What next for Mac games?

Where there are computers, invariably there are entertaining diversions to be had. It's always been the case - ever since Spacewar! appeared in 1962 - and Apple's family tree has likewise provided baskets full of fruity games over the years.

Walk into any game store - whether in Britain, Europe, the States, or elsewhere - and you'll find copious volumes of PS2, Xbox and PC games. Locating any Mac games that happen to be stocked, however, does prove very difficult. Online, though, it's a different story: Mac games are granted an equal footing at leading e-retailers such as Amazon, and followers such as Simply Games (www. simplygames.com) are falling into line.

There are dedicated Mac retailers, too, who stock all the Mac games that you could hope to find. Mac Merchant (www.macmerchant.co.uk) on London's Tottenham Court Road is one example of this (admittedly rare) phenomenon. For the real deal, of course, you can head to the recently-opened Apple Store on London's Regent Street, but the range there is limited to recent and major titles. The limited and marginalised availability of Mac games, however, is at odds with the environment in which they are developed.

Developer support
As you would expect, Apple's developer support is exemplary. After migrating from PC game development, Tim Attuquayefio, Director of QA and Technical Support at Mac publisher Aspyr, was understandably impressed. "Coming from a PC and console background," Attuquayefio relates, "I find the creativity of the people I work with to be very exhilarating. Apple's OS seems to offer more opportunities for creative use of various OS specific functions within games (such as tying in iTunes or .Mac functionality to our games)."

There are other reasons, too, which should serve as incentives for developers to join the Apple fray. "Apple as a whole (along with NVIDIA and ATI) are a joy to work with," eulogizes Attuquayefio. "Its response to issues that may be driver or OS version specific is spectacular. I feel that Apple has a passion for gaming on the Mac and it is contagious."

Phil Sulak, President of Westlake Interactive (responsible for the conversion of the now legendary FPS game Halo), concurred in a recent interview with Apple: "With the advent of Mac OS X, and its ongoing support of OpenGL, games support on the Mac has never been better. It's a very exciting time for us on the Mac, with mature tools, hardware and software, and really outstanding developer support."

Indeed, as many PC games also use OpenGL, conversion work that utilises this software is much easier to perfect. The great divide that once existed between Apple's OS and other operating systems is at some points being bridged by the wonders of OpenGL. Remarkably, OpenGL tools are part of OS X - developers have these and other tools, such as Xcode, available freely with every Mac they use.

Powerful platform
Since recent Mac hardware has utilised powerful NVIDIA graphics cards, there's no doubt that the platform has the muscle to run even the most technically advanced games. The iMac G5 ships with a GeForce FX 5200 Ultra card that is backed up by 64MB of DDR SDRAM, and even PowerBooks feature a portable version of the same card (with the same healthy amount of RAM). However, while games are playable on the new iMac, to get the very best graphics performance you really need a Power Mac G5 with a more powerful 3D graphics card, like the ATI Radeon 9800, for example.

Sadly, though, software companies such as Havok provide developers with tools that cater to the creation of console and PC titles, but which neglect to offer support for OS X. Havok's popular Game Dynamics software development kit, for instance, is used to manage the physics engines of 100 or so recent console and PC games. The problem is, this fundamental utility is incompatible with Apple's operating system.

As a result of such incompatibilities, Mac conversions of major titles like Uru: Ages Beyond Myst have been cancelled. More alarmingly, Half-Life 2 uses the same software: a Mac version of what is arguably the best game of 2004 (on any platform) has not yet been announced.

Commercial success
From a developer's perspective, there is fresh impetus behind the creation of Mac products. New start-up companies have begun to capitalise on the demands of the Mac's everincreasing user base. Earlier this year, for example, two ex-Argonaut employees established their own Mac game development studio (which was a prescient move: Argonaut is now no more).

Strange Flavour (www.strangeflavour.com), the duo's outfit, is based in the UK. The team's most recent offering, ToySight, won an Apple Design Award as 2004's Most Innovative Mac OS X Product - not bad for a cool game knocked up by two brothers. Aaron Fothergill, one of the brothers, explains the motivation behind ToySight's development: "We're noticing a different kind of gamer on the Mac than there is on the other platforms, so it would be good if they had more games tailored to them."

Previously, Bush Fire and Airburst have shown off the duo's impressive capabilities, and there's now a sequel available from http:// airburstextreme.freeverse.com: Airburst Extreme. Freeverse Software has picked up these titles for release, and, according to Fothergill, distribution is improving. "As Maconly game developers, we're gambling on the Mac games market growing. There are signs of growth, and with big distributors like Softline backing the platform, it's got a good chance of sticking around while there are good games happening for the Mac."

However, as Tim Attuquayefio points out: "There is not enough original development at this time for the Mac to encourage other developers to follow suit. Additionally, game sales data within the Mac market doesn't seem to support more original development. I believe this is what you call a Catch-22."

To break this vicious circle of inhibited Mac game development, it's down to pioneers like Strange Flavour to change things. Fortunately, they will likely be aided by the iPod-fuelled increase in popularity of the Mac itself.

**xhead: If you can't beat 'em, convert 'em
The high point of recent Mac game activity was Westlake Interactive's mesmerizing conversion of Bungie's seminal Halo. This conversion was not a simple port: as well as improving the technical side of Halo, Westlake also managed to incorporate new maps, weapons and features. The wait for a Mac version was well worth sitting through, it transpired.

Similarly, high Mac quality conversions of PC hits have been appearing with rhythmic regularity for quite a few years. Thanks to publishers such as Aspyr (www.aspyr.com), the most successful PC titles have appeared after a small while, and usually the OS X versions have been remarkably solid. Aspyr, in fact, is the biggest player in the world of Mac game publishing - in 2003, it held some 60% of the market - and its liaisons with giants such as Electronic Arts have ensured that few major titles slip through the net.

Myst IV Revelation shows how beautiful 3D renders have become and how intelligent gaming can be. Splinter Cell and XIII cater to action-hungry gamers, and SimCity 4: Rush Hour lines up alongside Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic to give strategy fans their fix. Racing fans should look into MTX Mototrax and Ford Racing 2, both of which are high quality sims. Even Championship Manager 4 (which was released simultaneously with the PC version) is present and correct.

For Stuart Fothergill, all these great Mac conversions mean big problems: "World Of Warcraft is scarily good. So much so, that we're banning it in the office to avoid hearing the big sucking sound you get when someone's time just vanishes into the game."

On the horizon, there are many amazing games advancing. Aspyr is converting Doom 3 and The Sims 2 (see preview on p124) - two of this year's biggest PC games - and these will be available in early 2005. And, thanks again to Aspyr, a new addition to MacFormat's game of the year, Call Of Duty, is just around the corner. While there is no Half-Life 2 in sight, then, there are plenty of alternatives to look forward to. Virtual Programming (www.vpltd.com) also has a bulging Mac conversion release schedule for 2005.

The future
In what direction the Mac games market will head is difficult to say, but developers and publishers alike will want a guarantee of mainstream appeal: so it's reasonable to expect more simultaneous PC/Mac releases and a greater frequency of conversions. Blizzard Entertainment, developer of the Warcraft series has employed a simultaneous Windows/Mac OS development model since 1995, and the results speak for themselves: World Of Warcraft is an almost perfect slice of online Mac gaming.

Of course, we can also look to specialist Mac developers such as Strange Flavour whom, we hope, will provide us with plenty of original and exclusive attractions in the future. Fothergill, certainly, is optimistic: "We've heard from various indie developers who have become interested in the Mac games market, so there's a good chance we'll see some new sources of games in the future."

With Apple riding the crest of the iPod wave, market analysts predict that more and more people will continue to make the switch from PC to Mac: a Piper Jaffray survey found that 6% of PC-owning iPod users have switched to the Mac, with another seven per cent planning to do so. Combine that with analyst Charles Wolf's assertion that 100 million Windows users will own iPods by 2008, and you have a recipe for prolonged success on all fronts.

As long as the format's popularity continues to rise, so, of course, will the number of games released - it's common business sense on the part of developers and publishers. And Apple clearly wants this to happen - a new high-end GeForce graphics card is welcome whatever your intentions, but only if there are games to play does it come into its own.

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