience, which the company is making up for by including additional content for Mac App Store buyers.

"It's makes for a bit more work right now," Howard said. "Obviously our hopes are that Apple comes out with a component similar to Game Center for the Mac App Store that would take care of a lot of the multiplayer workarounds that we have to utilize right now. The second that they come out with that, then everybody will have at least Mac-to-Mac, fully-functional multiplayer games and achievements, and stuff like that."

Apple's Mac App Store presents a new place for developers to sell their wares, though there are some strings attached.
Apple's Mac App Store presents a new place for developers to sell their wares, though there are some strings attached. Josh Lowensohn/CNET

So why even spend all the time and resources to get a game out on Macs that you've already released on the platform? Howard says the Mac App Store holds a lot of promise for the company's back-catalog of games, many of which do not include Steam integration and can no longer be found in stores. Putting those up for sale at a time when retail shelf space (including Apple's) is shrinking, promises to bring the company extra revenues.

Another company, Virtual Programming, which works with a similar subset of licensees to port Mac games and has published a number of games to the Mac App Store shares similar sentiments.

"Apple's Mac App Store has definitely heightened Virtual Programming's profile, if for no other reason than the fact that every single Mac in the world running OSX 10.6 has downloaded the Mac App Store application as part of an Apple update," CEO Mark Hinton said in an e-mail to CNET. "That exposed us to a much wider audience, which was key because this year we've seen the decline of box product appearing on store shelves, particularly in Apple's brick-and-mortar stores."

That very decline is what now makes stores like Steam, the Mac App Store, and Virtual Programming's 4-year-old Deliver2Mac digital download service such a critical part of Mac gaming, since those stores have become the place where people are going to have to go to discover and purchase games.

For proof of that, look no further than Amazon jumping into the ring. Last week, the company quietly introduced a digital downloads store for Mac. The online retail giant has long offered PC games and software as digital downloads, as well as boxed Mac software, but this was the first time it's offered digital copies for the platform. It's even got got partners like Microsoft on board, selling digital copies of Microsoft Office for Mac 2011--something Microsoft currently does not sell through Apple's Mac App Store.

What's next?
Cloud gaming services could add another ingredient to this development mix. OnLive, a service that runs games on its own hardware, then pipes it through the Web has effectively gotten rid of whether you're on a Mac, a PC, or even your own computer. Any one of those platforms can be running on older hardware since the work is being done on a machine that could be across the world.

The service opened up its doors in the U.S. just under a year ago and plans to expand to the U.K. later this year. Gamers install a small piece of software on their machine, which runs the games through your Internet connection. They can then rent or purchase access to games as they show up in the library, none of which require any other local software.

Cloud gaming service OnLive promises to let gamers play games from nearly every platform.
Cloud gaming service OnLive promises to let gamers play games from nearly every platform. OnLive

There are also social games that run on Facebook and through other online game portals. These differ from Web-based games from just a few years ago in that people are pumping an increasing amount of time and money into them, turning companies like Zynga and PopCap into Web powerhouses, and once again placing less of an importance on what platform you're on, as long as you have a Web browser.

Alongside those efforts, there's been a noticeable shift in what kinds of games people are playing on their computers. One of the top games in the Mac App Store is Angry Birds, the hit game from Rovio that began its life on iOS and has since popped up just about everywhere else. One could argue it's doing so well because many new major titles are not on the Mac App Store. But other iOS developers, including Firemint, Big Blue Bubble, and Backflip Studios have also released Mac versions after a successful run on Apple's iOS.

The question remains if the Mac can become that place where publishers go first, the same way many now do with iOS. The fact that Apple is bringing iOS features to that platform with Mac OS X Lion and inevitably future iterations of the OS, suggest that the two may not be all that different a little bit further down the line, a move that could end up moving Mac gamers to the first chair.