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Q&A: Aspyr's Adams On Mac's Gaming Challenges

Q&A: Aspyr's Adams On Mac's Gaming Challenges

December 12, 2007 | By Howard Wen

December 12, 2007 | By Howard Wen
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More: Console/PC



In recent years, there has been a lot of love -- and a lot of hype -- for the Mac. Yet one aspect about the Apple personal computers is not discussed much in the media: Games. Even as sales of Macs continue to increase, and as more people who have been accustomed to using Windows PCs for several years are considering a Mac as their next system purchase, there remains relatively little consideration of them as a serious gaming platform.

Aspyr Media started its business porting AAA Windows PC games to the Mac, and the company did so back in the days when the Mac was not as popular (and as well-sold in numbers) as it is now. Thanks to Aspyr, Mac users have enjoyed quality ported versions of The Sims and Quake franchises, and other popular Windows PC titles, for their computers.

Over the last few years, the company has since expanded its business into developing and publishing original IP (Stubbs the Zombie for Xbox, PC and Mac), porting game console titles to the Windows PC (Guitar Hero 3 and Tony Hawk's American Wasteland), and publishing console titles (Dreamfall for Xbox). Yet Mac games will remain important to the company's foreseeable business, assures Glenda Adams, Aspyr's Director of Technology & Development.

Not only does she oversee the development of all Aspyr games, she has been working in the Mac gaming field for over 20 years. So Gamasutra consulted Adams for some thoughts about the current state of Mac game development, and to help solve the mystery of why it doesn't seem to get much respect.

Nowadays, what would you say is the greatest challenge in developing AAA games for the Mac platform?

Right now, the biggest technical challenges are the rapid changes in video cards and drivers Apple has been releasing for the various Mac models. The release of Leopard has meant Apple's OpenGL resources seem to be focused primarily on the new OS. It's been harder than usual for us to get fixes for GL issues in older versions of OS X.

This has been compounded by a lot of turnover in the video hardware included with new Mac models. It seems each upgrade to the iMac or MacBook line completely swaps out the graphics cards with wildly new cards. This puts us almost in the same position on the Mac as on the PC -- having a very broad range of video cards to support, all with their own quirks. It's been difficult for us to get our Christmas '07 Mac games, like Guitar Hero 3 and Quake Wars, working well on all the various combinations of video cards, OS versions, and GL drivers for the Mac.

Overall, the bigger challenge for Mac games is not technical but sales. That is the number one factor driving what games can come to the Mac. We've had so many projects we've had to pass on over the last few years simply because we knew there was no way the Mac version of the game would sell enough to break even. And many of those were very good games, critical and sales successes on the PC.

So to generally improve the status of Mac game development, is the answer simply greater market share for Macs?

Unfortunately, I don't think market share is the answer. For years, that's all we hoped for -- more Mac market share would mean more game sales. But Apple has doubled the number of Macs they sell per quarter, and game sales haven't gone up. So now I believe it is more of a retail and marketing issue. There just aren't enough places to buy Mac games. Sometimes the amount of space devoted to Mac games in retail stores can be very limited.

Having a well-established digital distribution service on the Mac, like Steam, would be one answer. Or, Apple selling games through iTunes would help solve some of the shelf space problem.

On the marketing side, Aspyr is trying to do a better job reaching out to new Mac users and letting them know that gaming on a Mac is an option -- embrace it! We are also working with Apple and other Mac supporters to give some spotlight to gaming on Mac. How to solve the problem of why Mac users in general don't buy games is the biggest challenge a Mac game developer or publisher faces in today's market.

Speaking of Steam, over a year ago, your company announced it was developing a Mac game download service, called The Gamerhood, which it claimed would function like the Steam platform on Windows. We haven't heard anything about it since -- what's the latest on this?

We don't have any new news, and have had to put our internal plans for digital distribution on hold for a while. We still really would like to get our games out digitally for Mac, and are trying to find out the best way to make it happen.

What would be technically needed to help improve game development?

I'd love to see Apple come up with a uniform way to release OpenGL updates across all their operating systems and hardware. Similar to what Microsoft does with Direct3D -- although obviously, you have the secondary issue of lower-level ATI [and] nVidia drivers on the PC -- give game developers a good target graphics layer with stability, performance, and functionality that runs across Macs from those just released to ones that are a few years old. This would really cut our development and testing time, allowing us to get titles to market faster.

Mac systems still comprise a very small portion of sales of the overall PC market. But the number of Mac owners compares favorably with that of current generation game consoles sold so far. So you would think there would be many PC game developers interested in developing original games or simultaneously for the Mac, but this hasn't been the case. What are your thoughts on this?

It's all about the installed base of gamers, not just computers. Every console owner buys games for their system, since that is its sole use. But the percentage of active gamers on the Mac is so much smaller; it limits the target market considerably. I think it comes back to potential sales: If you don't think you can sell enough units of a game on Platform X to pay for development costs, it's hard to justify doing a game for that platform.

What's your opinion about the way Apple itself has regarded game development for the Mac? Frankly, over the years, the company has come across as either disorganized, aloof, clueless or outrightly dismissive about the subject of gaming and game development on the Mac.

I've worked with Apple and games for almost 20 years now. I've seen them in all of those phases, plus times where they were attentive, helpful, and really seemed interested in game development.

But there does seem to an overall lack of strategy at Apple regarding games and the Mac platform. It's probably the most frustrating thing Mac game developers deal with -- just where do games fit in with Apple? The Mac gaming space could explode with the right help from Apple on the marketing, retail, and technical fronts.

From your observation, what kind of games do most Mac users typically like to play? The first impression one might have is that casual games appeal more to this audience -- but is this necessarily true?

Definitely from our experience the best selling games are more casual titles, like The Sims and Roller Coaster Tycoon 3. But there is a decent audience on the Mac that plays strategy games, like Civilization or Age of Empires. After that, I think FPS are the next largest demographic of Mac gamers.

Let's say I'm a developer of AAA games for Windows and am undecided about whether I should port one of my games to the Mac -- perhaps I might want to hire you guys to do it. What would you advise me?

If you are a small PC developer with a reasonably portable codebase and online sales, you probably could get a nice sales bump by having a Mac version.

If you are developer doing AAA boxed retail games, sell over 500,000 units on the PC. Because that's the best indicator we've seen of what will also sell well on the Mac.


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