The Current State of Mac Gaming: Don't Forget the Little Guys

mossy_11 on Tuesday, 16 February 2010. Posted in Opinion

Small developers have long had a strong following on the Mac, from the early days of shareware with Pangea Software, Duane Blehm, John Calhoun, and Cyan (amongst others), to the emergence of Ambrosia Software, Spiderweb Software and Freeverse in the mid-90s, and countless others who have tried their luck making games for the Mac.


It should come as no surprise, then, that the Mac typically garners a disproportionate share of sales for multi-platform indie games. Wolfire Games claim that 50% of sales of Lugaru came from Mac buyers. Jeff Vogel of Spiderweb stated in an interview with 1UP that sales of his games are "pretty evenly split" between Mac and PC. Other indie developers tell similar stories. The Mac accounted for 44% of sales for Tale of Tales' art game The Graveyard, while the Mac version of Aquaria was warmly welcomed with a raft of good press. Even Braid and World of Goo got Mac releases.


The reason indie games are so successful on the Mac is not that there aren't enough big budget games or that Mac users are snobs who prefer the kind of artistic statements only found in the indie movement, but it is related. The Mac community is small and closely-knit, but very vocal. When something unique and creative emerges for the Mac, the community tends to rally behind it and push its exposure into mainstream -- or at least less-niche -- outlets, so that a little Indie game can get free press just by being on the Mac.


Indie just fits with the Mac, long known for its contrarian ideals that were popularised in the "Think Different" ad campaign of late 90s, but were present from the very beginning -- the original Mac tag-line was "a computer for the rest of us." Small and unique games were commonplace on the Mac in those early years, with influential titles including Dark CastleBalance of PowerFool's ErrandSpelunxMystSim City 2000Marathon, and The Colony. There were times when shareware, which was the indie business model for years, held the community together. Apple's mid-90s decline saw commercial developers ditch the Mac in droves -- it just wasn't feasible to stay. So it fell to shareware developers to fill the gap, and, remarkably, they did. Many of them are still around today, while others -- coming from the Windows side -- have helped the market grow, even amidst increasing competition and interest from the lucrative iPhone and Xbox Live platforms.


Ambrosia Software have been relatively quiet on the gaming front since the Intel switch. They released racing game Redline and shooter SketchFighter 4000 Alpha in 2006 before porting Introversion's DEFCON in 2007. Universal binaries of older games pop-popUplink, and GooBall soon followed. Ambrosia also ported Bit-blot's indie masterpiece Aquaria and Introversion's multiplayer follow-up to Darwinia, dubbed Multiwinia. Long-running series Escape Velocity entered the Intel era in December 2008, with a Universal Binary version of EV Nova. Perhaps a little sadly from a gaming point of view, the past few years have seen the company shift its resources more into productivity software and utilities.


Freeverse may be best known for their numerous card and board game software, but their recent efforts expand into iPhone and Xbox Live games, as well as publishing various games from other developers on the Mac. Notable (recent) Mac releases include the Commander series of strategy games, Heroes of Might and Magic VHordes of Orcs, and Jack Keane. Freeverse are one of the more prolific Mac games companies, with more than 30 games currently available for OS X.


Spiderweb Software started making shareware fantasy role-playing games for the Mac back in 1994, and little has changed on that front. They still only make huge RPGs for the Mac (which are then ported to Windows), and their games are still released on a shareware business model. The company has just finished tying up the loose ends on its two most recent series. Avernum 6 -- the latest offering from the developer -- completes the popular Avernum series, while the Geneforge series was wrapped up last year with the release of Geneforge 5: Overthrow. Spiderweb's president and founder Jeff Vogel maintains a fascinating blog that offers insights into both the business and design of Indie games.


Delta Tao Software used to hold a special place in the hearts of Mac gamers. Founded in 1990, they were responsible for hours of enjoyment and procrastination with their 1990s releases, including Eric's Ultimate SolitaireSpaceward Ho!, and Clan Lord. They haven't done much in the past few years, with only an OS X version of Eric's Ultimate Solitaire, a few small titles, and continuing support of the more than 11 year old MMORPG Clan Lord.



Influential newcomers include Wolfire Games and Tale of Tales, who developed art games The Graveyard and The Path, while Jason Rohrer -- the man behind the much discussed Passage -- releases Mac versions of all his games. Sports game developer New Star Games' contributions do much to plug the gaping hole in the Mac games lineup, with New Star Grand PrixNew Star Tennis, and New Star Soccer 2010, amongst others.


After developing Mac games for more than twenty years, Pangea Software switched to exclusive iPhone development in 2009, citing earnings from their iPhone games that made their Mac game revenue look like "lunch money." Pangea's only Intel Mac releases are Pangea Arcade and Runic, although most of their back-catalog received Universal build updates.

The Rise of Casual

The fastest growing segment of the video game industry -- commonly called “Casual games” -- has firmly attached itself to the Mac. PopCap played a major role in this, entering the Mac market in 2006. Many developers have recently shifted their focus to iPhone games, but the steady influx of time management and hidden object games on portals such as Big Fish Games and online stores like Mac Game Store is evidence of the Mac's continued profitability to casual game makers. Unfortunately, this move towards Apple's other devices is beginning to take its toll on the Mac, as evidenced by the departure of Pangea Software. Even Freeverse and Coladia, who have contributed some of the best and most successful games in the Mac casual gaming sphere, are sometimes pushing their iPhone efforts more strongly than their Mac titles.



Open-source software has made it to the big time in recent years, driven by mainstream acceptance of applications like Firefox and OpenOffice, and increasing public awareness of Linux as an alternative operating system. As a consequence of this -- along with the rise of cheap professional development tools -- there has been a marked rise in the number of open-source game projects. These tend to use either Windows or Linux as the development platform, but offer an up-to-date Mac version that is maintained by a few volunteers.

Thanks to those generous individuals, Mac gamers can enjoy original games like VDriftAlien Arena, and Yo Frankie!, in addition to numerous remakes and "spiritual successors" like OpenTTDFreecivWidelands, and Freecol, which offer improved graphics and AI over their source material. Other open-source gaming projects target modern hardware compatibility and graphical upgrades for some older games, without going to the trouble of a remake. Aleph One makes the Marathon games playable on new and recent computers. D2X-XL gives gamers the chance to replay Descent 2 natively on modern hardware with enhanced graphics and added features. And TenebraeQuake is a Universal Build Quake client that offers considerable graphical improvements.


We can only hope the growth of Indie and open-source games leads to a new dawn for Mac gaming. It's not the healthiest platform at the moment, but there are signs this could change. Will gaming on the Mac fizzle out into nothing, or rise to the fore? Tune in next time for my take on the future of gaming on the Mac.

Previous entries: 
Part 1: How it Got This Way
Part 2: The Commercial Reality of Today

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