The state of Mac gaming, frustration restated

I’ve been interested in the state of Mac gaming for obvious reasons, and found this article by Akela Talamasca, at Big Download:

At the same time, the actual process of coding for the Mac hasn’t been an open road, either. Apple is notorious for keeping an iron grip on the computer’s innards, insisting that developers jump through tons of hoops just to get approved for inclusion as an Apple-worthy product.

Huh? Inclusion? This doesn’t make any sense. Apple doesn’t regulate the market for developers for Macs at all. The iPhone store, sure, but that’s not we’re even discussing. How does Apple’s iron grip on what goes into the products they build have anything to do with… any of this other stuff? I know it would certainly reduce development and QA compared to PCs: you don’t have to worry about all the different video cards and drivers, for instance, both the bane of development, and you don’t have to patch the code because there’s a networking problem with certain motherboards manufactured six-to-nine months ago you happened not to test against.

But yeah, if you want to develop a Mac app, here’s how you do it:
1. Go to Apple.com
2. Download Xcode
3. Write your app
4. Put it up on your website

Steve Jobs doesn’t come by and firebomb your house or anything.

I was fully prepared to write this off as general-issue unclear writing. But then we get to this:

Even then, there is the subject of the actual Mac users to consider. What percentage of Mac aficionados cares enough about playing video games to lobby developers to adopt their favorite platform? The perception of the Mac as a computer for creatives works against it to some extent. People who want that cachet might buy a Mac, but they’re probably not going to want to spend much time playing games on it. They would rather write music, edit movies, create artwork — all the things that Apple has spent over twenty years convincing them that the Mac does better than PCs. These users, if they play games at all, will probably find the current methodology — port over a PC game that was popular three years prior — to be adequate for their gaming entertainment needs.

Question that wonders about percentages -> “some extent” -> “might” -> “probably not” “much” -> “if” “probably” …

To some extent? What extent is that, exactly?

It would be hard to write a paragraph with less content or insight. I have a ton of Macs in my house, having moved over after decades of PC gaming. I play games. So do other Mac users. I don’t sit here and think “Wow, I’d love to play Red Faction:Guerrilla but I feel some strong compulsion not to… if only I hadn’t been indoctrinated by 20 years of marketing telling me I can only use this Mac to do creative things! Which I guess gaming doesn’t count as! Okay!”

Or back to this:

What percentage of Mac aficionados cares enough about playing video games to lobby developers to adopt their favorite platform?

WHY DON’T YOU ASK THEM. OR ASK PC-ONLY DEVELOPERS. OR FIND DATA OF ANYTHING.

For example… how many Mac owners have consoles as well? Because if that’s 90%, the answer to the question is “the state of Mac gaming is that Mac customers are playing Modern Warfare 2 on their XBox while their video editing suite encodes their student film.” Or whatever.

Lemme just pre-empt the rest of this discussion.

Here’s why the PC game market is killing the Mac market. It’s really simple.
1. PCs, in total market share, vastly outsell Macs. So developers and publishers have almost no incentive to develop for the platform, unless they’re guaranteed some huge percentage of Mac users will buy in to make the port profitable. So you get World of Warcraft. Or The Sims. I could get all economist here, but the result is a vast diversity of games on the main platform, a ton of people who can develop on it, and a paucity of titles on the other.

I could stop there. It’s such a huge force that it dwarfs all the rest.

2. Mainline Macs don’t ship with video cards that can comfortably play new games, encouraging people to buy those games on consoles, and developers who want to write games with cutting-edge graphics to develop on consoles and PCs.

That said, look at how long games came out for the PS2 after it had been eclipsed. Why? Because it had such a huge installed base (see: #1)

(Digression on #2: part of the reason for that is because video card companies face much the same problem as game developers in #1, which is why your game card choices on Macs range from expensive and bad to expensive and just horrible)

3. Because of #1 and #2, if you’re a gamer and you have a Mac, you’ve probably got a console. Or two. You may have a PC.

4. If you do have a Mac capable of playing games (say, a Mac Pro you’ve put four SLI cards into), there’s nothing to play with that kind of rig… unless you crank up Boot Camp, drop into Windows, and then fire the game up. At which point the sale counts for the PC version, fueling the problem of #1.

5. None of this is helped by really bad ports. If Neverwinter Nights 2 is going to run horribly on my Mac and there’s no support, why not just use Boot Camp. Or heck, use VMWare and play it in a window? Can’t get any choppier.

There’s the state of Mac gaming: there aren’t that many, so if you want to keep playing after you switch over, you exacerbate the problem by driving sales to consoles or PC versions.

Do you know how I know these things? I’ve talked to other Mac gamers, and game developers, and read up.

How does Apple solve for this, assuming that they want to and I’m not sure that they do? It’s a tough road.

– Better evangelism: “Our customers will pay for quality products and clearly they have money to do it”
– Better support and developer tools: they need to make it amazingly easy for studios to port. Support for DirectX, essentially (yes, I know). May include staking the money for the ports.
– Better video cards across the product lines. My Mac Mini, which is an amazingly cool computer, has “NVIDIA GeForce 9400M graphics processor with 256MB of DDR3 SDRAM shared with main memory” (I think it goes up to 512 if you stuff enough memory in it, actually)… that’s a $40 graphics card in a PC, less if you ever get your mail-in rebate. On the grand distribution of currently-sold video cards, that’s near the bottom. No recently-released PC game is playable at reasonable quality on that card. You can get 60 frames a second on Far Cry 2 at really high settings and ~80 at lower with a GTX 285. My Mini has maybe 1/10th that video power.

If the Mac Mini and the iMac are the consumer staples, and Apple wanted to build the brand out into gaming, they have to be able to game. And right now that’s just not at all what they’re built for.

– Barring all of that, figure out a Mac-only exclusive that uses the advantages of what they do have (particularly iPhone and digital content creation w/iLife) to make the Mac a must-buy. Graphics power isn’t everything (see: Nintendo Wii). Maybe you build a sweet ARG. Given sufficient money, I’ll go work on this.

Or pay Blizzard to go Mac-exclusive. Apple’s got cash (I know, I know, Blizzard blah blah. But Apple has something like $25 billion in cash sitting around).

Now everyone can skip reading the rest of that four-part series.

1 thought on “The state of Mac gaming, frustration restated

  1. Dan

    Timely post for me, since I am just putting back together the home entertainment center after all the pieces were stolen.

    I have a mac mini as the hub for it all, and was thinking about just using it for gaming, but that’s not sounding terribly viable at the moment.

    So now the question is…

    xbox 360 or PS3 and why?

    Thanks,
    Dan W

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