Less work, more play

After years at bottom of the computer games league table, Apple is finally getting serious about having fun.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The Mac may be the premier platform for design, publishing and multimedia, but it has never really made much impact as a games machine. This is strange, because many of the Mac's attributes lend themselves to games. The Mac offered advanced graphics when Windows was in its infancy. CD- Roms are now all but ubiquitous on "leisure" PCs, but Apple was the first major computer manufacturer to fit them as standard. Many of the best- selling games and multimedia titles are created on a Mac, even though they are only sold in a DOS or Windows format.

Apple hopes to change matters with a new, company-wide games strategy. This includes the appointment of high-powered "games evangelists" who will sell the Mac as a games computer to software houses, retailers and consumers.

Games matter to Apple because the leisure sector is one of the few markets for computers that is growing. Profit margins can be better, too: home users are prepared to pay premiums for cutting-edge technologies, such as 3D cards, surround sound or faster CD drives. Network administrators are not.

Unfortunately for Apple, it has a reputation for making expensive equipment that runs a limited range of software. The price criticism has been unjustified for a couple of years now. Macs may be more expensive than mail-order PC clones, but they hold their own against most of the branded PCs on sale in the high street.

Apple hopes to address the software issue with its new strategy. The company has developed a range of software building blocks, called Apple Game Sprockets. The sprockets are off-the-shelf building blocks for computer programmers. Instead of developing their own 3D display techniques, games designers can slot in a highly sophisticated piece of code, ready-made by Apple. The message: it is quick and easy to write games for the Mac.

Apple is also stressing that although the Mac operating system is less popular than Microsoft's Windows, Mac games titles are still profitable.

Apple claims close to 20 per cent of home computer sales, against less than 12 per cent of the total PC market. The company is stronger still in new markets. Between 30 and 40 per cent of computers accessing the Internet are Macs.

Mac users also buy more programs than PC users, according to Mark Gavini, one of Apple's two games evangelists. Companies that write Mac and Windows games find that 25 to 40 per cent of sales come from the Mac versions.

"Great games will sell on the Mac," says Mr Gavini. "Mac users play games, and they buy software: more than the typical PC user."

Mr Gavini says that the Games Sprockets were well-received by developers, and the company has been promised more Mac versions of PC hits and even Mac-only games. The most serious challenge is putting those games on retailers' shelves. The typical high-street or out-of-town computer store stocks hundreds of PC games. Mac users may be lucky to find a single title.

Apple claims that this is less of a problem than it seems because Mac users are happy to buy by mail order. But games are largely an impulse buy, and if the Mac is to be a serious contender in the home market, games and leisure software needs to be easy to find.

"The retail issue is a big challenge," Mr Gavini admits. "And it is being taken seriously at the top levels of the company."

Last month, Apple launched some impressive home machines, including a Macintosh Performa in black. This will spearhead the firm's attempts to put its computers into living rooms across Europe. There is no doubt that Macs can compete in the games market.

But it may take more than a new finish to persuade retailers that they are a better sale than a Windows PC.

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