Can Mac Get Back into the Game?

Can Mac Get Back into the Game?
The original mid-'80s Macintosh was a prehistoric machine by any modern measure but one that was also, at the time, a great leap forward. The early Mac games were impressive in both design and graphics, even with that quaint nine-inch monochromatic screen.

Silicon Beach Software's horror platformer Dark Castle, Semicolon Software's first-person pyramid-explorer Scarab of Ra and Mindscape's hardboiled point-and-click Déjà Vu were a cut above their MS-Dos competitors. In particular, the latter's sophisticated storytelling ― you awaken in a bathroom stall with no memory, a murder weapon, poison cursing through your veins and both the cops and mob on your tail ― was a direct progenitor to modern game narrative.

But as Macs became the providence of desktop publishers and other high-end specialists, gaming fell by the wayside. Publishers couldn't be bothered to make games for only a fraction of the market and the Mac's closed architecture quickly fell behind easily upgradable Windows-based PCs in handling the ever-soaring specs needed by new games.

By the '90s, computer gaming and PC gaming became synonymous, with Mac an afterthought at best (despite the popularity of point-and-click classic Myst). But as post-millennial PC gaming has endured its own downsizing ― thanks to high-end hardware requirements, rampant piracy and comparable console experiences ― Macs are now trying to piggyback on Apple's outsized success with iPhone and iPad.

The Mac App Store is a little over a year old, and last December Apple proudly announced they'd sold 100 million apps ― which is, of course, a drop in the bucket compared to the iOS stores from which people download a billion apps a month.

But it puts the Mac back on the field at a time when PC gaming either services Farmville-addicted moms or the cult communities who play massively-multiplayer RPGs (World of Warcraft), online shooters (Starcraft II), real-time strategy (League of Legends) and experimental efforts (Minecraft).

Though there are ports ― with many coming via Steam's Mac store, despite being relatively barren next to its PC offering ― few hardcore gamers buy Macs for that purpose. Meanwhile, the popularity of the iPhone/iPad has resulted in an influx of new Macbook owners who are not traditional gamers but are familiar with the App Store set-up. (Sidenote: though The Wall Street Journal reports Apple sold a record 5.2 million Macs last quarter, up 26 percent over the previous year, but they still only represent 5.4 percent of the total personal computer market.)

The Mac hasn't had a breakout exclusive game since 1994's first-person space-alien epic Marathon from a little studio named Bungie. Steve Jobs had planned to use them to inject life into Mac gaming with their next project Halo until Bungie was bought by Microsoft and instead delivered the Xbox's signature franchise.

The Mac App Store hasn't brought us any closer yet. Instead, its best games are iOS ports or cool older games that are new to non-gamers like the arty platformers Braid and Limbo, point'n'click robot love story Machinarium or Bioware's classic Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Not to mention iconic console titles like BioShock, Arkham Asylum and DoubleFine's 2005 cult classic Psychonauts, a surrealist platformer set in a summer camp for psychic kids (and one of my favourite games ever).

The question remains whether users honed on cheap iOS games will be willing to shell out, say, 40 bucks for Civilization V, which Apple named the best Mac App Store game of 2011. Older titles can be sold pretty low, but some studios have been risking backlash with their Mac pricing. Dungeon Hunter: Alliance and Trine 2 both cost only 99 cents on the Mac Store, a fraction of their download costs on Playstation and Xbox.

But Mac gaming will get a boost this summer with the OS X update Mountain Lion, which will competitively and cooperatively connect Mac with iPhones and iPads via the social gaming app Game Center. Claiming over 100 million registered users and 20,000 enabled games already; Mac users will join a bustling multiplayer community. The concurrent arrival of AirPlay, which can turn your television into a giant Mac monitor via Apple TV, adds another cool feature.

Look, the Mac will likely never be defined by a game ― it's just not that type of a machine. But by reaching a new audience with its App Store, as it did with smartphones and tablets, it may one day help define computer gaming.