Careful What You Wish For

SAN FRANCISCO (03/28/2000) - A real man-like me, for instance-knows when to admit he's wrong. I was mistaken, for example, when a few years ago I suggested to a friend-who had just joined a small Internet startup called eBay Inc.-that online auctions had no future. Likewise, I may have been hasty when a couple of months later I turned down my friend's offer of a job at this same little auction company. "No," say I in my all-knowing way, "I'd prefer to stick with something secure like freelance writing!"

Now that I've stopped kicking myself, I've taken the time to readjust my thinking on another subject-one near and dear to the hearts of Mac gamers-simultaneous release. I freely admit that I was among those who championed the cause of bringing Mac games to store shelves the same day their PC counterparts arrived, but after chatting with a few of my pals in the gaming business-and watching in dumb disbelief as a potential major player in the Mac gaming market issued Mac gamers a flying triple kick to the snoot-I've changed my tune. I hope that by the end of this column you'll find the idea of simultaneous release as abhorrent as I do.

This Year's Model

To understand how a simultaneous release works, it might help to know how Mac game publishing functions today.

Let's start with the obvious: except for those games produced by the smaller Mac game publishers who build their business on the shareware model-Ambrosia Software Inc. and Freeverse, for example-or companies such as Pangea Software that for technological reasons make Mac-only titles, Mac-specific (or even Mac-first) game titles have almost vanished from the market. The days when a game like Myst would appear first on the Mac are over. The Big Boys can make just too darned much money on the PC platform to have much incentive for writing Mac-specific games. Mac gamers therefore depend on publishers to port PC games to the Mac.

As you're undoubtedly aware, these ported games rarely come from the original publisher-Electronic Arts, GT Interactive, Interplay, or Eidos-but rather are distributed by third-party publishers such as MacSoft, Aspyr Media, and Graphic Simulations. These Mac publishers cut a deal with the publishers of the original game-providing them with some advance money and a percentage of sales at the back end-in exchange for the PC code. Additionally, they promise not to bother the original publisher with too many technical questions, and of course they reserve the right to distribute the game and take the lion's share of the profits. Out of these profits the Mac publisher must pay the porting house-a company such as Westlake Interactive that turns PC code into something playable on the Mac-as well as pungle up the dough for duplication, packaging, advertising, and distribution. If the Mac publisher is smart, it also pays for professional beta testing by companies such as Absolute Quality or AlphaBetas to ensure that the game runs smoothly.

These deals benefit both parties. The original publisher takes practically no risk and earns some extra dough on a game it had no intention of porting in-house. And if the game sells well, the Mac publisher makes a fair chunk of change and can finance its next big Mac game.

The downside for Mac gamers is the necessary gap between a game's first release on the PC and its availability in Mac-compatible form. After all, you need time to convert the code, test the game, press the discs, yadda, yadda, and especially yadda. Mac publishers and porting houses attempt to shorten this gap by obtaining code while the game is still in development for the PC, but regardless of how quickly this code is delivered, a gap of several months remains between PC availability and Mac release. Neither gamers nor Mac publishers want to prolong this gap-gamers are impatient for the same cool games their PC buddies play, and Mac publishers want to take advantage of the buzz that the PC version generates.

The Numbers Game

These third-party publishing deals work in large part because Mac games don't sell in numbers high enough to tempt the original publishers to produce Mac versions in-house. Though 30,000 units sold is a respectable number for a Mac game, it's chicken feed to these people. There just isn't enough profit in such numbers to justify assembling a team of Mac programmers and creating a Mac-savvy marketing department.

However, thanks to the sale of over 2 million iMacs, game publishers are taking a second look at producing their own Mac ports. Who wouldn't be mesmerized by an installed base of a couple million users with machines powerful enough to run most modern games? Selling a game to just 10 percent of these users equals over 200,000 units sold-a creditable number on any platform. Of course, Apple is encouraging these publishers for the reasons you'd expect-happier Mac gamers, a well-rounded platform that appeals to potential computer buyers, and the respect that the company earns by producing a viable gaming platform.

Gazing into the Crystal Ball

Let's suppose the big publishing houses decided to jump into the Mac market with both feet. What would happen? In all likelihood, this would drive Mac publishers such as MacSoft and Aspyr out of business. Likewise, porting houses such as Westlake Interactive would be raided or run into the ground. Fine.

After all, what do we care? We're getting our Mac games at the same time PC users are, and that's what's important-right?

Wrong, because gambling that these big publishing houses will stay in the Mac market is a sucker's bet. Allow me to illustrate my point with a fable.

Sierra's Sad Story

Once upon a time there was a company named Sierra Online. This company dipped its toe into and out of the Mac market every leap year or so. All too often, when Sierra deigned to dip its digit into our pool, the company produced distinctively dreadful ports of its PC games. To no one's surprise-except, apparently, Sierra's-Mac gamers stayed away in droves, and Sierra abandoned the Mac in a huff.

Shortly after the release of the iMac, Sierra returned to the Mac platform with a wonderful, critically acclaimed game called Caesar III. Regrettably, the game sold in disappointing numbers-around 12,000 units. With these numbers in mind, Sierra took a long second look at the upcoming Mac version of Half-Life-a terrific 3-D shooter that Logicware was porting-and although the port was on schedule and Logicware had met its assigned goals, Sierra pulled the plug.

Shortly thereafter, Sierra released collections of traditional board, card, and gambling games that, on the opening splash screen, contained a large Internet button and a box that promised free Internet play. Yet Internet play wasn't available in the Mac version, as an eensy-teensy, one-line notice indicated on the inside cover of the game box. Two months later Sierra announced the cancellation of yet another title slated for the Mac-Pharaoh, a Caesar III-like game.

And you want to trust a company like this to provide you with the next generation of Mac games? I think not.

The Moral

While this story lacks a happy ending (at least so far), just imagine how dismal it would be if a similar scenario played out at Activision, Eidos, Electronic Arts, GT Interactive, id, Interplay, and LucasArts. This could very well occur without the safety net of third-party publishing houses that assume the risk of producing Mac versions of the latest hot computer games. We're talking classic double whammy-no PC publishers willing to produce Mac games and no third-party Mac publishers to take up the slack.

Look, I'm as attracted to the idea of simultaneous release as the next rabid Mac gamer is, but I believe we have to be careful what we wish for. Otherwise our dream of parity with PC players could rapidly turn into a nightmare.

Visit Contributing Editor CHRISTOPHER BREEN in Breen's Bungalow, a video tutorial that appears on the CD-ROM bundled with newsstand copies of Macworld.

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