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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.

Tom Krazit Former Staff writer, CNET News
Tom Krazit writes about the ever-expanding world of Google, as the most prominent company on the Internet defends its search juggernaut while expanding into nearly anything it thinks possible. He has previously written about Apple, the traditional PC industry, and chip companies. E-mail Tom.
Tom Krazit
6 min read
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.

Some believe Apple might have some enhancements planned for Leopard, the next version of Mac OS X that's scheduled to arrive this spring. Last year at Apple's Worldwide Developer's Conference, Steve Jobs demonstrated some graphics-friendly technology such as Core Animation, which will make it easier for developers to create high-powered graphics. It's also possible that Jobs has other surprises in mind for this year's show, scheduled for June.

One development that has given Mac developers a rosier outlook is the switch to Intel's processors. Unfortunately, developers still have to do a lot of work porting games over to Mac OS X because most games are created as universal applications, ensuring they can also run on older Macs with PowerPC chips. But going forward, developers are encouraged by the relative ease of creating Intel-only Mac OS X applications, and the switch also ensures that there are a lot more machines out in the market with a defined level of performance, Morrison said.

The switch to Intel has also paved the way for Apple to release Boot Camp, a piece of software that lets Intel-based Macs run Windows. Boot Camp will be included along with Leopard, allowing those who want to keep their Macs but have a hankering for the latest and greatest video games to run Windows games the day they are released. Virtualization technology from companies like Parallels might make this even easier in the future.

When Boot Camp was first released, Destineer Studios was a little worried that Mac users would eventually stop buying Mac versions of games and just run the Windows versions, said Al Schilling, general manager of Destineer's MacSoft label, which ports games to Mac OS X. But Mac game software does not appear to have been affected by Boot Camp, and Schilling doesn't believe that will change with the release of Leopard.

Programs like Boot Camp and Apple's quiet approach to Mac gaming seems to indicate that the company has made a decision to let the Windows companies pursue the hard-core gamer, said Stephen Baker, an analyst with The NPD Group.

The Windows-based world loves gamers, especially those who spend thousands of dollars on new PCs and related equipment in hopes of having the best score on the block. Smaller PC makers like Falcon Northwest and Velocity Micro cater almost exclusively to this group, but the big guys want in on the action, too. Last year, Dell bought Alienware and Hewlett-Packard bought Voodoo PC in hopes of capturing more of these customers and learning how to reach that profitable segment.

But Apple, despite having the horsepower to satisfy those gamers with products like the Mac Pro, doesn't need that category as much as the rest of the PC world, Baker said.

"That segment is profitable to (Windows) guys because they don't have a solid way to make themselves profitable in the low-end market," Baker said. "But Apple is more profitable off the bat. They don't have to go searching for those smaller niches, their main niches are already relatively profitable."

And with most of the growth in the market heading to the consoles, that might not be a terrible stance, Baker said.

Still, game developers naturally believe that if Apple took a few steps to improve game performance and availability on Macs, the company's market share would grow, encouraging more developers to create titles for the Mac, thereby attracting more gamers, and so on.

"I think if they dug into it," Aspyr's Adams said, "they'd make the connection that a good thriving Mac gaming market would help their market share."