Apple's 'game' plan still falling short

Summary:Apple continues to be at the back of the gaming pack. And it seems to be getting worse.

Problems with engineering, retail distribution and divisiveness within Apple continue to keep the company at the back of the pack for gaming. And despite words to the contrary, it seems to be getting worse.

I don't know how to describe the emotion that overcame me at the Macworld Expo this summer, except to say it left me feeling like a groom standing at the altar with no bride in sight, lured there by a handful of empty promises and left with a half-full hall of guests who felt equally jilted and unsure of what to do next.

Steve Jobs was that bride. At previous Macworlds, Jobs had promised gamers a happy ending: renewed commitment from inside Apple, fast 3D acceleration, and the return of developers to the platform. Apple (Nasdaq:AAPL) also announced support of SGI's Open GL, which facilitates the development/porting process. Devotees saw what they thought was the beginning of a new age.

Announcements were made at last week's Expo as well: The fourth horseman in Apple's simplified product lineup, the six-pound iBook finally made an appearance. Apple's seventh consecutive profitable quarter was announced, as well as the sale of 1.9 million iMacs in less than a year and assets of more than $3 billion. All good news. But the promise of Apple's makeover into the manufacturer of great gaming machines and supporter of great games fell flat, leaving more than a few disgruntled developers and Apple insiders behind. So where did Apple go wrong?

Snake oil and promises
"Once you're comfortable with a PC, there's no reason to use a Mac," said a top member of Bungie, who asked that the quote not be attributed. [Editor's note, Bungie refutes this statement, but we stick by our story. Bungie's response: "The quote in the Gamespot article anonymously attributed to a top manager at Bungie does NOT represent the opinion of any of Bungie's managers. In fact, all of Bungie's top managers are active users of Macintosh computers. Further, the article implies that Bungie recently changed its development policies to support PCs. In fact, Bungie has been developing its titles for simultaneous Mac and PC release for the past four years. Bungie enthusiastically supports Apple's recent resurgence as a viable games platform." ]

While Bungie has always shipped its games cross-platform and has been a longtime supporter of the Mac, the really interesting thing about Halo was not mentioned at Job's keynote, where the game made its first public appearance. Halo is the first game that Bungie has ever developed using Microsoft Direct 3D, and the game was the company's first-ever PC-to-Mac port instead of vice versa.

When asked if he had a compelling reason for using the Mac platform, Brian Love of Blizzard Software said flatly, "There aren't any. I'm sorry to say that. They can't innovate and make their price point." Math explains the story better than anything else. A hit game on the PC sells upward of 200,000 copies. A Mac-only game, normally distributed via shareware, sells between 3000 - 7000 copies. A hit on the Mac, according to some sources, is 50,000 units sold. Darci Nagorski, senior communications manager of GT Interactive, which released Unreal for the Mac and is preparing to ship Unreal Tournament, said "A 20,000-30,000 ship-out on a Mac is a pretty huge hit."

"We're shaving ice off of an iceberg," said Sierra spokesperson Genevieve Ostergard of Sierra. "We want them [Apple] to take the next step... we plan on working with them to make the iMac the entertainment platform."

But Apple, which made a name for itself as an innovator, has been slow to blaze a trail. "Apple's really trying to do something they should have done three years ago," said Alex Rodberg, brand manager at Sierra. And though a reported ten-percent installed base on Macs is great news, publishers are wary: "We don't have any evidence that the iMac is bringing in new gamers," said GT's Nagorski.

"Sales are up, though not as much as we'd hoped. I think the iMac buyers are not gamers," said Al Schilling, product manager at MacSoft, which showed Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six for the Mac at their booth. All the developers I spoke to for this article said despite Apple's claims to the contrary, the iMac and the iBook were simply not adequate machines for gaming. "What they're not doing is pushing it beyond the modest," said Alex Rodberg, brand manager at Sierra, about Apple's seeming contentedness with its game of catch-up.

The 32MBs of RAM, standard on both the iBook and the iMac, are the minimum recommended amount for most new 3D games. 3D acceleration potent enough for top games isn't included in either of these machines, nor are the PCI slots necessary for expansion.

"Coming out with a consumer portable at 300Mhz -- now that kicks butt. But 4 megs of V-RAM is not great," said Lane Roathe, CEO of Logicware. He's hoping for more in later revisions of the iBook. But as Andrew Meggs of Logicware (developer of Heretic 2 for the Mac), whose business card reads "Priest of the Imploding Skull," said, "You can't write a game expecting people to upgrade their boxes."

Pushing beyond the modest is what many people think could be Apple's salvation in the realm of gaming. "Games push technology," said Genevieve Ostergard, of Sierra.

A standard DVD drive with MPEG-2 decode, which would allow movie-playback and DVD games on the iBook, would have done that. So why didn't Apple go for it?

According to Andy Gore of Macworld and sources within Apple, the reason boiled down to a miscommunication between the engineering and industrial design departments. The slot necessary for a DVD drive is two millimeters thicker than the slot allocated for a CD-ROM drive. Apple's designers could have made room for DVD, but by the time they were made aware of DVD's added size requirements, they were too far along in the design process to accommodate it.

Two faces
Let's look at what actually came to pass at Macworld. Mac developers such as Mindscape and Simon and Schuster Interactive declined to appear at the show. Sixteen game companies showed products, four more than at the past two expos, but still quite a small number. One panel out of ninety-six conference sessions was focused on games, and none of the demos conducted in the Apple theatre were game specific. The iBook is bundled with Nanosaur and Bugdom, titles that have the same cachet to a hard-core gamer as a round of Wheel of Fortune.

Jobs' "we're the best" bravado is wearing thin among the game development community. "There's been a lot of promises, a lot of hype, but not a lot of follow-through," said Brian Love, senior quality assurance analyst for Blizzard Software.

Developments
Apple has been delivering attractive, popular products in a relatively timely manner -- sources within the company put the schedule at 18 months from conception to production, as opposed to the company's former cycle of 27 months.

"It's still not fast enough," said Logicware's Roathe. But he maintains that it's better than it used to be. "Twenty-seven months was killing Apple. Twenty-seven months later they'd have it done, and it was useless," But he's guardedly optimistic about what the future might hold.

Sources within Apple talk of infighting within the OS development teams, lack of support for gaming from within, and long production cycles for the Macintosh operating system. One source who asked not to be identified, said that the Mac OS 10 team only just recently began to think in terms of 3-D hardware support, and that's two years into development. He did add, however, that OS 9 "rocks" for games. When asked why the team has been slow to support gaming, he said, "Avi Tevanian hates games."

Tevanian is Apple's chief technologist. Rumors also flew at the show about Apple's initiative to bring large publishers such as EA and Lucas Arts back into the fold, encouraging them to do their own ports, and eliminating smaller companies like Aspyr, Macsoft, and Westlake Interactive, all of which have ported and/or distributed Mac games for some time. "That's definitely been the talk of the show," said Darci Nagorski of GT Interactive, the parent company of MacSoft.

"A lot of people are getting shoved out," said Kathy Westergaard, product manager at Connectix. Why? "Retailers extort money - they don't sell a product unless you pay them to do it. EA and Lucas can afford to do that," said Lane Roathe, Logicware's outspoken CEO. Darci Nagorski of GT was a little more diplomatic, "It's a hard sell. You just don't get shelf space like you do on the PC side."

"Publishers wait to see how it sells [on the PC side] and then make the decision to port. That kills it," said Roathe. Large publishers can afford to do simultaneous releases and million-dollar marketing campaigns for their titles, and the more simultaneous releases there are, the better it is for gamers and for Apple. But that leaves a lot of people in the industry wondering what they're doing there. "We don't want to abandon the community, but from a business standpoint it's hard," said Sue Ellen Adams of Westlake Interactive. Frustration was rampant among game developers on the show floor. "Apple's saying we get it and we got game, but we need help," said Nagorski.

Bigger companies report different treatment. Tom Byron, manager of creative services and product and marketing manager for LucasArts, which has been out of the Mac market for two or three years, said "Apple's come alive in terms of supporting third parties and supporting us. We're here because of them." LucasArts is rolling out PodRacer for the Mac in October, but it's withholding other games until it gets more feedback from consumers in the form of sales. "Racer is a component in how we approach the market," said Byron.

But big publishers seem to want more too. "The gamers left and took the market with them. Now Apple's welcoming them, they're accepting them, but they're not courting them." Said Alex Rodberg of Sierra, which is releasing Caesar 3 and Pharaoh for the Mac. "Their big picture strategy is missing."

Why go Mac?
So why do people still game on their Macs? As many gamers and developers are quick to tell you - they love their Macs, with an almost religious fervor. People still report greater ease of use and a more intuitive interface with the Mac OS, but it's still not a place where gamers come to play.

One GameSpot reader put it this way: "I'm sure you indeed deserve to be the butt of a flame war, not for pitting the lions against the Christians... again... but for your misconception that Mac users really care about how fast their machines play games ... We use this interface, which, though stolen from the great Xerox, has made all PCs easier to use (and sell) to Everyman, because it was designed to work well doing what we need it to do... design work."

That might be the issue right there. Maybe Apple's game plan is to think design instead of different. Hard to say though, repeated efforts to reach Apple's game product manager at the show and at the company's headquarters in San Jose before deadline were met with silence - much like what most of the Mac gaming community seems to be hearing as well.

Topics: Apple, Hardware, Operating Systems, PCs

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