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Five things Apple can do to bring gamers back

Apple is releasing games for the iPod. EA and id show up at the WWDC keynote. And the rumors say Nintendo may team with Apple for the iPhone. All signs point to an Apple that seriously wants to reenter the gaming market, an arena that has been dominated by PCs and consoles for quite some time. But exactly how can they do it?

They're doing some of the right things already, and we can expect them to do more in the future. But here's five suggestions (or predictions, if you will) about what Apple can do to attract gamers back to the Cult of Mac.

1) Put (even more) games on iTunes. Steam is a nice digital distribution system, and Xbox Live Arcade is a better one. But no one has done digital distribution like Apple has with iTunes-- first music, and now movies and television shows. What they need to do is add games to the software, and even go so far as to create a kind of "iTunes Arcade," where you can buy games for your iPod, your iPhone, your Mac or MacBook, and even your Apple TV. And I'm not talking dinky downloads like Lost-- I'm talking EA's Madden, Need for Speed, and even Battlefield 2142. Run patches and updates through there as well (EA's Link might not like that, but it hasn't been successful enough that they wouldn't consider joining iTunes if asked), use CoverFlow as a cool browsing and launching interface, and you've got the key not only to a solid revenue system, but also a promotion and distribution channel.

2) Casual is the way to go. Take a look at this recent list of the ten most popular massively multiplayer online games. Yes, World of Warcraft, Guild Wars, and Lineage are on there, but look what it's mostly made up of: Puzzle Pirates, Habbo Hotel, Club Penguin. Casual games are where the real money is right now, and Apple should specifically target not the Counterstrike or the Far Cry players, but the Peggle and Bejeweled crowd. The second Apple sets up a game distribution system in the iTunes client, they should make sure all of Popcap's games are in there and working right away. Imagine Bejeweled not on the iPod's scroll wheel (where it, frankly, sucks), but with the iPhone's touch interface, purchased and installed through iTunes. Or Peggle, installed and paid for on your Mac with one click, all through iTunes. Pure gold.

3) Have to get faster. Apple's hardware is much faster than almost any standard Windows PC out there-- just ask any Photoshop or Final Cut guru. So why don't the games run as fast? The differences are complicated, but they mostly lie in the gap between Directx, Microsoft's proprietary gaming engine, and Open GL, the 3D engine that runs on most Unix-based systems, including OS X. Applications like Cider are trying to bridge that gap through high level emulation, but the basic fact is that Open GL is getting on ten years old-- Apple needs to seriously reconsider the way they run 3D games on their hardware. Leopard's brand new Core Animation looks great-- so why are we still running games with Open GL?

4) Break out the gaming hardware. Apple is a software company that makes great hardware, and yet even though hardware can make or break a gaming experience, they've stayed away from it completely in terms of gaming. Photobooth is a great example-- here's an application and an interface (builtin iSight) that could lend itself to amazing games, but instead it's stuck as a novelty inside a chat program. Apple TV is another place games could make it big: put EA and Popcap games on iTunes, and release an Apple iPad (or a bigger version of the Apple Remote) to control them with, and suddenly Steve Jobs' hobby has become a serious foothold in the console market.

5) It's all about the experience. Finally, no matter what games they decide to sell or how they decide to sell them, Apple has to remember what they're best at: delivering a great computing experience. Windows is pilfering OS X with Vista, and is ready to make headway into how games are bought, loaded, launched and played on PCs, especially with Games for Windows Live. But with the coming of iLife and iPod + iTunes, more people are using Macs for recreation than ever. If Apple can leverage what they've already got to present a terrific (and terrifically easy) gaming experience, gamers will find their way to the Mac. It may be a while before hardcore gamers, with their Alienware machines and their fragging and their noobs, make their way back over. But if the Second Lifers and the Puzzle Pirates end up choosing Macs as their platform of choice, Apple will be able to afford to wait.

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