The Anecdotal Mac – Flight Simulators and the Exodus of Gamers from the Macintosh Platform.
by Jefferis Kent Peterson
(This article was first published in 2000-01. There is good news as of the end of 2004 - even F/18 Hornet is being released for OSX)
I know I said I needed it for business, and I did, but the real reason I desperately wanted to upgrade my old Centris 650 to a G3 Mac in 1998 was to play online flight simulators. I had just joined the Macintosh Apple User Group forum on CompuServe earlier that year, and I was trying to fly Air Warrior online. I couldn't compete because my frame rate [the speed at which the computer draws the graphics on screen] was so slow; I was always being shot down. My friends, with newer Macs, were blowing me away. I had G3 envy. Flight Sims made me see the technology gap and were motivating me to want more power. Now most of my fsim friends have migrated to Windows PCs. What happened to flight sims for the Mac, and what does that bode for the future of the Mac platform?
The Games People Play
I don't think Apple realizes just how powerful a force the gaming industry is for computer sales. Face it; most males are just grown up boys with toys. We want to work but we also want to play, and we compete with toys as much as we do in the workplace. Why else would sports be so popular? We can't play in the sandlot any more, so we relive the competition by shouting from the stands or by throwing popcorn at the television set. It is a social activity that unites and divides us at the same time. Competition makes life interesting and fun. Winning is part of the game of life and, for fleeting moments, makes us feel significant in the world.
Years ago, Apple tried to remake itself. Apple tried to portray itself as a business computer for serious professionals. It wanted nothing to do with being portrayed as a gaming platform. What a mistake! The Apple Mac was not only the coolest graphics platform ever; it was also the best gaming platform for consumers in the world. Think about it: there are literally millions of games for the PC out in the market. How many people consider a PC just gaming machine? Zero! Not one! Nobody. Having a large selection of games has not hurt the PC industry one bit. Why? Because games are only one aspect of what a computer can do. Games just happen to be a highly addictive, recreational avocation - an avocation which drives people to buy constant computer upgrades. In short, gaming power drives home computer sales. Maybe it doesn't figure highly in motivating businesses to upgrade, but most of my friends who use computers at work want machines that have power for play at home. Apple made a strategic mistake. It tried to disguise itself as a corporate drone instead of highlighting is unique abilities and powers as a gaming and graphics platform.
The Migration - an Anecdotal Account.
I recently polled a mail list of my former Macintosh AirWarrior players. [AirWarrior for Mac closed down a couple of years ago - but that is another story!] Although I don't have all the statistics, I believe there were about 50 or so people on the mail list. Of those still there, more than half have totally dropped the Macintosh platform and gone completely to WIN PC for both play and work! They loved the game so much that finally they got frustrated with the lack of Mac gaming and switched platforms. "Why fight against the tide?"
The bad news is: most of them are now quite happy with the Windows PC environment. Their arguments in favor of the PC: more power, cheaper prices, and a world of games, not just flight sims. Those who remain loyal to Macs or who are on dual platforms give the edge to Apple on reliability, stability, and lower tech support costs, but many of them have purchased a Win machine just for games!
My point is the neglect of serious gaming is causing Apple to lose another part of its customer base! Ignoring games did not help Apple, it only hurt the mother ship.
My Current Dilemma
I have not played flight sims in over a year now. My problems started when I had to upgrade my machine to a G4 for online video content creation. I found two problems that made gaming more work than it was worth: one, the switch to Apple's Input Sprockets by game makers put a serious crimp in programming flight stick controls; and two, the lack of third party game controllers for USB ports.
On my G3, I had the best system ever made for the Mac. It was called the Thrustmaster Mark II with weapons control and rudder pedals. It was a great system, but after years of yanking the controls in hard combat the flight stick started to wear out. About the same time Thrustmaster stopped making controls for the Mac. In fact, very few third party developers were creating anything for the Mac. [You can check out a list of some of the current controllers on the Shadow Riders website]. The G3 had an ADB port, but all the new Mac systems have USB ports. While you could hack it and use the old controllers with the new systems, all the extensions and hardware interfaces to fit old ADB controllers to USB ports created one big headache.
The other problem I faced was the lack of ability to program and use Apple's gaming Input Sprockets. While the Thrustmaster had a rocker switch which allows you to use each of the 10 buttons with 3 different settings [fire guns, fire rockets, drop flaps, e.g.], Input Sprockets only allow you to add one function to each button, effectively reducing the flight stick to a 10 button brick. For most World War II flight sims, 24 buttons is enough, but with modern jet fighter simulators, you need about 64 buttons or you get shot down trying to remember keyboard commands while you're trying to fly with a stick. With my loss of my TM gear and the prison of Input Sprockets, I never even bothered to purchase the best jet sim on the market, Falcon 4.0 . I couldn't even fly my beloved Hornet Korea with the current crop of flight sticks. So I packed away my flight gear and gave up.
Only recently there are some signs of progress. I sold off my TM gear and have a Saitek Cyborg Gold 3D stick on order from Apple. The stick doesn't have a weapons controller or rudder pedals, but of all the sticks, I like the feel of it the best. Thrustmaster has again entered the Mac market with a new set of USB sticks, but without the same quality as their older products. However, there is still one major hurdle to overcome: while all these controllers work on both platforms via the USB port, programming of the game controllers with Input Sprockets and Mac games is not a top priority for the developers. Mac users are the red-headed step children of the gaming industry, lagging far behind the support given to their PC cousins.
I hope to report back to you in a couple of months and let you know how my old games function with the new controls. I'm really hoping Saitek develops rudders and a weapons control throttle for the Cyborg in the future. Like CH Products, Saitek has developed some combo products, but I've tried the systems which feel ungainly and not as well made.
Good News/Bad News
There are some good signs on the horizon. There are two new online flight sim areas for Mac. World War II Online is in beta, but not yet available and War Birds is going strong. There are also other games you can play over TCP/IP with several players at once, such as Skyfighters. There are options, so all is not lost, but the support for Mac users is usually behind the curve for the major developers.
What is the bad news? OSX. The new platform will either be a boon to the Mac or its death knell. It will be a long time before the online game developers choose to create an entirely new format for the OSX platform on the Mac. OSX's relationship to external hardware is another problem. Thankfully, Input Sprockets are being abolished, but someone still has to program the interfaces for new and old flight sticks for the new Mac OS.
Perhaps the Unix base underpinnings for the Mac OSX will make it easier to program both the hardware and the software. Perhaps it will make it easier to port the programs from Unix to Mac. I don't know the answer. Only time will tell. My hopes and my prayers are with the Mac.
Jeff Peterson is a Macintosh pioneer, acquiring his first 128k Mac in 1984. In 1993, he produced one of the first electronic magazines, O Theophilus, and some of the first educational courses for the web. He started his own web design company in 1999, www.PetersonSales.net and is still acquiring new clients. He writes for http://macreviewzone.com/index.php. Jeff is also a part-time theologian on The Scholar's Corner, and he loves to play Flight Sims when he gets a chance, being part of the notorious Shadow Riders, call sign Padre =<SR>=.