The State of Mac Gaming: Summer 2008 Update

As regular readers know, I’m not only a gamer, but I’m a gamer who lives primarily on the Mac OS X platform. For years, this has been an insufferable position, akin to being seated at a restaurant where all the other customers were being served but where you couldn’t flag down a waiter. There have always been unique games for the Mac platform, and the occasional game like Diablo 2 that was on both PC and Mac. But for the most part, the hot new games would come out on Windows, and we’d have to wait until it was ported, 2 or 3 years later. If we were lucky.

I think 2008 is the turning point. When we look back, we’ll recognize this as the year it all changed.

This is due to a convergence of factors.

The rise of the Intel Mac in 2006 and 2007 has given Mac gamers some last- resort options. Boot Camp lets us run the greatest new Windows games at full speed. For older games, or for less graphically demanding ones, VMWare Fusion and Parallels Desktop gave us options to play them without rebooting.

But I found that I, personally, don’t like rebooting. I don’t even like starting Parallels. It disturbs the harmony in my soul. Fortunately, there are even more options open to us now.

This is the year, in my mind, that the Wine emulation layer project really took off. It’s been possible to jury rig some Windows games to run on the Mac for a while now, but the bar is finally at a level where mere humans can get the job done. Code Weavers’ Crossover product packages up Wine in an easy way – I purchased it to run Dwarf Fortress before that was ported, for example. People are even using it to run Team Fortress 2 on OS X.

But Crossover, like Boot Camp and Fusion and Parallels, requires the end user to do some work. The more interesting developments are those that free the user from having to do anything other than double-clicking an icon.

Cedega’s “TransGaming” technology uses, essentially, the same technology that underpins Crossover. But instead of being marketed to end users, it’s marketed to game developers and publishers. In theory, this allows trivial porting to the Mac platform. Indeed, we’ve seen a few AAA titles ported using TransGaming: Heroes of Might and Magic V, for example. Electronic Arts has already announced that TransGaming is their porting technology of choice, so it’s likely that if you pick up Madden NFL ‘08, you’re using TransGaming without even realizing it. Smaller games have been ported too: the Mac version of the awesome DS game Puzzle Quest, for example, is a TransGaming title.

What I’ve seen more and more of in 2008, though, are native games. Games which have been ported to the Mac without the use of a “shim” technology like TransGaming. Many of them, like Dwarf Fortress, are using multiplatform APIs like SDL. But whatever the underlying technology, the point is that more and more publishers have decided to no longer leave our Mac-flavored money on the table.

Part of this, ironically, is because Windows gaming is no longer the growth industry that it was. Much of the growth in gaming has shifted over to consoles. Thus, publishers who target home computers are having to compete harder for fewer dollars. Why is targeting the Mac platform a smart move? There are a few reasons.

Mac is a growing platform. Interest in targeting the iPhone as a gaming platform makes targeting the Mac a more palatable choice. And Mac users, per capita, buy more software.

The growth of Mac marketshare is a matter of public record, and I don’t need to go into detail here as to why that makes selling on the platform a more reasonable choice.

The iPhone (and the iPod touch) and the Mac are different platforms, but they share a development environment and many underlying APIs. Put simply, if you can write software for one, you can write software for the other. I think many developers are honing their iPhone development skills by also working on the Mac platform.

Lastly, Mac users, per capita, buy more software. Let me be clear: I have no research to back up that statement, no evidence, no proof. it is based entirely on my instinct, and on my observations of Mac users as being more likely to want something perfect. Pirated software is not perfect; it is software with a flaw, with a taint. Of course there are people who pirate software on the Mac platform. It is my instinct that Mac gamers are more likely to buy software rather than steal it. I think the general lack of intrusive DRM on commercial Mac games is circumstantial evidence of this.

The ability to run games that are native to other platforms, an increasing number of ways to run those games, a renewed interest in OS X driven by both technology innovations and commercial interest, and a realization that the Mac is a platform on which people actually like buying and paying for good software. All of these factors are combining to bring the Mac gamer from years of famine into what, I believe, will soon be a feast.

Mark your calendars. This was the year that everything changed for Mac gamers.