All Work and No Play Made Mac a Dull Toy


By Charles Haddad Last Sunday, a friend of mine looked forward to a quiet day of bloodlust playing the latest version of the computer game Doom. He got to play, all right, but not at battling the game's monsters. No, he spent the day jousting with his PC, which refused to recognize the graphics card he needed to install for the program to run.

I watched my friend's ordeal with bittersweet satisfaction. There would have been no struggle if he had owned a Mac. Most of today's Macs come with fully capable video cards already installed. Indeed, Macs come equipped with all the video and sound stuff necessary to run just about any game. PCs, by contrast, boast a bewildering array of configurations.

That simple truth seems to have escaped most game developers. Few write entertainment titles for the Mac -- even though the platform has staged a surprisingly strong comeback in the past three years. For sure, plenty more titles are available today than at the Mac's nadir in the mid-90s. But a quick stroll through any computer store reveals a stark truth: For every shelf of Mac games there are three or four PC game shelves.

LOST CAUSE. The gap is particularly wide for strategy and sports titles. Scores of popular war games, such as Firaxis' highly acclaimed Civil War series, have never been published for the Mac platform -- and never will be.

What makes this especially galling is that some developers actually write their games first on the Mac and then convert the programs to the PC. There are only a handful of Mac-only game companies -- such as strategy war-gamer By Design Inc. -- and most of those that do exist are small. Today, all mass-market games are first published for the PC. Only after a product proves successful is it ported to the Mac, a process that can take up to two years.

Why such neglect, given that the Mac is arguably the best games machine out there? Unraveling this riddle would make a worthy story line for a role-playing game such as Myst or Loom. Not surprisingly, theories abound. Here's my own:

SERIOUS STUFF. I attribute the shortage of Mac games both to early missteps by Apple and to the inexorable logic of supply and demand. Let me start with a little history because the game shortage is an old problem. More games were written for Apple's original computer than any other. But that was back in the late '70s, when home computing was in its infancy and the Apple II became the first PC to gain a mass market.

When Apple released its groundbreaking Mac in 1984, however, the company worried that its cute little all-in-one design would be dismissed as a toy by serious computer nerds and business people. To discourage that impression, Apple gave game developers the cold shoulder. The company was more interested in having programs like Microsoft's spreadsheet Excel developed for the Mac.

Sadly, Apple continued to discourage the development of games for the Mac well into the 90s. That proved a huge mistake because it was a time when computers were gaining entry into more than half of American homes -- where entertainment drove their use. Apple, thank goodness, finally realized its mistake about five years ago. It began courting game developers, even designing a specific set of software-writing tools called Game Sprockets that made entertainment titles easier to create.

JUST TOO SMALL. I fear, however, that this effort has been too little too late. Game developers still have doubts about Apple. They can't help but wonder if the company might again push them away. Worse, most game developers consider the Mac market irrelevant. Software today is a mature, multibillion dollar industry dominated by a handful of players such as Electronic Arts. With high fixed costs, these companies focus on markets in which they can sell the most games. And, of course, that means the PC market with its installed base of 1.4 billion computers worldwide. With only 40 million users, the Mac platform is tiny by comparison.

What this all means is that serious game enthusiasts such as my friend won't switch to a Mac, no matter how frustrated they get with their PC. And we Mac enthusiasts, I'm afraid, will always stand second in line behind our PC brethren when it comes to the latest new version of Sim City or Doom. Haddad, Atlanta-based correspondent for Business Week, is a long-time Apple Computer buff. Follow his weekly Byte of the Apple column, only on BW Online


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