Oh the Games You'll Play: Cider, GameTree Could Point the Way For Mac Gaming


Gaming on the Mac has seen plenty of highs and lows over the past two decades-plus, but if you asked me a year ago, I would have expected it to be firing on all cylinders right now. The Mac has extended the market share gains it saw last year, helped in part by the halo effect many observers have seen emanating from the success of the iPod and iPhone. Remarkably, Apple has accomplished that feat despite widespread economic weakness that doesn't seem to have hurt it nearly as badly as other companies in the tech space.

And yet MacSoft and Aspyr Media, two prolific publishers of Mac games in recent years, have reduced their output to a trickle while focusing more on Windows and console titles. (MacSoft is owned by Destineer Studios.) Feral Interactive has stepped into the gap, but they continue to struggle to release games in a timely manner -- they have improved this year, however, so credit should be given where due. Second tier players such as Ambrosia Software, Freeverse, and Virtual Programming have also taken advantage of the situation to serve entertainment to starved Mac gamers, but they're not in the AAA games business.

TransGaming Takes a Share of the Spotlight

Enter TransGaming, which followers of Mac gaming are well aware of from the company's partnership with Aspyr Media a few years ago. When they announced their Cider technology in August 2006, there was much skepticism that it would make porting games to the Mac any easier than the traditional process, which involves rewriting code to match Mac OS X's APIs (application programming interfaces). Cider acts as a wrapper that essentially reroutes Windows code on the fly, which removes the need to rewrite it but also introduces overhead that can impact performance.

In addition, game ports that use Cider still need some tweaking to optimize performance, a fact that was evident during the summer of 2007, when Electronic Arts made a big splash by returning to the Mac with six Ciderized games, two of which (Madden NFL 08 and Tiger Woods PGA Tour 08) were expected to be published simultaneously. Those two titles wound up shipping several weeks after their Windows counterparts, and the other four were delayed too. While no reason was given, many observers assumed that unexpected technical problems had arisen, which led to a round of "Told you so." Madden NFL 09 and Tiger Woods Tour 09 failed to appear on the Mac this year, and EA was absent from the platform altogether until Spore shipped in September.

Earlier this year, however, TransGaming launched GameTree Online, a digital distribution system in the mold of such comparable Windows services as Steam. A steady stream of titles soon followed, including such Ubisoft titles as Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones, a pair of Petz games, Rayman Raving Rabbids, and others. The company also brought the MMO EVE Online to the Mac and recently announced that the MMO City of Heroes is on the way. None of them has elicited the response that, for example, a Half-Life 2 announcement would generate, but TransGaming has managed to prop up Mac gaming a little bit. The market remains in a funk, however, despite Apple's current rosy outlook.

They've Only Begun

"We are just starting to tap into great back catalogue content only previously available via traditional box retail," TransGaming CEO Vikas Gupta told me. "This combination of rapid release of new titles coupled with bringing outstanding back-catalogue games to Mac is resulting in GameTree emerging as a market leader in the digital availability of games for Mac. We believe GameTreeOnline follows the successful PC/Windows business models of Valve (Steam) and IGN (direct2drive)."

He cautioned, however, that "digital availability of Mac games is still in its growth phase and while sales appear to be growing quickly, the overall growth for Mac games will continue to be a combination of both traditional retail and digital retails channels."

As for Cider, he said that it "has continued to evolve and mature as a solution for enabling Mac games.  More Mac titles are being released via Cider than any other technology. While we don't make any claims about Cider being a sliver bullet, our customers will attest to the fact that we have dramatically reduced the cost and time for deployment of a high-end and complex title to Mac. It also needs to be emphasized that Cider has enabled about 20 titles in the last 18 months, and many of these games would never have been enjoyed on the Mac had it not been for this technology."

Looking ahead, Mr. Gupta expects Cider "will play a pivotal role in the advancement of video game portability. The list of games coming to consumers through early 2009 via Cider is extensive and we are finalizing a release calendar with several publishers which we hope to have available for media and consumers in the new year."

So that fabled silver bullet may not exist, but TransGaming seems to have ironed out many of the glitches in its technology, making their initial promises a reality. Meanwhile, GameTree Online provides a much-needed service to Mac users, as gaming moves toward an all-digital future. Now the question is: Will Mac gaming finally see the leap promised by Apple's ever-increasing share of the computer market? Computer gaming in general has seen a steady decline in recent years, thanks to the popularity of increasingly powerful consoles, but I'd expect the Mac to eventually grab a bigger piece of that pie, even as it shrinks.