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Aspyr Media charges on in the wild world of Mac gaming


I've been vocal for many, many years now about Aspyr and their like, and exactly how I feel about them. I'm a big fan of gaming, of course, and a big fan of Apple and the Mac. And Aspyr sits right at the intersection of those two worlds: They're a company, based in Austin with about 50 employees, that ports AAA and big-budget games over to the OS X platform. Given my dissatisfaction with the company and how vocal I'd been about it in the past, it was with not a little bit of temerity that I went to finally meet with them here at Macworld 2013. But Aspyr's VP of Publishing Elizabeth Howard and Sales Manager Michael Blair kindly welcomed me into the company's suite and sat down to talk about the state of Mac gaming from their point of view.

The good news is that Aspyr has seen all of the signs that I've seen the past few years, and the two main concerns I've had for so long are their concerns as well. Buggy ports of PC games on the Mac was a big problem, but in the past few years Aspyr has worked hard to make things better, and even I'd agree that the ports we're seeing these days, from Aspyr and other companies, are light years better than what we used to see.

The other big complaint I've had is delays -- games on the Mac often come out months or even years behind their PC and console releases. But both Howard and Blair agreed this was an issue as well, and in fact one of their biggest concerns. Late Mac releases was "definitely the most important thing to us in 2012," said Howard. Aspyr is working as hard as it can to juggle licensing partnerships, engineers, code bases and platforms to try and get these games out as close to the PC release as possible, and Howard says that "it's getting much better." With a few exceptions, Aspyr essentially has the porting process down to just a couple of months, with most releasing coming out either day and date or soon after.

It's not perfect. Just recently, Aspyr had to release Borderlands 2 without multiplayer content on the Mac App Store, though it was able to get multiplayer ready for the Mac Steam release (and the Mac App Store patch is coming as soon as it's ready). But both Howard and Blair said they share the timing concerns, both because they are fans of Mac games, and simply because games released alongside the PC versions (and alongside all of the marketing and promotion for them) . "Revenue is a huge difference for us" when games are released together, said Blair.

It turns out that fans like me aren't the only ones bugging Aspyr -- the companies they license the games from aren't always helpful either. Not only do a lot of AAA developers not have time for Mac ports, but they often don't have time to even help Aspyr figure out what code goes where, which adds time to the process and frustrations to Aspyr's engineers.

Finally, Aspyr has one more source of concern, and it's the distributors that it chooses to deal with. The company releases games on its own website through the official GameAgent store, but most of its sales come these days through either Steam or the Mac App Store, and Howard says those are two very different marketplaces. How sales look on one or the other tends to depend on the title you're talking about (Rollercoaster Tycoon 3, for example, does well on the Mac App Store, while Borderlands 2 is a much better hit on Steam, presumably because of that multiplayer problem, among other things). But Howard said that just releasing games on one platform or the other is even more work for the company's engineers: Steam has its own achievements and features, and the Mac App Store of course has Game Center and other features to deal with.

I asked Howard, given how much success the company has found on the Mac App Store, what Apple could do better for games like theirs, and she said Steam is really leading the charge in supporting game developers. Steam "engages that audience constantly," she said, putting together lots of regular sales and promotions for customers to find, and leaving promotional banners and ads up as long as their relevant, rather than changing them out from week to week. Apple, on the other hand, isn't quite as active in its promotion, and definitely isn't as open in terms of how it deals with the store, says Howard. That seems to be a legacy of Apple's relationship with gaming in general: The company has never really understood gamers, and even on the Mac App Store tends to promote and sell more of its own apps rather than much more popular games.

Aspyr didn't have a lot of information to share about their exact catalog this year (unfortunately, recent changes in the gaming industry have put some of their titles in question for the moment), but Howard said the content lineup for 2013 would be very impressive. She promised more content for Civ 5 (Aspyr has published both the game and the Gods and Kings expansion on the Mac), some more indie-style titles, and lots of other new titles on Mac and Steam.

Howard also mentioned, though again without specifics, that the company was thinking about a new plan as well: Bringing "catalog Mac experiences" over to the iOS platform. She mentioned Grand Theft Auto: Vice City as a desktop game that had done well on Apple's mobile devices, and said that Aspyr was considering bringing games that were a few years old to touchscreens. There's no more information on that, unfortunately, but it was definitely an intriguing idea.

Aspyr is definitely working hard to try and make all of its Mac ports better, and while I'm still not completely satisfied with the release schedule (and I definitely got the impression that Howard and Blair weren't yet either), it's definitely clear that the company is facing a whole lot of pressure from all sides for doing something that all of us Mac gamers want: Bringing us high profile games that run natively on the computers that we love. The quality and timing of the ports has gotten better over the last few years for sure, and I would no longer call the company "a complete dealbreaker," as I wrote five years ago. Still, there's always room for improvement, and hopefully we'll see even more of it this year, as Aspyr is able to convince more and more of the companies it licenses games from just how wonderful and loyal the Mac community can be.

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